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1.2 The Stack, And Stack Overflow

Recursion has a drawback: there are limits to how many nested levels of function calls a program can make. In C, each function call allocates a block of memory which it uses until the call returns. C allocates these blocks consecutively within a large area of memory known as the stack, so we refer to the blocks as stack frames.

The size of the stack is limited; if the program tries to use too much, that causes the program to fail because the stack is full. This is called stack overflow.

Stack overflow on GNU/Linux typically manifests itself as the signal named SIGSEGV, also known as a “segmentation fault.” By default, this signal terminates the program immediately, rather than letting the program try to recover, or reach an expected ending point. (We commonly say in this case that the program “crashes”). See Signals.

It is inconvenient to observe a crash by passing too large an argument to recursive Fibonacci, because the program would run a long time before it crashes. This algorithm is simple but ridiculously slow: in calculating fib (n), the number of (recursive) calls fib (1) or fib (2) that it makes equals the final result.

However, you can observe stack overflow very quickly if you use this function instead:

fill_stack (int n)
  if (n <= 1)  /* This limits the depth of recursion.  */
    return 1;
    return fill_stack (n - 1);

Under gNewSense GNU/Linux on the Lemote Yeeloong, without optimization and using the default configuration, an experiment showed there is enough stack space to do 261906 nested calls to that function. One more, and the stack overflows and the program crashes. On another platform, with a different configuration, or with a different function, the limit might be bigger or smaller.

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