Code memory safety and efficiency by example

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C is a high-level language with close-to-the-metal features that make it seem, at times, more like a portable assembly language than a sibling of Java or Python. Among these features is memory management, which covers an executing program's safe and efficient use of memory. This article goes into the details of memory safety and efficiency through code examples in C and a code segment from the assembly language that a modern C compiler generates.

Although the code examples are in C, the guidelines for safe and efficient memory management are the same for C++. The two languages differ in various details (e.g., C++ has object-oriented features and generics that C lacks), but these languages share the very same challenges with respect to memory management.

Overview of memory for an executing program

For an executing program (aka process), memory is partitioned into three areas: The stack, the heap, and the static area. Here's an overview of each, with full code examples to follow.

As a backup for general-purpose CPU registers, the stack provides scratchpad storage for the local variables within a code block, such as a function or a loop body. Arguments passed to a function count as local variables in this context. Consider a short example:

void some_func(int a, int b) {
   int n;

Storage for the arguments passed in parameters a and b and the local variable n would come from the stack unless the compiler could find general-purpose registers instead. The compiler favors such registers for scratchpad because CPU access to these registers is fast (one clock tick). However, these registers are few (roughly sixteen) on the standard architectures for desktop, laptop, and handheld machines.

At the implementation level, which only an assembly-language programmer would see, the stack is organized as a LIFO (Last In, First Out) list with push (insert) and pop (remove) operations. The top pointer can act as a base address for offsets; in this way, stack locations other than top become accessible. For example, the expression top+16 points to a location sixteen bytes above the stack's top, and the expression top-16 points to sixteen bytes below the top. Accordingly, stack locations that implement scratchpad storage are accessible through the top pointer. On a standard ARM or Intel architecture, the stack grows from high to low memory addresses; hence, to decrement top is to grow the stack for a process.

To use the stack is to use memory effortlessly and efficiently. The compiler, rather than the programmer, writes the code that manages the stack by allocating and deallocating the required scratchpad storage; the programmer declares function arguments and local variables, leaving the implementation to the compiler. Moreover, the very same stack storage can be reused across consecutive function calls and code blocks such as loops. Well-designed modular code makes stack storage the first memory option for scratchpad, with an optimizing compiler using, whenever possible, general-purpose registers instead of the stack.

The heap provides storage allocated explicitly through programmer code, although the syntax for heap allocation differs across languages. In C, a successful call to the library function malloc (or variants such as calloc) allocates a specified number of bytes. (In languages such as C++ and Java, the new operator serves the same purpose.) Programming languages differ dramatically on how heap-allocated storage is deallocated:

  • In languages such as Java, Go, Lisp, and Python, the programmer does not explicitly deallocate dynamically allocated heap storage.

For example, this Java statement allocates heap storage for a string and stores the address of this heap storage in the variable greeting:

String greeting = new String("Hello, world!");

Java has a garbage collector, a runtime utility that automatically deallocates heap storage that is no longer accessible to the process that allocated the storage. Java heap deallocation is thus automatic through a garbage collector. In the example above, the garbage collector would deallocate the heap storage for the string after the variable greeting went out of scope.

  • The Rust compiler writes the heap-deallocation code. This is Rust's pioneering effort to automate heap-deallocation without relying on a garbage collector, which entails runtime complexity and overhead. Hats off to the Rust effort!
  • In C (and C++), heap deallocation is a programmer task. The programmer who allocates heap storage through a call to malloc is then responsible for deallocating this same storage with a matching call to the library function free. (In C++, the new operator allocates heap storage, whereas the delete and delete[] operators free such storage.) Here's a C example:
char* greeting = malloc(14);       /* 14 heap bytes */
strcpy(greeting, "Hello, world!"); /* copy greeting into bytes */
puts(greeting);                    /* print greeting */
free(greeting);                    /* free malloced bytes */

C avoids the cost and complexity of a garbage collector, but only by burdening the programmer with the task of heap deallocation.

The static area of memory provides storage for executable code such as C functions, string literals such as "Hello, world!", and global variables:

int n;                       /* global variable */
int main() {                 /* function */
   char* msg = "No comment"; /* string literal */

This area is static in that its size remains fixed from the start until the end of process execution. Because the static area amounts to a fixed-sized memory footprint for a process, the rule of thumb is to keep this area as small as possible by avoiding, for example, global arrays.

