Hacking about with stacks

A stack of plates

At the most recent Google London Open Source Jam, I got chatting to a Googler about how operating systems deal with the processor stack. Specifically, what’s the largest object you can allocate on the stack. Not just the maximum stack limit itself, but the implementation of modern operating systems might limit the largest object that can be made on the stack. Take, for example, this code snippet:

void Function() {
  char buffer[32 * 1024];
  buffer[0] = 0; // uh-oh?
  ...
}

We were discussing whether this would work ok on all platforms. Well, why wouldn’t it?

Well, on some operating systems, pages of memory (4KB each on x86) aren’t actually allocated to a process until the last possible moment. This improves performance and in general means more physical memory is available to the system as a whole. This is achieved by the system marking the pages as “not present” in the memory management unit, and then catching the page faults which occur when the program attempts to access them. At this point the operating system actually goes and finds a spare page, gives it to the process, and restarts the process.

So far so good — but how does the system discriminate between an invalid memory access (a programming error), from a stack access just below the current bottom page of the stack?

In order to investigate this, I wrote some experimental code, and tested it on Windows XP and Linux 2.6.18. The code uses two ways to see how far it can poke under the stack: One using large stack-based character arrays, and secondly using assembly-level instructions to directly poke below the stack (which is pretty naughty, and not “supposed” to work.)

The main conclusion: On both Windows and Linux, the original code above is totally valid.

On Windows, whenever the compiler spots a large amount of stack is needed, instead of simply subtracting from the stack pointer, it calls a function _chkstk, passing how much stack it needs. This function probes the memory starting at the current stack pointer and stepping back one page at a time until it has walked the stack pointer down by the given amount. Each probe is a read operation that might fault, and means Windows ensures there’s a page of memory ready for each page in the stack.

On Linux, the kernel treats any access within 32 bytes below the current stack pointer as being valid. The 32-byte threshold is to deal with the fact that some of the x86 instructions (PUSH etc) write to memory before they update the stack pointer. (Having the source available makes this an easier diagnosis than on Windows.)

My experiment also revealed the default maximum stack size on Windows is 1MB, and on Linux it’s at least 4MB. Windows pre-allocates about 64KB of stack pages, and Linux seems to allocate about 128KB.

A surprising discovery for me was how smart the Microsoft compiler was at optimising the code! It took several iterations before I got it to not optimise out the calls to my “stack eater” function, and then for it not to optimise the usage of the stack so only one of my large stack buffers was ever used.

In conclusion then: Using large stack-based buffers is safe on both Windows and x86 Linux. On Windows, the compiler protects you, and forcibly probes every page so they’re all allocated by the operating system. On Linux, the operating system uses the stack pointer register to work out whether an access is valid, and will allocate pages to the stack on demand.

My gut feeling is that Linux’s way is slightly better, as it defers the page allocations until they’re actually needed.

Filed under: Coding
Posted at 23:59:01 BST on 2nd August 2008.

About Matt Godbolt

Matt Godbolt is a C++ developer working in Chicago in the finance industry.