Arena allocator tips and tricks

This article was discussed on Hacker News.

Over the past year I’ve refined my approach to arena allocation. With practice, it’s effective, simple, and fast; typically as easy to use as garbage collection but without the costs. Depending on need, an allocator can weigh just 7–25 lines of code — perfect when lacking a runtime. With the core details of my own technique settled, now is a good time to document and share lessons learned. This is certainly not the only way to approach arena allocation, but these are practices I’ve worked out to simplify programs and reduce mistakes.

An arena is a memory buffer and an offset into that buffer, initially zero. To allocate an object, grab a pointer at the offset, advance the offset by the size of the object, and return the pointer. There’s a little more to it, such as ensuring alignment and availability. We’ll get to that. Objects are not freed individually. Instead, groups of allocations are freed at once by restoring the offset to an earlier value. Without individual lifetimes, you don’t need to write destructors, nor do your programs need to walk data structures at run time to take them apart. You also no longer need to worry about memory leaks.

A minority of programs inherently require general purpose allocation, at least in part, that linear allocation cannot fulfill. This includes, for example, most programming language runtimes. If you like arenas, avoid accidentally create such a situation through an over-flexible API that allows callers to assume you have general purpose allocation underneath.

To get warmed up, here’s my style of arena allocation in action that shows off multiple features:

typedef struct {
    uint8_t  *data;
    ptrdiff_t len;
} str;

typedef struct {
    strlist *next;
    str      item;
} strlist;

typedef struct {
    str head;
    str tail;
} strpair;

// Defined elsewhere
void    towidechar(wchar_t *, ptrdiff_t, str);
str     loadfile(wchar_t *, arena *);
strpair cut(str, uint8_t);

strlist *getlines(str path, arena *perm, arena scratch)
    int max_path = 1<<15;
    wchar_t *wpath = new(&scratch, wchar_t, max_path);
    towidechar(wpath, max_path, path);

    strpair pair = {0};
    pair.tail = loadfile(wpath, perm);

    strlist *head = 0;
    strlist **tail = &head;
    while (pair.tail.len) {
        pair = cut(pair.tail, '\n');
        *tail = new(perm, strlist, 1);
        (*tail)->item = pair.head;
        tail = &(*tail)->next;
    return head;

Take note of these details, each to be later discussed in detail:

See also u-config.

An arena implementation

An arena suitable for most cases can be this simple:

typedef struct {
    char *beg;
    char *end;
} arena;

void *alloc(arena *a, ptrdiff_t size, ptrdiff_t align, ptrdiff_t count)
    ptrdiff_t padding = -(uintptr_t)a->beg & (align - 1);
    ptrdiff_t available = a->end - a->beg - padding;
    if (available < 0 || count > available/size) {
        abort();  // one possible out-of-memory policy
    void *p = a->beg + padding;
    a->beg += padding + count*size;
    return memset(p, 0, count*size);

Yup, just a pair of pointers! When allocating, all sizes are signed just as they ought to be. Unsigned sizes are another historically common source of defects, and offer no practical advantages in return.

The align parameter allows the arena to handle any unusual alignments, something that’s surprisingly difficult to do with libc. It’s difficult to appreciate its usefulness until it’s convenient.

The uintptr_t business may look unusual if you’ve never come across it before. To align beg, we need to compute the number of bytes to advance the address (padding) until the alignment evenly divides the address. The modulo with align computes the number of bytes it’s since the last alignment:

extra = addr % align

We can’t operate numerically on an address like this, so in the code we first convert to uintptr_t. Alignment is always a power of two, which notably excludes zero, so no worrying about division by zero. That also means we can compute modulo by subtracting one and masking with AND:

extra = addr & (align - 1)

However, we want the number of bytes to advance to the next alignment, which is the inverse:

padding = -addr & (align - 1)

Add the uintptr_t cast and you have the code in alloc.

The if tests if there’s enough memory and simultaneously for overflow on size*count. If either fails, it invokes the out-of-memory policy, which in this case is abort. I strongly recommend that, at least when testing, always having something in place to, at minimum, abort when allocation fails, even when you think it cannot happen. It’s easy to use more memory than you anticipate, and you want a reliable signal when it happens.