Code examples in the following sections flesh out this overview.

Stack storage

Imagine a program that has various tasks to perform consecutively, including processing numeric data downloaded every few minutes over a network and stored in a local file. The stack program below simplifies the processing (odd integer values are made even) to keep the focus on the benefits of stack storage.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

#define Infile   "incoming.dat"
#define Outfile  "outgoing.dat"
#define IntCount 128000  /* 128,000 */

void other_task1() { /*...*/ }
void other_task2() { /*...*/ }

void process_data(const char* infile,
          const char* outfile,
          const unsigned n) {
  int nums[n];
  FILE* input = fopen(infile, "r");
  if (NULL == infile) return;
  FILE* output = fopen(outfile, "w");
  if (NULL == output) {

  fread(nums, n, sizeof(int), input); /* read input data */
  unsigned i;
  for (i = 0; i < n; i++) {
    if (1 == (nums[i] & 0x1))  /* odd parity? */
      nums[i]--;               /* make even */
  fclose(input);               /* close input file */

  fwrite(nums, n, sizeof(int), output);

int main() {
  process_data(Infile, Outfile, IntCount);
  /** now perform other tasks **/
  other_task1(); /* automatically released stack storage available */
  other_task2(); /* ditto */
  return 0;

The main function at the bottom first calls the process_data function, which creates a stack-based array of a size given by argument n (128,000 in the current example). Accordingly, the array holds 128,000 x sizeof(int) bytes, which comes to 512,000 bytes on standard devices because an int is four bytes on these devices. Data then are read into the array (using library function fread), processed in a loop, and saved to the local file outgoing.dat (using library function fwrite).

When the process_data function returns to its caller main, the roughly 500MB of stack scratchpad for the process_data function become available for other functions in the stack program to use as scratchpad. In this example, main next calls the stub functions other_task1 and other_task2. The three functions are called consecutively from main, which means that all three can use the same stack storage for scratchpad. Because the compiler rather than the programmer writes the stack-management code, this approach is both efficient and easy on the programmer.

In C, any variable defined inside a block (e.g., a function's or a loop's body) has an auto storage class by default, which means that the variable is stack-based. The storage class register is now outdated because C compilers are aggressive, on their own, in trying to use CPU registers whenever possible. Only a variable defined inside a block may be register, which the compiler changes to auto if no CPU register is available.Stack-based programming may be the preferred way to go, but this style does have its challenges. The badStack program below illustrates.

#include <stdio.h>

const int* get_array(const unsigned n) {
  int arr[n]; /* stack-based array */
  unsigned i;
  for (i = 0; i < n; i++) arr[i] = 1 + 1;

  return arr;  /** ERROR **/

int main() {
  const unsigned n = 16;
  const int* ptr = get_array(n);
  unsigned i;
  for (i = 0; i < n; i++) printf("%i ", ptr[i]);

  return 0;

The flow of control in the badStack program is straightforward. Function main calls function get_array with an argument of 128, which the called function then uses to create a local array of this size. The get_array function initializes the array and returns to main the array's identifier arr, which is a pointer constant that holds the address of the array's first int element.

The local array arr is accessible within the get_array function, of course, but this array cannot be legitimately accessed once get_array returns. Nonetheless, function main tries to print the stack-based array by using the stack address arr, which function get_array returns. Modern compilers warn about the mistake. For example, here's the warning from the GNU compiler:

badStack.c: In function 'get_array':
badStack.c:9:10: warning: function returns address of local variable [-Wreturn-local-addr]
8 |   return arr;  /** ERROR **/

The general rule is that stack-based storage should be accessed only within the code block that contains the local variables implemented with stack storage (in this case, the array pointer arr and the loop counter i). Accordingly, a function should never return a pointer to stack-based storage.

