What is the stack? It’s a special region of your computer’s memory that stores temporary variables created by each function (including the
main() function). The stack is a “LIFO” (last in, first out) data structure, that is managed and optimized by the CPU quite closely. Every time a function declares a new variable, it is “pushed” onto the stack. Then every time a function exits, all of the variables pushed onto the stack by that function, are freed (that is to say, they are deleted). Once a stack variable is freed, that region of memory becomes available for other stack variables.
The advantage of using the stack to store variables, is that memory is managed for you. You don’t have to allocate memory by hand, or free it once you don’t need it any more. What’s more, because the CPU organizes stack memory so efficiently, reading from and writing to stack variables is very fast.
A key to understanding the stack is the notion that when a function exits, all of its variables are popped off of the stack (and hence lost forever). Thus stack variables are local in nature. This is related to a concept we saw earlier known as variable scope, or local vs global variables. A common bug in C programming is attempting to access a variable that was created on the stack inside some function, from a place in your program outside of that function (i.e. after that function has exited).
Another feature of the stack to keep in mind, is that there is a limit (varies with OS) on the size of variables that can be stored on the stack. This is not the case for variables allocated on the heap.
To summarize the stack:
- the stack grows and shrinks as functions push and pop local variables
- there is no need to manage the memory yourself, variables are allocated and freed automatically
- the stack has size limits
- stack variables only exist while the function that created them, is running
The heap is a region of your computer’s memory that is not managed automatically for you, and is not as tightly managed by the CPU. It is a more free-floating region of memory (and is larger). To allocate memory on the heap, you must use
calloc(), which are built-in C functions. Once you have allocated memory on the heap, you are responsible for using
free() to deallocate that memory once you don’t need it any more. If you fail to do this, your program will have what is known as a memory leak. That is, memory on the heap will still be set aside (and won’t be available to other processes). As we will see in the debugging section, there is a tool called
valgrind that can help you detect memory leaks.
Unlike the stack, the heap does not have size restrictions on variable size (apart from the obvious physical limitations of your computer). Heap memory is slightly slower to be read from and written to, because one has to use pointers to access memory on the heap. We will talk about pointers shortly.
Unlike the stack, variables created on the heap are accessible by any function, anywhere in your program. Heap variables are essentially global in scope.
Stack vs Heap Pros and Cons
- very fast access
- don’t have to explicitly de-allocate variables
- space is managed efficiently by CPU, memory will not become fragmented
- local variables only
- limit on stack size (OS-dependent)
- variables cannot be resized
- variables can be accessed globally
- no limit on memory size
- (relatively) slower access
- no guaranteed efficient use of space, memory may become fragmented over time as blocks of memory are allocated, then freed
- you must manage memory (you’re in charge of allocating and freeing variables)
- variables can be resized using
In a multi-threaded situation each thread will have its own completely independent stack but they will share the heap.