Memory Management Reference

« Introduction to memory management | 1. Overview | 2. Allocation techniques »

1. Overview

Memory management is a complex field of computer science and there are many techniques being developed to make it more efficient. This guide is designed to introduce you to some of the basic memory management issues that programmers face.

This guide attempts to explain any terms it uses as it introduces them. In addition, there is a Memory Management Glossary of memory management terms that gives fuller information; some terms are linked to the relevant entries.

Memory management is usually divided into three areas, although the distinctions are a little fuzzy:

These are described in more detail below. In most computer systems, all three are present to some extent, forming layers between the user’s program and the actual memory hardware. The Memory Management Reference is mostly concerned with application memory management.

1.1. Hardware memory management

Memory management at the hardware level is concerned with the electronic devices that actually store data. This includes things like RAM and memory caches.

1.2. Operating system memory management

In the operating system, memory must be allocated to user programs, and reused by other programs when it is no longer required. The operating system can pretend that the computer has more memory than it actually does, and also that each program has the machine’s memory to itself; both of these are features of virtual memory systems.

1.3. Application memory management

Application memory management involves supplying the memory needed for a program’s objects and data structures from the limited resources available, and recycling that memory for reuse when it is no longer required. Because application programs cannot in general predict in advance how much memory they are going to require, they need additional code to handle their changing memory requirements.

Application memory management combines two related tasks:


When the program requests a block of memory, the memory manager must allocate that block out of the larger blocks it has received from the operating system. The part of the memory manager that does this is known as the allocator. There are many ways to perform allocation, a few of which are discussed in Allocation techniques.


When memory blocks have been allocated, but the data they contain is no longer required by the program, then the blocks can be recycled for reuse. There are two approaches to recycling memory: either the programmer must decide when memory can be reused (known as manual memory management); or the memory manager must be able to work it out (known as automatic memory management). These are both described in more detail below.

An application memory manager must usually work to several constraints, such as:

CPU overhead

The additional time taken by the memory manager while the program is running.

Pause times

The time it takes for the memory manager to complete an operation and return control to the program.

This affects the program’s ability to respond promptly to interactive events, and also to any asynchronous event such as a network connection.

Memory overhead

How much space is wasted for administration, rounding (known as internal fragmentation), and poor layout (known as external fragmentation).

Some of the common problems encountered in application memory management are considered in the next section.

1.4. Memory management problems

The basic problem in managing memory is knowing when to keep the data it contains, and when to throw it away so that the memory can be reused. This sounds easy, but is, in fact, such a hard problem that it is an entire field of study in its own right. In an ideal world, most programmers wouldn’t have to worry about memory management issues. Unfortunately, there are many ways in which poor memory management practice can affect the robustness and speed of programs, both in manual and in automatic memory management.

Typical problems include:

Premature frees and dangling pointers

Many programs give up memory, but attempt to access it later and crash or behave randomly. This condition is known as a premature free, and the surviving reference to the memory is known as a dangling pointer. This is usually confined to manual memory management.

Memory leak

Some programs continually allocate memory without ever giving it up and eventually run out of memory. This condition is known as a memory leak.

External fragmentation

A poor allocator can do its job of giving out and receiving blocks of memory so badly that it can no longer give out big enough blocks despite having enough spare memory. This is because the free memory can become split into many small blocks, separated by blocks still in use. This condition is known as external fragmentation.

Poor locality of reference

Another problem with the layout of allocated blocks comes from the way that modern hardware and operating system memory managers handle memory: successive memory accesses are faster if they are to nearby memory locations. If the memory manager places far apart the blocks a program will use together, then this will cause performance problems. This condition is known as poor locality of reference.

Inflexible design

Memory managers can also cause severe performance problems if they have been designed with one use in mind, but are used in a different way. These problems occur because any memory management solution tends to make assumptions about the way in which the program is going to use memory, such as typical block sizes, reference patterns, or lifetimes of objects. If these assumptions are wrong, then the memory manager may spend a lot more time doing bookkeeping work to keep up with what’s happening.

Interface complexity

If objects are passed between modules, then the interface design must consider the management of their memory.

A well-designed memory manager can make it easier to write debugging tools, because much of the code can be shared. Such tools could display objects, navigate links, validate objects, or detect abnormal accumulations of certain object types or block sizes.

1.5. Manual memory management

Manual memory management is where the programmer has direct control over when memory may be recycled. Usually this is either by explicit calls to heap management functions (for example, malloc and free (2) in C), or by language constructs that affect the control stack (such as local variables). The key feature of a manual memory manager is that it provides a way for the program to say, “Have this memory back; I’ve finished with it”; the memory manager does not recycle any memory without such an instruction.

The advantages of manual memory management are:

  • it can be easier for the programmer to understand exactly what is going on;

  • some manual memory managers perform better when there is a shortage of memory.

The disadvantages of manual memory management are:

  • the programmer must write a lot of code to do repetitive bookkeeping of memory;

  • memory management must form a significant part of any module interface;

  • manual memory management typically requires more memory overhead per object;

  • memory management bugs are common.

It is very common for programmers, faced with an inefficient or inadequate manual memory manager, to write code to duplicate the behavior of a memory manager, either by allocating large blocks and splitting them for use, or by recycling blocks internally. Such code is known as a suballocator. Suballocators can take advantage of special knowledge of program behavior, but are less efficient in general than fixing the underlying allocator. Unless written by a memory management expert, suballocators may be inefficient or unreliable.

The following languages use mainly manual memory management in most implementations, although many have conservative garbage collection extensions: Algol; C; C++; COBOL; Fortran; Pascal.

1.6. Automatic memory management

Automatic memory management is a service, either as a part of the language or as an extension, that automatically recycles memory that a program would not otherwise use again. Automatic memory managers (often known as garbage collectors, or simply collectors) usually do their job by recycling blocks that are unreachable from the program variables (that is, blocks that cannot be reached by following pointers).

The advantages of automatic memory management are:

  • the programmer is freed to work on the actual problem;

  • module interfaces are cleaner;

  • there are fewer memory management bugs;

  • memory management is often more efficient.

The disadvantages of automatic memory management are:

  • memory may be retained because it is reachable, but won’t be used again;

  • automatic memory managers (currently) have limited availability.

There are many ways of performing automatic recycling of memory, a few of which are discussed in Recycling techniques.

Most modern languages use mainly automatic memory management: BASIC, Dylan, Erlang, Haskell, Java, JavaScript, Lisp, ML, Modula-3, Perl, PostScript, Prolog, Python, Scheme, Smalltalk, etc.

1.7. More information

For more detailed information on the topics covered briefly above, please have a look at the Memory Management Glossary. Books and research papers are available on many specific techniques, and can be found via our Bibliography; particularly recommended are: Wilson (1994), which is survey of garbage collection techniques; Wilson et al. (1995), which is a survey of allocation techniques; and Jones et al. (2012), which is a handbook covering all aspects of garbage collection.