All done? Good. One topic that was beyond the scope of that article is virtual addressing. Understanding virtual addressing is important to anyone implementing memory management on modern hardware. The PC and both next-gen consoles provide facilities for virtual address management, and it is important to understand the benefits and trade-offs of these facilities when doing memory management.
I am going to simplify many of the details and present a more abstracted view of some made-up hardware. A full discussion of virtual address handling specific to an architecture would be beyond the scope of this entry. The specific details of hardware and OS virtual addressing vary between different architectures, and even different processor generations within the same architecture. In practice, it is always important to read your processor and OS manuals to understand the specific implementation you are working with.
Often we like to think of memory in a machine as one big array, somewhat like this:
Real hardware doesn't necessary have one big contiguous lump of physical address space, or may have different physical address ranges mapping to the same memory, with different cache behavior. But again, we're trying to simplify things here.
So this seems great, but what are the problems? The problem is fragmentation. There are actually two types of fragmentation, and it is important to know the difference.
When you hear the unqualified word "fragmentation", most often what is being referred to is external fragmentation. External fragmentation occurs when memory has been partitioned into small, non-contiguous chunks, such that while the total amount of free memory is large enough for a big allocation, you can't actually fit it anywhere.
A simple example, using a first-fit heap. Say someone wrote loading code and didn't really consider memory management while doing so (tsk tsk!). This loading code starts by allocating a large temporary buffer for streaming:
Then the loading code reads into the temp buffer, and creates a bunch of permanent data structures.
Internal fragmentation is the type of fragmentation you don't hear about much, or if you do, it is not usually described as fragmentation. Internal fragmentation occurs when the size of the memory manager's internal allocation is larger than what the application actually requested. This is fragmentation internal to the allocations.
An example can be found with fixed-size block allocators. Often you can have a system that makes many allocations, all slightly varying in size. One solution to this is to use a fixed-size block allocator that uses a block size larger than any of your potential allocations. This can lead to a situation where a small amount of memory is unused in each allocation:
Internal fragmentation can occur with other allocators, such as the buddy system.
Most programmers at some point have heard the phrase "All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection", attributed to Dan Wheeler. Many haven't heard the corollary "...except for the problem of too many layers of indirection." This is a shame because I think both together describe the condition of the modern programmer.
Virtual addressing is the direct application of this idea -- instead of accessing memory through its physical address, we add a level of indirection and access it through a virtual address. This indirection is performed in the hardware, so it is mostly transparent to the programmer, and fast, with caveats. Virtual addressing can mitigate many fragmentation issues.
First, an important public service announcement.
Virtual Addressing != Paging to hard drive
Do not confuse virtual addressing with virtual memory management systems that may page data to the hard drive (such as Windows or Linux). I think these concepts sometimes become confused because many descriptions lump the two things together into a heading of "virtual memory." They are not the same thing -- paging systems are built on top of virtual addressing, but you do not need to page memory to the hard drive to reap the benefits of virtual addressing. You don't even need a hard drive!
Virtual Address Space
Virtual addressing implementations are very specific to CPU architecture and OS, but they all share some common properties.
They all have the concept of a virtual address space. The address space may be much larger than the physical memory of the machine -- for example, in our hypothetical console, we may have only 256 MB of physical memory, but with 32 bit pointers we have a 4 GB address space. In practice, architectures and OSes may limit the address space available to applications, either reserving address space for the kernel, or using portions of the address space to for different types of memory access (such as non-cached reads/writes). On multi-process operating systems such as Windows or Linux, each process has its own address space.
Address space is allocated independently from physical memory, and you do not have to have physical memory backing an address space allocation.
The address space is divided into pages. Page sizes vary depending on architecture/OS, but common sizes are 4K, 64K, and 1 MB. Page sizes are always powers of two, as this simplifies the work of translating a virtual address into a physical one. A CPU/OS may only support a fixed page size, or may allow programmers to pick a page size when pages are allocated.
The Page Table
Virtual addresses are translated into physical addresses via a page table. A page table is a simple mapping between a virtual page and a physical page. Going back to our hypothetical console, which has a page size of 64KB, a page table might look like this (again, real world implementations vary):
Each entry in the page table maps a virtual address page to a physical address page. A virtual address allocation may span multiple contiguous address pages, but does not require contiguous physical pages.