Heap storage

Several code examples highlight the fine points of using heap storage in C. In the first example, heap storage is allocated, used, and then freed in line with best practice. The second example nests heap storage inside other heap storage, which complicates the deallocation operation.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int* get_heap_array(unsigned n) {
  int* heap_nums = malloc(sizeof(int) * n); 
  unsigned i;
  for (i = 0; i < n; i++)
    heap_nums[i] = i + 1;  /* initialize the array */
  /* stack storage for variables heap_nums and i released
     automatically when get_num_array returns */
  return heap_nums; /* return (copy of) the pointer */

int main() {
  unsigned n = 100, i;
  int* heap_nums = get_heap_array(n); /* save returned address */
  if (NULL == heap_nums) /* malloc failed */
    fprintf(stderr, "%s\n", "malloc(...) failed...");
  else {
    for (i = 0; i < n; i++) printf("%i\n", heap_nums[i]);
    free(heap_nums); /* free the heap storage */
  return 0; 

The heap program above has two functions: main calls get_heap_array with an argument (currently 100) that specifies how many int elements the array should have. Because the heap allocation could fail, main checks whether get_heap_array has returned NULL, which signals failure. If the allocation succeeds, main prints the int values in the array—and immediately thereafter deallocates, with a call to library function free, the heap-allocated storage. This is best practice.

The get_heap_array function opens with this statement, which merits a closer look:

int* heap_nums = malloc(sizeof(int) * n); /* heap allocation */

The malloc library function and its variants deal with bytes; hence, the argument to malloc is the number of bytes required for n elements of type int. (The sizeof(int) is four bytes on a standard modern device.) The malloc function returns either the address of the first among the allocated bytes or, in case of failure, NULL.

In a successful call to malloc, the returned address is 64-bits in size on a modern desktop machine. On handhelds and earlier desktop machines, the address might be 32-bits in size or, depending on age, even smaller. The elements in the heap-allocated array are of type int, a four-byte signed integer. The address of these heap-allocated ints is stored in the local variable heap_nums, which is stack-based. Here's a depiction:

 stack-based        /
     \        +----+----+   +----+
              +----+----+   +----+

Once the get_heap_array function returns, stack storage for pointer variable heap_nums is reclaimed automatically—but the heap storage for the dynamic int array persists, which is why the get_heap_array function returns (a copy of) this address to main, which now is responsible, after printing the array's integers, for explicitly deallocating the heap storage with a call to the library function free:

free(heap_nums); /* free the heap storage */

The malloc function does not initialize heap-allocated storage, which therefore contains random values. By contrast, the calloc variant initializes the allocated storage to zeros. Both functions return NULL to signal failure.

In the heap example, main returns immediately after calling free, and the executing program terminates, which allows the system to reclaim any allocated heap storage. Nonetheless, the programmer should develop the habit of explicitly freeing heap storage as soon as it is no longer needed.

Nested heap allocation

The next code example is trickier. C has various library functions that return a pointer to heap storage. Here's a familiar scenario:

1. The C program invokes a library function that returns a pointer to heap-based storage, typically an aggregate such as an array or a structure:

SomeStructure* ptr = lib_function(); /* returns pointer to heap storage */

2. The program then uses the allocated storage.

3. For cleanup, the issue is whether a simple call to free will clean up all of the heap-allocated storage that the library function allocates. For example, the SomeStructure instance may have fields that, in turn, point to heap-allocated storage. A particularly troublesome case would be a dynamically allocated array of structures, each of which has a field pointing to more dynamically allocated storage.The following code example illustrates the problem and focuses on designing a library that safely provides heap-allocated storage to clients.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

typedef struct {
  unsigned id;
  unsigned len;
  float*   heap_nums;
} HeapStruct;
unsigned structId = 1;

HeapStruct* get_heap_struct(unsigned n) {
  /* Try to allocate a HeapStruct. */
  HeapStruct* heap_struct = malloc(sizeof(HeapStruct));
  if (NULL == heap_struct) /* failure? */
    return NULL;           /* if so, return NULL */

  /* Try to allocate floating-point aggregate within HeapStruct. */
  heap_struct->heap_nums = malloc(sizeof(float) * n);
  if (NULL == heap_struct->heap_nums) {  /* failure? */
    free(heap_struct);                   /* if so, first free the HeapStruct */
    return NULL;                         /* then return NULL */

  /* Success: set fields */
  heap_struct->id = structId++;
  heap_struct->len = n;

  return heap_struct; /* return pointer to allocated HeapStruct */

void free_all(HeapStruct* heap_struct) {
  if (NULL == heap_struct) /* NULL pointer? */
    return;                /* if so, do nothing */
  free(heap_struct->heap_nums); /* first free encapsulated aggregate */
  free(heap_struct);            /* then free containing structure */  

int main() {
  const unsigned n = 100;
  HeapStruct* hs = get_heap_struct(n); /* get structure with N floats */

