Provided by: avr-libc_1.8.0-4.1_all bug


       malloc - Memory Areas and Using malloc()


       Many of the devices that are possible targets of avr-libc have a minimal amount of RAM.
       The smallest parts supported by the C environment come with 128 bytes of RAM. This needs
       to be shared between initialized and uninitialized variables (sections .data and .bss),
       the dynamic memory allocator, and the stack that is used for calling subroutines and
       storing local (automatic) variables.

       Also, unlike larger architectures, there is no hardware-supported memory management which
       could help in separating the mentioned RAM regions from being overwritten by each other.

       The standard RAM layout is to place .data variables first, from the beginning of the
       internal RAM, followed by .bss. The stack is started from the top of internal RAM, growing
       downwards. The so-called 'heap' available for the dynamic memory allocator will be placed
       beyond the end of .bss. Thus, there's no risk that dynamic memory will ever collide with
       the RAM variables (unless there were bugs in the implementation of the allocator). There
       is still a risk that the heap and stack could collide if there are large requirements for
       either dynamic memory or stack space. The former can even happen if the allocations aren't
       all that large but dynamic memory allocations get fragmented over time such that new
       requests don't quite fit into the 'holes' of previously freed regions. Large stack space
       requirements can arise in a C function containing large and/or numerous local variables or
       when recursively calling function.

           The pictures shown in this document represent typical situations where the RAM
           locations refer to an ATmega128. The memory addresses used are not displayed in a
           linear scale.

       RAM map of a device with internal RAMRAM map of a device with internal RAM

       On a simple device like a microcontroller it is a challenge to implement a dynamic memory
       allocator that is simple enough so the code size requirements will remain low, yet
       powerful enough to avoid unnecessary memory fragmentation and to get it all done with
       reasonably few CPU cycles. Microcontrollers are often low on space and also run at much
       lower speeds than the typical PC these days.

       The memory allocator implemented in avr-libc tries to cope with all of these constraints,
       and offers some tuning options that can be used if there are more resources available than
       in the default configuration.

Internal vs. external RAM

       Obviously, the constraints are much harder to satisfy in the default configuration where
       only internal RAM is available. Extreme care must be taken to avoid a stack-heap
       collision, both by making sure functions aren't nesting too deeply, and don't require too
       much stack space for local variables, as well as by being cautious with allocating too
       much dynamic memory.

       If external RAM is available, it is strongly recommended to move the heap into the
       external RAM, regardless of whether or not the variables from the .data and .bss sections
       are also going to be located there. The stack should always be kept in internal RAM. Some
       devices even require this, and in general, internal RAM can be accessed faster since no
       extra wait states are required. When using dynamic memory allocation and stack and heap
       are separated in distinct memory areas, this is the safest way to avoid a stack-heap

Tunables for malloc()

       There are a number of variables that can be tuned to adapt the behavior of malloc() to the
       expected requirements and constraints of the application. Any changes to these tunables
       should be made before the very first call to malloc(). Note that some library functions
       might also use dynamic memory (notably those from the <stdio.h>: Standard IO facilities),
       so make sure the changes will be done early enough in the startup sequence.

       The variables __malloc_heap_start and __malloc_heap_end can be used to restrict the
       malloc() function to a certain memory region. These variables are statically initialized
       to point to __heap_start and __heap_end, respectively, where __heap_start is filled in by
       the linker to point just beyond .bss, and __heap_end is set to 0 which makes malloc()
       assume the heap is below the stack.

       If the heap is going to be moved to external RAM, __malloc_heap_end must be adjusted
       accordingly. This can either be done at run-time, by writing directly to this variable, or
       it can be done automatically at link-time, by adjusting the value of the symbol

       The following example shows a linker command to relocate the entire .data and .bss
       segments, and the heap to location 0x1100 in external RAM. The heap will extend up to
       address 0xffff.

       avr-gcc ... -Wl,--section-start,.data=0x801100,--defsym=__heap_end=0x80ffff ...

           See explanation for offset 0x800000. See the chapter about using gcc for the -Wl

           The ld (linker) user manual states that using -Tdata=<x> is equivalent to using
           --section-start,.data=<x>. However, you have to use --section-start as above because
           the GCC frontend also sets the -Tdata option for all MCU types where the SRAM doesn't
           start at 0x800060. Thus, the linker is being faced with two -Tdata options. Sarting
           with binutils 2.16, the linker changed the preference, and picks the 'wrong' option in
           this situation.