When the CPU encounters an instruction which accesses a memory address, it must translate the virtual address into a physical address to know where the data is located in physical memory. With a 64KB page size, the upper 16 bits of a 32 bit address specify the page number, and the lower 16 bits the offset into the page. This is why page sizes are a power of 2 -- determining the page number becomes a simple bit mask and shift. The CPU looks up the virtual page entry in the page table, and finds the corresponding physical page number. This is done for every memory access.
Because this operation happens for every memory access, it needs to be fast and implemented in hardware.There's only one problem: the page table is far too big to be stored on the CPU chip.
Translation Lookaside Buffers
The solution is a special cache for address translation. Because the CPU can not fit the entire page table in on-chip memory, it uses a translation lookaside buffer (TLB), which is a special cache that holds the most recently used page table entries. TLBs can often hold enough page entries for a large amount of address space, usually larger than the amount of memory the L1 or L2 caches can hold.
Back to our memory access scenario, when the CPU must translate a virtual page into a physical page, it first looks in the TLB. If the page table entry is found, the address translation happens very quickly and the CPU continues on its work. If there is a TLB miss, this can often mean a TLB miss handler is invoked. This is actually a software handler provided by the operating system, as the entire page table is managed by the OS, not the CPU. Thus, TLB misses can be very expensive.
On most modern processors, the TLB is multi-level, similar to how L1 and L2 caches work. Thus the CPU may check a smaller, faster address translation cache before consulting the larger, slower TLB, before it resorts to the software handler of a full TLB miss.
The expense of a TLB miss is another reason data locality is very important to performance. If you are hitting data structures willy nilly in address space, aside from the cache misses you will incur, you may incur a lot of TLB misses, too. This is a double-whammy of not keeping data accesses local!
Most CPUs also add the capability to specify what kind of access to a page is allowed. Page table entries can be constructed which disallow writes, or disallow code execution on some architectures. The former can be used to make sure application-level code does not overwrite kernel data structures, and the latter can be used to help protect against buffer overrun attacks by not making it possible for the CPU to jump into data-only memory. When invalid accesses occur, a HW exception is raised.
You can often specify the memory protection for a page with API calls, which can sometimes be useful for debugging tricky memory overwrite problems, by protecting pages against writes and writing a custom HW exception handler.
Memory protection is also how OSes implement demand-paging of memory from the hard drive. When the OS moves a physical page of memory to the hard drive, it modifies the virtual page table entry to prevent reads and writes. If that page is accessed, a HW exception occurs which the OS handles by loading the appropriate data from the hard drive into a physical page, and setting the page table entry to point to that physical page. Execution of the program then continues from where the exception was fired.
Virtual Addressing-Aware Memory Management
The presence of virtual addressing has a great impact on memory management. While it does not necessarily change the fundamental behavior of many allocator types, it is important to understand when physical memory is actually committed. Physical pages returned to the OS can be used to make up much larger, contiguous allocations, so at the system level, many problems with external fragmentation are severely reduced.
Direct Page Allocation for Large Blocks
For large allocations (> page size), the best memory allocation strategy is sometimes to allocate virtual address space and physical pages directly from the operating system. These types of allocations are often rare, happening when loading data. The advantage is you will not suffer external fragmentation from this allocation strategy, as the OS can always remap physical pages to a contiguous virtual address space if they are available, even if they are not contiguous in physical address space.
The trade-off for doing this is internal fragmentation. Your large allocation may not be an exact multiple of page size, leading to memory that is wasted. First, you want to pick a good threshold for when to do direct page allocation -- this is not a good strategy for things that are not much larger than the page size.Wasted memory can be also be mitigated by choosing an appropriate page size for the allocation on architectures that allow this. For example, where waste would be a significant percentage of the allocation, you may want to choose 4K pages rather than 64K pages. The trade-off here is smaller pages mean many more TLB misses, which can hurt performance.
One key thing with virtual addressing is you can allocate large regions of address space without committing physical memory to it. Stack allocators can be implemented by allocating a large region of address space, but only committing physical pages as the stack allocator pointer advances.