  /* Do some (meaningless) work for demo. */
  unsigned i;
  for (i = 0; i < n; i++) hs->heap_nums[i] = 3.14 + (float) i;
  for (i = 0; i < n; i += 10) printf("%12f\n", hs->heap_nums[i]);

  free_all(hs); /* free dynamically allocated storage */
  return 0;

The nestedHeap example above centers on a structure HeapStruct with a pointer field named heap_nums:

typedef struct {
  unsigned id;
  unsigned len;
  float*   heap_nums; /** pointer **/
} HeapStruct;

The function get_heap_struct tries to allocate heap storage for a HeapStruct instance, which entails allocating heap storage for a specified number of float variables to which the field heap_nums points. The result of a successful call to get_heap_struct can be depicted as follows, with hs as the pointer to the heap-allocated structure:

hs-->HeapStruct instance
        heap_nums-->N contiguous float elements

In the get_heap_struct function, the first heap allocation is straightforward:

HeapStruct* heap_struct = malloc(sizeof(HeapStruct));
if (NULL == heap_struct) /* failure? */
  return NULL;           /* if so, return NULL */

The sizeof(HeapStruct) includes the bytes (four on a 32-bit machine, eight on a 64-bit machine) for the heap_nums field, which is a pointer to the float elements in a dynamically allocated array. At issue, then, is whether the malloc delivers the bytes for this structure or NULL to signal failure; if NULL, the get_heap_struct function returns NULL to notify the caller that the heap allocation failed.

The second attempted heap allocation is more complicated because, at this step, heap storage for the HeapStruct has been allocated:

heap_struct->heap_nums = malloc(sizeof(float) * n);
if (NULL == heap_struct->heap_nums) {  /* failure? */
  free(heap_struct);                   /* if so, first free the HeapStruct */
  return NULL;                         /* and then return NULL */

The argument n sent to the get_heap_struct function indicates how many float elements should be in the dynamically allocated heap_nums array. If the required float elements can be allocated, then the function sets the structure's id and len fields before returning the heap address of the HeapStruct. If the attempted allocation fails, however, two steps are necessary to meet best practice:

1. The storage for the HeapStruct must be freed to avoid memory leakage. Without the dynamic heap_nums array, the HeapStruct is presumably of no use to the client function that calls get_heap_struct; hence, the bytes for the HeapStruct instance should be explicitly deallocated so that the system can reclaim these bytes for future heap allocations.

2. NULL is returned to signal failure.

If the call to the get_heap_struct function succeeds, then freeing the heap storage is also tricky because it involves two free operations in the proper order. Accordingly, the program includes a free_all function instead of requiring the programmer to figure out the appropriate two-step deallocation. For review, here's the free_all function:

void free_all(HeapStruct* heap_struct) {
  if (NULL == heap_struct) /* NULL pointer? */
    return;                /* if so, do nothing */
  free(heap_struct->heap_nums); /* first free encapsulated aggregate */
  free(heap_struct);            /* then free containing structure */  

After checking that the argument heap_struct is not NULL, the function first frees the heap_nums array, which requires that the heap_struct pointer is still valid. It would be an error to release the heap_struct first. Once the heap_nums have been deallocated, the heap_struct can be freed as well. If heap_struct were freed, but heap_nums were not, then the float elements in the array would be leakage: still allocated bytes but with no possibility of access—hence, of deallocation. The leakage would persist until the nestedHeap program exited and the system reclaimed the leaked bytes.

A few cautionary notes on the free library function are in order. Recall the sample calls above:

free(heap_struct->heap_nums); /* first free encapsulated aggregate */
free(heap_struct);            /* then free containing structure */

These calls free the allocated storage—but they do not set their arguments to NULL. (The free function gets a copy of an address as an argument; hence, changing the copy to NULL would leave the original unchanged.) For example, after a successful call to free, the pointer heap_struct still holds a heap address of some heap-allocated bytes, but using this address now would be an error because the call to free gives the system the right to reclaim and then reuse the allocated bytes.