       Internal RAM: stack only, external RAM: variables and heapInternal RAM: stack only,
       external RAM: variables and heap

       If dynamic memory should be placed in external RAM, while keeping the variables in
       internal RAM, something like the following could be used. Note that for demonstration
       purposes, the assignment of the various regions has not been made adjacent in this
       example, so there are 'holes' below and above the heap in external RAM that remain
       completely unaccessible by regular variables or dynamic memory allocations (shown in light
       bisque color in the picture below).

       avr-gcc ... -Wl,--defsym=__heap_start=0x802000,--defsym=__heap_end=0x803fff ...

       Internal RAM: variables and stack, external RAM: heapInternal RAM: variables and stack,
       external RAM: heap

       If __malloc_heap_end is 0, the allocator attempts to detect the bottom of stack in order
       to prevent a stack-heap collision when extending the actual size of the heap to gain more
       space for dynamic memory. It will not try to go beyond the current stack limit, decreased
       by __malloc_margin bytes. Thus, all possible stack frames of interrupt routines that could
       interrupt the current function, plus all further nested function calls must not require
       more stack space, or they will risk colliding with the data segment.

       The default value of __malloc_margin is set to 32.

Implementation details

       Dynamic memory allocation requests will be returned with a two-byte header prepended that
       records the size of the allocation. This is later used by free(). The returned address
       points just beyond that header. Thus, if the application accidentally writes before the
       returned memory region, the internal consistency of the memory allocator is compromised.

       The implementation maintains a simple freelist that accounts for memory blocks that have
       been returned in previous calls to free(). Note that all of this memory is considered to
       be successfully added to the heap already, so no further checks against stack-heap
       collisions are done when recycling memory from the freelist.

       The freelist itself is not maintained as a separate data structure, but rather by
       modifying the contents of the freed memory to contain pointers chaining the pieces
       together. That way, no additional memory is reqired to maintain this list except for a
       variable that keeps track of the lowest memory segment available for reallocation. Since
       both, a chain pointer and the size of the chunk need to be recorded in each chunk, the
       minimum chunk size on the freelist is four bytes.

       When allocating memory, first the freelist is walked to see if it could satisfy the
       request. If there's a chunk available on the freelist that will fit the request exactly,
       it will be taken, disconnected from the freelist, and returned to the caller. If no exact
       match could be found, the closest match that would just satisfy the request will be used.
       The chunk will normally be split up into one to be returned to the caller, and another
       (smaller) one that will remain on the freelist. In case this chunk was only up to two
       bytes larger than the request, the request will simply be altered internally to also
       account for these additional bytes since no separate freelist entry could be split off in
       that case.

       If nothing could be found on the freelist, heap extension is attempted. This is where
       __malloc_margin will be considered if the heap is operating below the stack, or where
       __malloc_heap_end will be verified otherwise.

       If the remaining memory is insufficient to satisfy the request, NULL will eventually be
       returned to the caller.

       When calling free(), a new freelist entry will be prepared. An attempt is then made to
       aggregate the new entry with possible adjacent entries, yielding a single larger entry
       available for further allocations. That way, the potential for heap fragmentation is
       hopefully reduced. When deallocating the topmost chunk of memory, the size of the heap is

       A call to realloc() first determines whether the operation is about to grow or shrink the
       current allocation. When shrinking, the case is easy: the existing chunk is split, and the
       tail of the region that is no longer to be used is passed to the standard free() function
       for insertion into the freelist. Checks are first made whether the tail chunk is large
       enough to hold a chunk of its own at all, otherwise realloc() will simply do nothing, and
       return the original region.

       When growing the region, it is first checked whether the existing allocation can be
       extended in-place. If so, this is done, and the original pointer is returned without
       copying any data contents. As a side-effect, this check will also record the size of the
       largest chunk on the freelist.

       If the region cannot be extended in-place, but the old chunk is at the top of heap, and
       the above freelist walk did not reveal a large enough chunk on the freelist to satisfy the
       new request, an attempt is made to quickly extend this topmost chunk (and thus the heap),
       so no need arises to copy over the existing data. If there's no more space available in
       the heap (same check is done as in malloc()), the entire request will fail.

       Otherwise, malloc() will be called with the new request size, the existing data will be
       copied over, and free() will be called on the old region.