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3.2.1 Memory Allocation in C Programs

The C language supports two kinds of memory allocation through the variables in C programs:

A third important kind of memory allocation, dynamic allocation, is not supported by C variables but is available via GNU C Library functions. Dynamic Memory Allocation

Dynamic memory allocation is a technique in which programs determine as they are running where to store some information. You need dynamic allocation when the amount of memory you need, or how long you continue to need it, depends on factors that are not known before the program runs.

For example, you may need a block to store a line read from an input file; since there is no limit to how long a line can be, you must allocate the memory dynamically and make it dynamically larger as you read more of the line.

Or, you may need a block for each record or each definition in the input data; since you can’t know in advance how many there will be, you must allocate a new block for each record or definition as you read it.

When you use dynamic allocation, the allocation of a block of memory is an action that the program requests explicitly. You call a function or macro when you want to allocate space, and specify the size with an argument. If you want to free the space, you do so by calling another function or macro. You can do these things whenever you want, as often as you want.

Dynamic allocation is not supported by C variables; there is no storage class “dynamic”, and there can never be a C variable whose value is stored in dynamically allocated space. The only way to get dynamically allocated memory is via a system call (which is generally via a GNU C Library function call), and the only way to refer to dynamically allocated space is through a pointer. Because it is less convenient, and because the actual process of dynamic allocation requires more computation time, programmers generally use dynamic allocation only when neither static nor automatic allocation will serve.

For example, if you want to allocate dynamically some space to hold a struct foobar, you cannot declare a variable of type struct foobar whose contents are the dynamically allocated space. But you can declare a variable of pointer type struct foobar * and assign it the address of the space. Then you can use the operators ‘*’ and ‘->’ on this pointer variable to refer to the contents of the space:

  struct foobar *ptr = malloc (sizeof *ptr);
  ptr->name = x;
  ptr->next = current_foobar;
  current_foobar = ptr;

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