Calling free with a NULL argument is pointless but harmless. Calling free repeatedly on a non-NULL address is an error with indeterminate results:

free(heap_struct);  /* 1st call: ok */
free(heap_struct);  /* 2nd call: ERROR */

Memory leakage and heap fragmentation

The phrase "memory leakage" refers to dynamically allocated heap storage that is no longer accessible. Here's a code segment for review:

float* nums = malloc(sizeof(float) * 10); /* 10 floats */
nums[0] = 3.14f;                          /* and so on */
nums = malloc(sizeof(float) * 25);        /* 25 new floats */

Assume that the first malloc succeeds. The second malloc resets the nums pointer, either to NULL (allocation failure) or to the address of the first float among newly allocated twenty-five. Heap storage for the initial ten float elements remains allocated but is now inaccessible because the nums pointer either points elsewhere or is NULL. The result is forty bytes (sizeof(float) * 10) of leakage.

Before the second call to malloc, the initially allocated storage should be freed:

float* nums = malloc(sizeof(float) * 10); /* 10 floats */
nums[0] = 3.14f;                          /* and so on */
free(nums);                               /** good **/
nums = malloc(sizeof(float) * 25);        /* no leakage */

Even without leakage, the heap can fragment over time, which then requires system defragmentation. For example, suppose that the two biggest heap chunks are currently of sizes 200MB and 100MB. However, the two chunks are not contiguous, and process P needs to allocate 250MB of contiguous heap storage. Before the allocation can be made, the system must defragment the heap to provide 250MB contiguous bytes for P. Defragmentation is complicated and, therefore, time-consuming.

Memory leakage promotes fragmentation by creating allocated but inaccessible heap chunks. Freeing no-longer-needed heap storage is, therefore, one way that a programmer can help to reduce the need for defragmentation.

Tools to diagnose memory leakage

Various tools are available for profiling memory efficiency and safety. My favorite is valgrind. To illustrate how the tool works for memory leaks, here's the leaky program:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int* get_ints(unsigned n) {
  int* ptr = malloc(n * sizeof(int));
  if (ptr != NULL) {
    unsigned i;
    for (i = 0; i < n; i++) ptr[i] = i + 1;
  return ptr;

void print_ints(int* ptr, unsigned n) {
  unsigned i;
  for (i = 0; i < n; i++) printf("%3i\n", ptr[i]);

int main() {
  const unsigned n = 32;
  int* arr = get_ints(n);
  if (arr != NULL) print_ints(arr, n);

  /** heap storage not yet freed... **/
  return 0;

The function main calls get_ints, which tries to malloc thirty-two 4-byte ints from the heap and then initializes the dynamic array if the malloc succeeds. On success, the main function then calls print_ints. There is no call to free to match the call to malloc; hence, memory leaks.

With the valgrind toolbox installed, the command below checks the leaky program for memory leaks (% is the command-line prompt):

% valgrind --leak-check=full ./leaky

Below is most of the output. The number on the left, 207683, is the process identifier of the executing leaky program. The report provides details of where the leak occurs, in this case, from the call to malloc within the get_ints function that main calls.

==207683== HEAP SUMMARY:
==207683==   in use at exit: 128 bytes in 1 blocks
==207683==   total heap usage: 2 allocs, 1 frees, 1,152 bytes allocated
==207683== 128 bytes in 1 blocks are definitely lost in loss record 1 of 1
==207683==   at 0x483B7F3: malloc (in /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/valgrind/
==207683==   by 0x109186: get_ints (in /home/marty/gc/leaky)
==207683==   by 0x109236: main (in /home/marty/gc/leaky)
==207683== LEAK SUMMARY:
==207683==   definitely lost: 128 bytes in 1 blocks
==207683==   indirectly lost: 0 bytes in 0 blocks
==207683==   possibly lost: 0 bytes in 0 blocks
==207683==   still reachable: 0 bytes in 0 blocks
==207683==   suppressed: 0 bytes in 0 blocks

If function main is revised to include a call to free right after the one to print_ints, then valgrind gives the leaky program a clean bill of health:

==218462== All heap blocks were freed -- no leaks are possible

Static area storage

In orthodox C, a function must be defined outside all blocks. This rules out having one function defined inside the body of another, a feature that some C compilers support. My examples stick with functions defined outside all blocks. Such a function is either static or extern, with extern as the default.

