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3.1 Process Memory Concepts

One of the most basic resources a process has available to it is memory. There are a lot of different ways systems organize memory, but in a typical one, each process has one linear virtual address space, with addresses running from zero to some huge maximum. It need not be contiguous; i.e., not all of these addresses actually can be used to store data.

The virtual memory is divided into pages (4 kilobytes is typical). Backing each page of virtual memory is a page of real memory (called a frame) or some secondary storage, usually disk space. The disk space might be swap space or just some ordinary disk file. Actually, a page of all zeroes sometimes has nothing at all backing it – there’s just a flag saying it is all zeroes.

The same frame of real memory or backing store can back multiple virtual pages belonging to multiple processes. This is normally the case, for example, with virtual memory occupied by GNU C Library code. The same real memory frame containing the printf function backs a virtual memory page in each of the existing processes that has a printf call in its program.

In order for a program to access any part of a virtual page, the page must at that moment be backed by (“connected to”) a real frame. But because there is usually a lot more virtual memory than real memory, the pages must move back and forth between real memory and backing store regularly, coming into real memory when a process needs to access them and then retreating to backing store when not needed anymore. This movement is called paging.

When a program attempts to access a page which is not at that moment backed by real memory, this is known as a page fault. When a page fault occurs, the kernel suspends the process, places the page into a real page frame (this is called “paging in” or “faulting in”), then resumes the process so that from the process’ point of view, the page was in real memory all along. In fact, to the process, all pages always seem to be in real memory. Except for one thing: the elapsed execution time of an instruction that would normally be a few nanoseconds is suddenly much, much, longer (because the kernel normally has to do I/O to complete the page-in). For programs sensitive to that, the functions described in Locking Pages can control it.

Within each virtual address space, a process has to keep track of what is at which addresses, and that process is called memory allocation. Allocation usually brings to mind meting out scarce resources, but in the case of virtual memory, that’s not a major goal, because there is generally much more of it than anyone needs. Memory allocation within a process is mainly just a matter of making sure that the same byte of memory isn’t used to store two different things.

Processes allocate memory in two major ways: by exec and programmatically. Actually, forking is a third way, but it’s not very interesting. See Creating a Process.

Exec is the operation of creating a virtual address space for a process, loading its basic program into it, and executing the program. It is done by the “exec” family of functions (e.g. execl). The operation takes a program file (an executable), it allocates space to load all the data in the executable, loads it, and transfers control to it. That data is most notably the instructions of the program (the text), but also literals and constants in the program and even some variables: C variables with the static storage class (see Memory Allocation and C).

Once that program begins to execute, it uses programmatic allocation to gain additional memory. In a C program with the GNU C Library, there are two kinds of programmatic allocation: automatic and dynamic. See Memory Allocation and C.

Memory-mapped I/O is another form of dynamic virtual memory allocation. Mapping memory to a file means declaring that the contents of certain range of a process’ addresses shall be identical to the contents of a specified regular file. The system makes the virtual memory initially contain the contents of the file, and if you modify the memory, the system writes the same modification to the file. Note that due to the magic of virtual memory and page faults, there is no reason for the system to do I/O to read the file, or allocate real memory for its contents, until the program accesses the virtual memory. See Memory-mapped I/O.

Just as it programmatically allocates memory, the program can programmatically deallocate (free) it. You can’t free the memory that was allocated by exec. When the program exits or execs, you might say that all its memory gets freed, but since in both cases the address space ceases to exist, the point is really moot. See Program Termination.

A process’ virtual address space is divided into segments. A segment is a contiguous range of virtual addresses. Three important segments are:

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