Comments on hacking about with stacks

One day I’ll update this blog to support comments, so I don’t have to post a new article when I get some really smart emails. One such came in last night from Justin Fletcher, on my stack post.

I hope Justin’ll forgive me for posting his email in bits, with some thoughts of mine interspersed:

The allocation of pages only on access is a great way of saving memory that might not actually be needed by the process, especially on systems where the allocation of memory would be costly due to synchronisation issues (I’m thinking of earlier ARMs specifically here, where the cost of the cache and TLB flush as excessive compared to allocating pages immediately the program says it needs it — also a multi-processor system will need to synchronise its memory use if they are using a shared memory model).

Something I hadn’t considered — the cost of synchronising across multiple processors. From what I can gather Linux has pretty lightweight locking for this, but it is a consideration. A side point that occurs to me here is how multiple threads’ stacks are arranged in memory. How does the operating system prevent threads’ stacks from overrunning into each other’s memory areas? When I get more time I’ll have to look into it.

In the Windows case, probing the memory before use has a number of effects:

  • A failure can be detected (probably fatally and non-recoverably) at the point the potential allocation occurs. This might be deferred from the point of declaration, depending on the intelligence of the compiler (and I’ve seen their compiler do some nice things). This earlier indication of the failure can be seen as being more useful in many cases, particularly if you can guarantee it. For example if you had code that set up a transaction with a piece of hardware then you would want your code to crash before you put it into a state that you couldn’t recover from. (take, for example, the case of changing the internal memory map of a device to perform a transient, but important, operation). Same, of course, goes for non-hardware examples.

The _chkstk function throws a Stack Overflow exception at the point of the stack-based allocation — a hard stack limit check anyway. There’s nothing smart in the stack probe itself, the probes are literally just a read at each page, no clever kernel code is called. I would imagine that if one of the probes fails, then the process would be put to sleep until a page is available, just as if memory were exhausted for any other reason.

  • It increases page table churn. Your page tables get re-written a lot as the new pages are made available to the application even if it doesn’t use them. This may also mean in-use memory being paged out for just this allocation. Which the application might not use. Allocations from the heap might not do the probe, so might not matter.

From what I’ve seen of the heap code on Windows (and I’ve spent rather too long debugging heap issues), no such probe is made for allocations. This makes a lot of sense as it’s more often the case that you’ll do a very big heap allocation than you’ll make a big stack allocation. The cost of paging in and committing resources to feasibly hundreds of megabytes of the heap would seem too much.

  • If the page is probed then it’s got to have been cleared by the system as well, so not only have you allocated the memory by probing it, but you’ve also caused the system to clear it as well. For security, obviously — you don’t want your stack to contain data from other processes.

An incredibly important point! The memory would be cleared on demand as it was paged in anyway (assuming it was actually used) but it does front-load the cost at the point of the stack allocation. Also interesting: some modern processors have some fast ways of clearing memory in a cache efficient way.

  • You always know how much memory the application is actually using — it can’t fail because parts of the stack can’t be allocated at some random point, only if the entire allocation failed.

Again, on Linux and Windows I think the process is put to sleep if there are no free page frames; but on an embedded system with no backing store this would definitely be the case.

With the on-demand (non-probed) stack system, you have a few issues:

  • You never know if the space set aside by the application is actually used. This isn’t a problem per se, but it does make internal metering of the application harder — valgrind probably tells you more about this, though so it’s probably not a big deal.

Justin’s not wrong here, it’s not a problem as such. That being said I wonder how many programmers (myself included…) have written something like:

char buf[64*1024];
sprintf(buf, "file-%04d.dat", num);
  • Stack allocation failures go unnoticed until the stack is used. This is a serious problem because it makes your application completely non-deterministic in a low memory situation for a language feature. If you’ve allocated your memory (char buffer[bigsize]) then you expect it to be there, pretty much. Unless you explicitly write to every single byte of the buffer (unless you know the page allocation size — and remember that it is the prerogative of the operating system to change its own internal allocation size for pages as it deems fit — there may be different page sizes in use depending on the usage pattern of the application) you can’t be sure that access to those pages won’t fail. It’s not unreasonable for the developer to assume that just because the memory has been allocated that accessing it should work.

As above, this is an embedded system issue I think.

Many thanks to Justin for taking the time to reply. His embedded systems point of view has caused a lot of further thinking on my part

Filed under: Coding
Posted at 22:41:23 BST on 4th August 2008.

About Matt Godbolt

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