An alternative policy is to longjmp to a “handler”, which with GCC and Clang doesn’t even require runtime support. In that case add a jmp_buf to the arena:

typedef struct {
    char  *beg;
    char  *end;
    void **jmp_buf;
} arena;

void *alloc(...)
    // ...
    if (/* out of memory */) {
        __builtin_longjmp(a->jmp_buf, 1);
    // ...

bool example(..., arena scratch)
    void *jmp_buf[5];
    if (__builtin_setjmp(jmp_buf)) {
        return 0;
    scratch.jmp_buf = jmp_buf;
    // ...
    return 1;

example returns failure to the caller if it runs out of memory, without needing to check individual allocations and, thanks to the implicit free of scratch arenas, without needing to clean up. If callees receiving the scratch arena don’t set their own jmp_buf, they’ll return here, too. In a real program you’d probably wrap the setjmp setup in a macro.

Suppose zeroing is too expensive or unnecessary in some cases. Add a flag to opt out:

void *alloc(..., int flags)
    // ...
    return flag&NOZERO ? p : memset(p, 0, total);

Similarly, perhaps there’s a critical moment where you’re holding a non-memory resource (lock, file handle), or you don’t want allocation failure to be fatal. In either case, it’s important that the out-of-memory policy isn’t invoked. You could request a “soft” failure with another flag, and then do the usual null pointer check:

void *alloc(..., int flags)
    // ...
    if (/* out of memory */) {
        if (flags & SOFTFAIL) {
            return 0;
    // ...

Most non-trivial programs will probably have at least one of these flags.

In case it wasn’t obvious, allocating an arena is simple:

arena newarena(ptrdiff_t cap)
    arena a = {0};
    a.beg = malloc(cap);
    a.end = a.beg ? a.beg+cap : 0;
    return a;

Or make a direct allocation from the operating system, e.g. mmap, VirtualAlloc. Typically arena lifetime is the whole program, so you don’t need to worry about freeing it. (Since you’re using arenas, you can also turn off any memory leak checkers while you’re at it.)

If you need more arenas then you can always allocate smaller ones out of the first! In multi-threaded applications, each thread may have at least its own scratch arena.

The new macro

I’ve shown alloc, but few parts of the program should be calling it directly. Instead they have a macro to automatically handle the details. I call mine new, though of course if you’re writing C++ you’ll need to pick another name (make? PushStruct?):

#define new(a, t, n)  (t *)alloc(a, sizeof(t), _Alignof(t), n)

The cast is an extra compile-time check, especially useful for avoiding mistakes in levels of indirection. It also keeps normal code from directly using the sizeof operator, which is easy to misuse. If you added a flags parameter, pass in zero for this common case. Keep in mind that the goal of this macro is to make common allocation simple and robust.

Often you’ll allocate single objects, and so the count is 1. If you think that’s ugly, you could make variadic version of new that fills in common defaults. In fact, that’s partly why I put count last!

#define new(...)            newx(__VA_ARGS__,new4,new3,new2)(__VA_ARGS__)
#define newx(a,b,c,d,e,...) e
#define new2(a, t)          (t *)alloc(a, sizeof(t), alignof(t), 1, 0)
#define new3(a, t, n)       (t *)alloc(a, sizeof(t), alignof(t), n, 0)
#define new4(a, t, n, f)    (t *)alloc(a, sizeof(t), alignof(t), n, f)

Not quite so simple, but it optionally makes for more streamlined code:

thing *t   = new(perm, thing);
thing *ts  = new(perm, thing, 1000);
char  *buf = new(perm, char, len, NOZERO);

Side note: If sizeof should be avoided, what about array lengths? That’s part of the problem! Hardly ever do you want the size of an array, but rather the number of elements. That includes char arrays where this happens to be the same number. So instead, define a countof macro that uses sizeof to compute the value you actually want. I like to have this whole collection:

#define sizeof(x)    (ptrdiff_t)sizeof(x)
#define countof(a)   (sizeof(a) / sizeof(*(a)))
#define lengthof(s)  (countof(s) - 1)