C functions and variables with either static or extern as their storage class reside in what I've been calling the static area of memory because this area has a fixed size during program execution. The syntax for these two storage classes is complicated enough to merit a review. After the review, a full code example brings the syntactic details back to life. Functions or variables defined outside all blocks default to extern; hence, the storage class static must be explicit for both functions and variables:

/** file1.c: outside all blocks, five definitions  **/
int foo(int n) { return n * 2; }     /* extern by default */
static int bar(int n) { return n; }  /* static */
extern int baz(int n) { return -n; } /* explicitly extern */

int num1;        /* extern */
static int num2; /* static */

The difference between extern and static comes down to scope: an extern function or variable may be visible across files. By contrast, a static function is visible only in the file that contains the function's definition, and a static variable is visible only in the file (or a block therein) that has the variable's definition:

static int n1;    /* scope is the file */
void func() {
   static int n2; /* scope is func's body */

If a static variable such as n1 above is defined outside all blocks, the variable's scope is the file in which the variable is defined. Wherever a static variable may be defined, storage for the variable is in the static area of memory.

An extern function or variable is defined outside all blocks in a given file, but the function or variable so defined then may be declared in some other file. The typical practice is to declare such a function or variable in a header file, which is included wherever needed. Some short examples clarify these tricky points.

Suppose that the extern function foo is defined in file1.c, with or without the keyword extern:

/** file1.c **/
int foo(int n) { return n * 2; } /* definition has a body {...} */

This function must be declared with an explicit extern in any other file (or block therein) for the function to be visible. Here's the declaration that makes the extern function foo visible in file file2.c:

/** file2.c: make function foo visible here **/
extern int foo(int); /* declaration (no body) */

Recall that a function declaration does not have a body enclosed in curly braces, whereas a function definition does have such a body.

For review, header files typically contain function and variable declarations. Source-code files that require the declarations then #include the relevant header file(s). The staticProg program in the next section illustrates this approach.

The rules get trickier (sorry!) with extern variables. Any extern object—function or variable—must be defined outside all blocks. Also, a variable defined outside all blocks defaults to extern:

/** outside all blocks **/
int n; /* defaults to extern */

However, the extern can be explicit in the variable's definition only if the variable is initialized explicitly there:

/** file1.c: outside all blocks **/
int n1;             /* defaults to extern, initialized by compiler to zero */
extern int n2 = -1; /* ok, initialized explicitly */
int n3 = 9876;      /* ok, extern by default and initialized explicitly */

For a variable defined as extern in file1.c to be visible in another file such as file2.c, the variable must be declared as explicitly extern in file2.c and not initialized, which would turn the declaration into a definition:

/** file2.c **/
extern int n1; /* declaration of n1 defined in file1.c */

To avoid confusion with extern variables, the rule of thumb is to use extern explicitly in a declaration (required) but not in a definition (optional and tricky). For functions, the extern is optional in a definition but needed for a declaration. The staticProg example in the next section brings these points together in a full program.

The staticProg example

The staticProg program consists of three files: two C source files (static1.c and static2.c) together with a header file (static.h) that contains two declarations:

/** header file static.h **/
#define NumCount 100               /* macro */
extern int global_nums[NumCount];  /* array declaration */
extern void fill_array();          /* function declaration */

The extern in the two declarations, one for an array and the other for a function, underscores that the objects are defined elsewhere ("externally"): the array global_nums is defined in file static1.c (without an explicit extern) and the function fill_array is defined in file static2.c (also without an explicit extern). Each source file includes the header file static.h.The static1.c file defines the two arrays that reside in the static area of memory, global_nums and more_nums. The second array has a static storage class, which restricts its scope to the file (static1.c) in which the array is defined. As noted, global_nums as extern can be made visible in multiple files.

/** static1.c **/
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

#include "static.h"             /* declarations */

int global_nums[NumCount];      /* definition: extern (global) aggregate */
static int more_nums[NumCount]; /* definition: scope limited to this file */

int main() {
  fill_array(); /** defined in file static2.c **/

  unsigned i;
  for (i = 0; i < NumCount; i++)
    more_nums[i] = i * -1;

  /* confirm initialization worked */
  for (i = 0; i < NumCount; i += 10) 
    printf("%4i\t%4i\n", global_nums[i], more_nums[i]);
  return 0;  

The static2.c file below defines the fill_array function, which main (in the static1.c file) invokes; the fill_array function populates the extern array named global_nums, which is defined in file static1.c. The sole point of having two files is to underscore that an extern variable or function can be visible across files.

