The Memory Management Reference
Beginner's Guide

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Beginner's Guide: Overview | Allocation techniques | Recycling techniques

Memory allocation is the process of assigning blocks of memory on request. Typically the allocator receives memory from the operating system in a small number of large blocks that it must divide up to satisfy the requests for smaller blocks. It must also make any returned blocks available for reuse. There are many common ways to perform this, with different strengths and weaknesses. A few are described briefly here:

These techniques can often be used in combination.

First fit

In the first fit algorithm, the allocator keeps a list of free blocks (known as the free list) and, on receiving a request for memory, scans along the list for the first block that is large enough to satisfy the request. If the chosen block is significantly larger than that requested, then it is usually split, and the remainder added to the list as another free block.

The first fit algorithm performs reasonably well, as it ensures that allocations are quick. When recycling free blocks, there is a choice as to where to add the blocks to the free list -- effectively in what order the free list is kept:

Memory location (address)

This is not fast for allocation or recycling, but supports efficient merging of adjacent free blocks (known as coalescence). According to Dynamic Storage Allocation: A Survey and Critical Review, this ordering reduces fragmentation. It can also improve locality of reference.

Increasing size

This is equivalent to the best fit algorithm, in that the free block with the "tightest fit" is always chosen. The fit is usually sufficiently tight that the remainder of the block is unusably small.

Decreasing size

This is equivalent to the worst fit algorithm. The first block on the free list will always be large enough, if a large enough block is available. This approach encourages external fragmentation, but allocation is very fast.

Increasing time since last use

This is very fast at adding new free blocks, because they are added to the beginning of the list. It encourages good locality of reference (where blocks used together are not spread throughout memory), but can lead to bad external fragmentation.

A variation of first fit, known as next fit, continues each search for a suitable block where the previous one left off, by using a roving pointer into the free block chain. This is not usually combined with increasing or decreasing size ordering because it would eliminate their advantages.

Buddy system

In a buddy system, the allocator will only allocate blocks of certain sizes, and has many free lists, one for each permitted size. The permitted sizes are usually either powers of two, or form a Fibonacci sequence (see below for example), such that any block except the smallest can be divided into two smaller blocks of permitted sizes.

When the allocator receives a request for memory, it rounds the requested size up to a permitted size, and returns the first block from that size's free list. If the free list for that size is empty, the allocator splits a block from a larger size and returns one of the pieces, adding the other to the appropriate free list.

When blocks are recycled, there may be some attempt to merge adjacent blocks into ones of a larger permitted size (coalescence). To make this easier, the free lists may be stored in order of address. The main advantage of the buddy system is that coalescence is cheap because the "buddy" of any free block can be calculated from its address.

A binary buddy heap before allocation
Diagram: A binary buddy heap before allocation

A binary buddy heap after allocating a 8 kB block
Diagram: A binary buddy heap after allocating a 8 kB block

A binary buddy heap after allocating a 10 kB block; note the 6 kB wasted because of rounding up
Diagram: A binary buddy heap after allocating a 10 kB block; note the 6 kB wasted because of rounding up

For example, an allocator in a binary buddy system might have sizes of 16, 32, 64,... 64 kB. It might start off with a single block of 64 kB. If the application requests a block of 8 kB, the allocator would check its 8 kB free list and find no free blocks of that size. It would then split the 64 kB block into two block of 32 kB, split one of them into two blocks of 16 kB, and split one of them into two blocks of 8 kB. The allocator would then return one of the 8 kB blocks to the application and keep the remaining three blocks of 8 kB, 16 kB, and 32 kB on the appropriate free lists. If the application then requested a block of 10 kB, the allocator would round this request up to 16 kB, and return the 16 kB block from its free list, wasting 6 kB in the process.

A Fibonacci buddy system might use block sizes 16, 32, 48, 80, 128, 208,... bytes, such that each size is the sum of the two preceding sizes. When splitting a block from one free list, the two parts get added to the two preceding free lists.

A buddy system can work very well or very badly, depending on how the chosen sizes interact with typical requests for memory and what the pattern of returned blocks is. The rounding typically leads to a significant amount of wasted memory, which is called internal fragmentation. This can be reduced by making the permitted block sizes closer together.

For more information, see buddy system in the Glossary.


There are many examples of application programs that include additional memory management code called a suballocator. A suballocator obtains large blocks of memory from the system memory manager and allocates the memory to the application in smaller pieces. Suballocators are usually written for one of the following reasons:

In general, suballocators are less efficient than having a single memory manager that is well-written and has a flexible interface. It is also harder to avoid memory management bugs if the memory manager is composed of several layers, and if each application has its own variation of suballocator.

Many applications have one or two sizes of block that form the vast majority of their allocations. One of the most common uses of a suballocator is to supply the application with objects of one size. This greatly reduces the problem of external fragmentation. Such a suballocator can have a very simple allocation policy.

There are dangers involved in making use of special knowledge of the application's memory requirements. If those requirements change, then the performance of the suballocator is likely to be much worse than that of a general allocator. It is often better to have a memory manager that can respond dynamically to changing requirements.

For more information, see suballocator in the Glossary.

Beginner's Guide: Overview | Allocation techniques | Recycling techniques