malloc does not return null when out of memory

Chuck Swiger cswiger at
Thu Jul 24 16:18:12 PDT 2003

Muttley wrote:
> Yes, I thought briefly about something like this.
> Then I thought 'there's a race condition'.

Where?  The FreeBSD implementation is wrapped in a THREAD_LOCK()...?

> Then I realised that other processes might not link against this malloc.


> Then I realised the race condition doesn't even matter; processes will 
> still be killed, as the kernel doesn't care that you're still in 
> malloc() when the overcommitted memory is touched, it just knows you've 
> touched it and there's no actual memory there. This will result in far 
> more processes being killed. I believe that's a bad thing.

Someone stated that it was a problem that malloc() returned pointers to virtual 
address space that had been mapped but not allocated.  This patch does not 
guarantee that malloc() will return, but, if malloc() does returns a pointer, 
using the memory being pointed to will refer to memory that is allocated.

As Barny Wolff said:
 > Won't this merely die in malloc, not return 0?

True.  This isn't a perfect solution, but given the choice between:

1) malloc(LOTS) returning a pointer, and then sometime later the program dies 
with a bus error when using that memory because no more VM is available, or

2) malloc(LOTS) causing an immediate failure in malloc(),

...choice #2 appears to be significantly better.

Figuring out what went wrong from a coredump or backtrace for #2 when the signal 
happens in malloc() should be obvious; determining why the program crashed in 
the middle of referencing memory in some large buffer is potentially misleading.

Programs which take care to preallocate regions of memory they need before they 
start doing a transaction or some other operation that needs to be atomic would 
also prefer #2; the patch I proposed could have a beneficial impact on data 
integrity for such programs.


People who encounter programs crashing in malloc() are likely going to continue 
to complain about malloc() not returning NULL when the system is out of memory.

If malloc() is referencing memory before returning the pointer, means that the 
system is going to reserve VM resources with temporal locality towards memory 
_allocation_ rather than memory _reference_.  Having the program crash at memory 
allocation time rather than usage helps identify when and where this problem 
actually happens more clearly, if only by a little bit.

I'm not sure whether allocating memory sooner that way will make it more likely 
that brk()/sbrk() or mmap() will return ENOMEM to the libc malloc() 
implementation, but if it does not help, perhaps that means something and we've 
identified the location of problem more precisely.


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