Yes, you can convert sizeof into a macro like this! It won’t expand recursively and bottoms out as an operator. countof also, of course, produces a less error-prone signed count so users don’t fumble around with size_t. lengthof statically produces null-terminated string length.

char msg[] = "hello world";
write(fd, msg, lengthof(msg));

#define MSG "hello world"
write(fd, MSG, lengthof(MSG));

Enhance alloc with attributes

At least for GCC and Clang, we can further improve alloc with three function attributes:

__attribute((malloc, alloc_size(2, 4), alloc_align(3)))
void *alloc(...);

malloc indicates that the pointer returned by alloc does not alias any existing object. Enables some significant optimizations that are otherwise blocked, most often by breaking potential loop-carried dependencies.

alloc_size tracks the allocation size for compile-time diagnostics and run-time assertions (__builtin_object_size). This generally requires a non-zero optimization level. In other words, you will get a compiler warnings about some out bounds accesses of arena objects, and with Undefined Behavior Sanitizer you’ll get run-time bounds checking. It’s a great complement to fuzzing.

Update June 2024: I’ve learned that alloc_size is fundamentally broken since its introduction in GCC 4.3.0 (March 2008). Correct use is impossible, and existing instances all rely on luck. In certain cases, such as function inlining, the pointer information is lost, and GCC may generate invalid code based on stale data.

In theory alloc_align may also allow better code generation, but I’ve yet to observe a case. Consider it optional and low-priority. I mention it only for completeness.

Arena size and growth

How large an arena should you allocate? The simple answer: As much as is necessary for the program to successfully complete. Usually the cost of untouched arena memory is low or even zero. Most programs should probably have an upper limit, at which point they assume something has gone wrong. Arenas allow this case to be handled gracefully, simplifying recovery and paving the way for continued operation.

While a sufficient answer for most cases, it’s unsatisfying. There’s a common assumption that programs should increase their memory usage as much as needed and let the operating system respond if it’s too much. However, if you’ve ever tried this yourself, you probably noticed that mainstream operating systems don’t handle it well. The typical results are system instability — thrashing, drivers crashing — possibly necessitating a reboot.

If you insist on this route, on 64-bit hosts you can reserve a gigantic virtual address space and gradually commit memory as needed. On Linux that means leaning on overcommit by allocating the largest arena possible at startup, which will automatically commit through use. Use MADV_FREE to decommit.

On Windows, VirtualAlloc handles reserve and commit separately. In addition to the allocation offset, you need a commit offset. Then expand the committed region ahead of the allocation offset as it grows. If you ever manually reset the allocation offset, you could decommit as well, or at least MEM_RESET. At some point commit may fail, which should then trigger the out-of-memory policy, but the system is probably in poor shape by that point — i.e. use an abort policy to release it all quickly.

Pointer laundering (filthy hack)

While allocations out of an arena don’t require individual error checks, allocating the arena itself at startup requires error handling. It would be nice if the arena could be allocated out of .bss and punt that job to the loader. While you could make a big, global char[] array to back your arena, it’s technically not permitted (strict aliasing). A “clean” .bss region could be obtained with a bit of assembly — .comm plus assembly to get the address into C without involving an array. I wanted a more portable solution, so I came up with this:

arena getarena(void)
    static char mem[1<<28];
    arena r = {0};
    r.beg = mem;
    asm ("" : "+r"(r.beg));  // launder the pointer
    r.end = r.beg + countof(mem);
    return r;

The asm accepts a pointer and returns a pointer ("+r"). The compiler cannot “see” that it’s actually empty, and so returns the same pointer. The arena will be backed by mem, but by laundering the address through asm, I’ve disconnected the pointer from its origin. As far the compiler is concerned, this is some foreign, assembly-provided pointer, not a pointer into mem. It can’t optimize away mem because it’s been given to a mysterious assembly black box.

While inappropriate for a real project, I think it’s a neat trick.

Arena-friendly container data structures

In my initial example I used a linked list to stores lines. This data structure is great with arenas. It only takes a few of lines of code to implement a linked list on top of an arena, and no “destroy” code is needed. Simple.

What about arena-backed associative arrays? Or arena-backed dynamic arrays? See these follow-up articles for details!

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null program

Chris Wellons (PGP)
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