Confessions of a Wall Street Programmer

practical ideas (and perhaps some uncommon knowledge) on software architecture, design, construction and testing

Memory Checking

At my day job, I spend a fair amount of time working on software reliability. One way to make software more reliable is to use memory-checking tools like valgrind’s memcheck and clang’s AddressSanitizer to detect memory errors at runtime.

But these tools are typically not appropriate to use all the time – valgrind causes programs to run much more slowly than normal, and AddressSanitizer needs a special instrumented build of the code to work properly. So neither tool is typically well-suited for production code.

But there’s another memory-checking tool that is “always on”. That tool is plain old malloc, and it is the subject of this article.

The GNU C library (glibc for short) provides implementations for the C standard library functions (e.g., strlen etc.) including functions that interface to the underlying OS (e.g., open et al.). glibc also provides functions to manage memory, including malloc, free and their cousins, and in most code these memory management functions are among the most heavily used.

It’s not possible to be a C programmer and not be reasonably familiar with the memory management functions in glibc. But what is not so well-known is the memory-checking functionality built into the library.

It turns out that glibc contains two separate sets of memory management functions – the core functions do minimal checking, and are significantly faster than the “debug” functions, which provide additional runtime checks.

The memory checking in malloc is controlled by an environment variable, named appropriately enough MALLOC_CHECK_ (note the trailing underscore). You can configure malloc to perform additional checking, and whether to print an error message and/or abort with a core file if it detects an error. You can find full details at, but here’s the short version:

Value Impl Checking Message Backtrace + mappings (since glibc 2.4+) Abort w/core
default (unset) Fast Minimal Detailed Yes Yes
0 Fast Minimal None No No
1 Slow Full Detailed No No
2 Slow Full None No Yes
3 Slow Full Detailed Yes Yes
5 Slow Full Brief No No
7 Slow Full Brief Yes Yes

What may be surprising is that the default behavior is for malloc to do at least minimal checking at runtime, and to abort the executable with a core file if those checks fail.

This may or may not be what you want. Given that the minimal checks in the fast implementation only detect certain specific errors, and that those errors (e.g., double free) tend not to cause additional problems, you may decide that a “no harm, no foul” approach is more appropriate (for example with production code where aborting with a core file is frowned upon ;-).

The other relevant point here is that setting MALLOC_CHECK_ to any non-zero value causes malloc to use the slower heap functions that perform additional checks. I’ve included a sample benchmark program that shows the additional checking adds about 30% to the overhead of the malloc/free calls. (And while the benchmark program is dumb as dirt, its results are similar to results on “real-world” tests).

Multi-threaded Performance

If the benchmark code is to be believed, the impact on performance of the extra checking when MALLOC_CHECK_ is set to a non-zero value is much (as in an order of magnitude) greater when multiple threads are accessing the heap concurrently. This would suggest that there is contention on the data structures used for full checking, over and above normal heap contention.

It would be nice if one could get a fast implementation with the option to output an error message and continue execution, but with the current1 implementation of glibc that doesn’t appear to be possible. If you want the fast implementation but you don’t want to abort on errors, the only option is to turn off checking entirely (by explicitly setting MALLOC_CHECK_ to 0).

Note also that the documentation is a bit misleading:

Since glibc 2.3.4, the default value for the M_CHECK_ACTION parameter is 3.

While it’s true that with no value specified for MALLOC_CHECK_ an error will cause a detailed error message with backtrace and mappings to be output, along with an abort with core file, that is NOT the same as explicitly setting MALLOC_CHECK_=3 – that setting also causes malloc to use the slower functions that perform additional checks.

“Minimal” vs. “Full” Checking

  • In the table above, the “checking” setting for MALLOC_CHECK_=0 is “minimal” – the checks are still performed, but errors are simply not reported.
    • Note that it is not possible to completely disable checking – minimal checking is always performed, even if the results are ignored.
  • The errors that can be detected with “minimal” checking are limited to a small subset of those detected with “full” checking – sometimes even for the same error. For instance, with minimal checking a double-free can be detected only if the second free occurs immediately after the first. With full checking the double-free is detected even if there are intervening calls to malloc and free.

And, of course, the built-in checking in glibc can’t detect a lot of errors that can be found with more robust tools, like valgrind and AddressSanitizer. Nevertheless, MALLOC_CHECK_ can be a useful adjunct to those tools for everyday use in development.


  • For typical development, it’s probably best to explicitly set MALLOC_CHECK_=3. This provides additional checking over and above the default setting, at the cost of somewhat poorer performance.
  • For production use, you may want to decide whether the benefit of minimal checking is worth the possibility of having programs abort with errors that may be benign. If the default is not appropriate, you basically have two choices:
    • Setting MALLOC_CHECK_=1 will allow execution to continue after an error, but will at least provide a message that can be logged2 to provide a warning that things are not quite right, and trigger additional troubleshooting, but at the cost of somewhat poorer performance.
    • If you can’t afford to give up any performance at all, you can set MALLOC_CHECK=0, but any errors detected will be silently ignored.
  • Last but not least, if you’re running multi-threaded code the performance penalty with full checking is potentially much more significant. You’ll probably want to benchmark your code both with and without full checking if you’re thinking of enabling it in multi-threaded code.


The code for this article is available here. There’s a benchmark program, which requires Google Benchmark. There are also sample programs which demonstrate a double-free error that can be caught even with minimal checking (double-free.c), and which cannot (double-free2.c), and a simple script that ties everything together.


  1. Current for RedHat/CentOS 7 in any case, which is glibc 2.17.

  2. The error message from glibc is written directly to the console (tty device), not to stderr, which means that it will not be redirected. If you need the message to appear on stderr, you will need to set another environment variable: export LIBC_FATAL_STDERR_=1