It should be noted that the C++/C call stack on Windows works exactly like this - when you specify a stack size for an application, you are specifying the size of the address space allocation, not the physical allocation. As the stack grows, the runtime allocates physical pages. This is done transparently with a special page called a guard page, which triggers a HW exception when it is accessed by the code, which causes an OS handler to execute which allocates physical memory for that page and set the next virtual page as the guard page.
For small allocations, fixed-size pools are often a good solution. Virtual addressing can allow us to have multiple pools of different sizes without fragmenting overall memory.
Basically, we implement our fixed-size pool as a linked list of mini-pools, each some multiple of the page size. On our hypothetical console, 64KB may be a good mini-pool size. If a mini-pool is full, we allocate another set of pages from the OS. If a mini-pool becomes empty, we return the page to the OS. Again, because physical pages do not need to be contiguous when mapped to virtual address pages, these freed pages can be used for any size of allocation, from anywhere in the system.
When dealing with virtual allocations, the general rule of thumb is "return physical pages to the operating system whenever you can." If a physical page is allocated but not being used, the OS can not use it for some other, larger allocation that may need to occur. The days of allocating an entire console's memory space in one block and managing it yourself are largely gone, unless you wish to write your own page allocator (which can and has been done). There are some caveats to this, such as with page allocation thrashing, and allocations that are required to be physically contiguous (see below).
Virtual Addressing Problems
Physically Contiguous Requirements
Your particular platform may require certain allocations be performed in contiguous physical memory, such as GPU resources. This is often the case on consoles. Virtual addressing only mitigates external fragmentation for virtual allocations -- for these physical allocations, you still have to deal with fragmentation at the physical page level. Often the way to handle this is to set aside memory for physical resources up front in your application, and manage them separately from your virtual allocations.
Page Allocation Thrashing
Allocating virtual address space and committing physical pages are not cheap operations. Particularly with stack allocators and pools, you want to avoid thrashing -- cases where a repeated pattern of allocs/frees cause pages to be allocated and freed in rapid succession. This can be worked around by thresholding when you free a physical page to the OS - for example, with a pool, you may require that some percentage of the previous physical page be free before freeing the next, totally free one. Additional strategies are only doing page frees at specific, known points where the performance hit is predictable.
Page Size and TLB Misses
Page size can have a very important impact on performance. On platforms which allow you to choose page size when performing a virtual address space allocations, you want to pick the largest page size possible, as larger pages cause far less TLB misses.This is often a tricky balance between wasting memory due to internal fragmentation, and losing performance due to TLB misses. As always, data locality helps to reduce TLB misses.
Page Size and Physical Fragmentation
On platforms with variable page sizes, you can run into problems where you can not allocate a large page even though the memory is free. This is due to external fragmentation of the physical pages themselves - if you allocate a large amount of 4K pages, free them, and try to allocate a 1MB page, it may not have enough contiguous physical memory to successfully allocate a 1 MB page. I've even seen some platforms that will not coalesce smaller pages into larger ones even if they are contiguous (i.e. once you've allocated physical memory as a 64KB page, it will never be coalesced into a 1 MB page). This can be mitigated similar to physical allocation restrictions -- allocate your large pages up front, and do your own page allocator that your other allocators work on top of.
Address Space Fragmentation
It is possible to fragment virtual address space itself. One should be careful of reserving too much virtual address space for things like stack allocators, or leaking address space. While on console the address space is many times larger than the physical memory, and thus usually has enough slack to make up for carelessness, on PC, particularly when writing tools in 32 bit, you can run into situations where you fragment the virtual address space itself.
My hope is anyone reading this who did not have a good understanding of virtual addressing now understands a little better what is going on under the hood with memory management, at least at a basic level. As always, platform details differ, and if you are doing any kind of memory management work, you really should read the CPU and OS docs on memory management, virtual addressing, and the TLB for your specific platform.
Even programmers who are not writing custom memory managers can benefit from understanding how virtual addressing works. Almost every memory access performs address translation -- and this translation is another important reason to keep data accesses local when designing data structures.