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.. _memory_allocation:
Memory Allocation Guide
Linux provides a variety of APIs for memory allocation. You can
allocate small chunks using `kmalloc` or `kmem_cache_alloc` families,
large virtually contiguous areas using `vmalloc` and its derivatives,
or you can directly request pages from the page allocator with
`alloc_pages`. It is also possible to use more specialized allocators,
for instance `cma_alloc` or `zs_malloc`.
Most of the memory allocation APIs use GFP flags to express how that
memory should be allocated. The GFP acronym stands for "get free
pages", the underlying memory allocation function.
Diversity of the allocation APIs combined with the numerous GFP flags
makes the question "How should I allocate memory?" not that easy to
answer, although very likely you should use
kzalloc(<size>, GFP_KERNEL);
Of course there are cases when other allocation APIs and different GFP
flags must be used.
Get Free Page flags
The GFP flags control the allocators behavior. They tell what memory
zones can be used, how hard the allocator should try to find free
memory, whether the memory can be accessed by the userspace etc. The
:ref:`Documentation/core-api/mm-api.rst <mm-api-gfp-flags>` provides
reference documentation for the GFP flags and their combinations and
here we briefly outline their recommended usage:
* Most of the time ``GFP_KERNEL`` is what you need. Memory for the
kernel data structures, DMAable memory, inode cache, all these and
many other allocations types can use ``GFP_KERNEL``. Note, that
using ``GFP_KERNEL`` implies ``GFP_RECLAIM``, which means that
direct reclaim may be triggered under memory pressure; the calling
context must be allowed to sleep.
* If the allocation is performed from an atomic context, e.g interrupt
handler, use ``GFP_NOWAIT``. This flag prevents direct reclaim and
IO or filesystem operations. Consequently, under memory pressure
``GFP_NOWAIT`` allocation is likely to fail. Allocations which
have a reasonable fallback should be using ``GFP_NOWARN``.
* If you think that accessing memory reserves is justified and the kernel
will be stressed unless allocation succeeds, you may use ``GFP_ATOMIC``.
* Untrusted allocations triggered from userspace should be a subject
of kmem accounting and must have ``__GFP_ACCOUNT`` bit set. There
is the handy ``GFP_KERNEL_ACCOUNT`` shortcut for ``GFP_KERNEL``
allocations that should be accounted.
* Userspace allocations should use either of the ``GFP_USER``,
``GFP_HIGHUSER`` or ``GFP_HIGHUSER_MOVABLE`` flags. The longer
the flag name the less restrictive it is.
``GFP_HIGHUSER_MOVABLE`` does not require that allocated memory
will be directly accessible by the kernel and implies that the
data is movable.
``GFP_HIGHUSER`` means that the allocated memory is not movable,
but it is not required to be directly accessible by the kernel. An
example may be a hardware allocation that maps data directly into
userspace but has no addressing limitations.
``GFP_USER`` means that the allocated memory is not movable and it
must be directly accessible by the kernel.
You may notice that quite a few allocations in the existing code
specify ``GFP_NOIO`` or ``GFP_NOFS``. Historically, they were used to
prevent recursion deadlocks caused by direct memory reclaim calling
back into the FS or IO paths and blocking on already held
resources. Since 4.12 the preferred way to address this issue is to
use new scope APIs described in
:ref:`Documentation/core-api/gfp_mask-from-fs-io.rst <gfp_mask_from_fs_io>`.
Other legacy GFP flags are ``GFP_DMA`` and ``GFP_DMA32``. They are
used to ensure that the allocated memory is accessible by hardware
with limited addressing capabilities. So unless you are writing a
driver for a device with such restrictions, avoid using these flags.
And even with hardware with restrictions it is preferable to use
`dma_alloc*` APIs.
GFP flags and reclaim behavior
Memory allocations may trigger direct or background reclaim and it is
useful to understand how hard the page allocator will try to satisfy that
or another request.
* ``GFP_KERNEL & ~__GFP_RECLAIM`` - optimistic allocation without _any_
attempt to free memory at all. The most light weight mode which even
doesn't kick the background reclaim. Should be used carefully because it
might deplete the memory and the next user might hit the more aggressive
* ``GFP_KERNEL & ~__GFP_DIRECT_RECLAIM`` (or ``GFP_NOWAIT``)- optimistic
allocation without any attempt to free memory from the current
context but can wake kswapd to reclaim memory if the zone is below
the low watermark. Can be used from either atomic contexts or when
the request is a performance optimization and there is another
fallback for a slow path.
non sleeping allocation with an expensive fallback so it can access
some portion of memory reserves. Usually used from interrupt/bottom-half
context with an expensive slow path fallback.
* ``GFP_KERNEL`` - both background and direct reclaim are allowed and the
**default** page allocator behavior is used. That means that not costly
allocation requests are basically no-fail but there is no guarantee of
that behavior so failures have to be checked properly by callers
(e.g. OOM killer victim is allowed to fail currently).
* ``GFP_KERNEL | __GFP_NORETRY`` - overrides the default allocator behavior
and all allocation requests fail early rather than cause disruptive
reclaim (one round of reclaim in this implementation). The OOM killer
is not invoked.
* ``GFP_KERNEL | __GFP_RETRY_MAYFAIL`` - overrides the default allocator
behavior and all allocation requests try really hard. The request
will fail if the reclaim cannot make any progress. The OOM killer
won't be triggered.
* ``GFP_KERNEL | __GFP_NOFAIL`` - overrides the default allocator behavior
and all allocation requests will loop endlessly until they succeed.
This might be really dangerous especially for larger orders.
Selecting memory allocator
The most straightforward way to allocate memory is to use a function
from the kmalloc() family. And, to be on the safe side it's best to use
routines that set memory to zero, like kzalloc(). If you need to
allocate memory for an array, there are kmalloc_array() and kcalloc()
helpers. The helpers struct_size(), array_size() and array3_size() can
be used to safely calculate object sizes without overflowing.
The maximal size of a chunk that can be allocated with `kmalloc` is
limited. The actual limit depends on the hardware and the kernel
configuration, but it is a good practice to use `kmalloc` for objects
smaller than page size.
The address of a chunk allocated with `kmalloc` is aligned to at least
ARCH_KMALLOC_MINALIGN bytes. For sizes which are a power of two, the
alignment is also guaranteed to be at least the respective size.
Chunks allocated with kmalloc() can be resized with krealloc(). Similarly
to kmalloc_array(): a helper for resizing arrays is provided in the form of
For large allocations you can use vmalloc() and vzalloc(), or directly
request pages from the page allocator. The memory allocated by `vmalloc`
and related functions is not physically contiguous.
If you are not sure whether the allocation size is too large for
`kmalloc`, it is possible to use kvmalloc() and its derivatives. It will
try to allocate memory with `kmalloc` and if the allocation fails it
will be retried with `vmalloc`. There are restrictions on which GFP
flags can be used with `kvmalloc`; please see kvmalloc_node() reference
documentation. Note that `kvmalloc` may return memory that is not
physically contiguous.
If you need to allocate many identical objects you can use the slab
cache allocator. The cache should be set up with kmem_cache_create() or
kmem_cache_create_usercopy() before it can be used. The second function
should be used if a part of the cache might be copied to the userspace.
After the cache is created kmem_cache_alloc() and its convenience
wrappers can allocate memory from that cache.
When the allocated memory is no longer needed it must be freed. You can
use kvfree() for the memory allocated with `kmalloc`, `vmalloc` and
`kvmalloc`. The slab caches should be freed with kmem_cache_free(). And
don't forget to destroy the cache with kmem_cache_destroy().