/** static2.c **/
#include "static.h" /** declarations **/

void fill_array() { /** definition **/
  unsigned i;
  for (i = 0; i < NumCount; i++) global_nums[i] = i + 2;

The staticProg program can be compiled as follows:

% gcc -o staticProg static1.c static2.c

More details from assembly language

A modern C compiler can handle any mix of C and assembly language. When compiling a C source file, the compiler first translates the C code into assembly language. Here's the command to save the assembly language generated from the static1.c file above:

% gcc -S static1.c

The resulting file is static1.s. Here's a segment from the top, with added line numbers for readability:

    .file    "static1.c"          ## line  1
    .text                         ## line  2
    .comm    global_nums,400,32   ## line  3
    .local    more_nums           ## line  4
    .comm    more_nums,400,32     ## line  5
    .section    .rodata           ## line  6
.LC0:                             ## line  7
    .string    "%4i\t%4i\n"       ## line  8
    .text                         ## line  9
    .globl    main                ## line 10
    .type    main, @function      ## line 11
main:                             ## line 12

The assembly-language directives such as .file (line 1) begin with a period. As the name suggests, a directive guides the assembler as it translates assembly language into machine code. The .rodata directive (line 6) indicates that read-only objects follow, including the string constant "%4i\t%4i\n" (line 8), which function main (line 12) uses to format output. The function main (line 12), introduced as a label (the colon at the end makes it so), is likewise read-only.

In assembly language, labels are addresses. The label main: (line 12) marks the address at which the code for the main function begins, and the label .LC0: (line 7) marks the address at which the format string begins.

The definitions of the global_nums (line 3) and more_nums (line 4) arrays include two numbers: 400 is the total number of bytes in each array, and 32 is the number of bits in each of the 100 int elements per array. (The .comm directive in line 5 stands for common name, which can be ignored.)

The array definitions differ in that more_nums is marked as .local (line 4), which means that its scope is restricted to the containing file static1.s. By contrast, the global_nums array can be made visible across multiple files, including the translations of the static1.c and static2.c files.

Finally, the .text directive occurs twice (lines 2 and 9) in the assembly code segment. The term "text" suggests "read-only" but also covers read/write variables such as the elements in the two arrays. Although the assembly language shown is for an Intel architecture, Arm6 assembly would be quite similar. For both architectures, variables in the .text area (in this case, elements in the two arrays) are initialized automatically to zeros.

Wrapping up

For memory-efficient and memory-safe programming in C, the guidelines are easy to state but may be hard to follow, especially when calls to poorly designed libraries are in play. The guidelines are:

  • Use stack storage whenever possible, thereby encouraging the compiler to optimize with general-purpose registers for scratchpad. Stack storage represents efficient memory use and promotes clean, modular code. Never return a pointer to stack-based storage.
  • Use heap storage carefully. The challenge in C (and C++) is to ensure that dynamically allocated storage is deallocated ASAP. Good programming habits and tools (such as valgrind) help to meet the challenge. Favor libraries that provide their own deallocation function(s), such as the free_all function in the nestedHeap code example.
  • Use static storage judiciously, as this storage impacts the memory footprint of a process from start to finish. In particular, try to avoid extern and static arrays.

The C code examples are available at my website (

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I'm an academic in computer science (College of Computing and Digital Media, DePaul University) with wide experience in software development, mostly in production planning and scheduling (steel industry) and product configuration (truck and bus manufacturing). Details on books and other publications are available at


Thanks for this article, Marty! Really nice.

Thanks for the great article. In the section 'Heap storage', I noticed that the main function checks if the /* malloc failed */, but since we are initializing *heap_nums in the same function (get_heap_array) we are trying to allocate memory, we need to add validation before trying to access the array to avoid segmentation failure (SIGSEGV) in case of allocation failure.

int *get_heap_array(unsigned n) {
int *heap_nums = malloc(sizeof(int) * n);

/* Check heap allocation */
if (NULL == heap_nums) /* failure? */
return NULL; /* if so, return NULL */

unsigned i;
for (i = 0; i < n; i++)
heap_nums[i] = i + 1; /* initialize the array */

/* stack storage for variables heap_nums and i released
automatically when get_num_array returns */
return heap_nums; /* return (copy of) the pointer */

I hope to learn more from you!

I agree--should always check whether the malloc returned NULL. Was trying to keep the 1st example simple, but shouldn't have avoided the check.


In reply to by Gilson Urbano

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