Experimenting with the C memory allocator

This post is inspired by the famous (and quite interesting) reddit thread: How is GNU yes so fast?.

I am assuming that at this point you have already read the above mentioned thread. Now, let’s take things a bit further.

I wrote a small program along the lines of the one mentioned in the thread, with a minor modification to the buffer size.

#define LEN 2
#define BUFSIZE LEN * 8 * 1024  // page-aligned buffer

int main() {
    char yes[LEN] = {'y', '\n'};
    int used = 0;
    char *buf = malloc(BUFSIZE);
    while (used < BUFSIZE) {
        memcpy(buf + used, yes, LEN);
        used += LEN;
    write(1, buf, BUFSIZE);
    while (write(1, buf, BUFSIZE))
    return 1;  // control flow cannot reach here

Before we talk stats, a few specs of my machine at the time of testing -

  • Page size: 4 KiB
  • Kernel version: 4.15.0-30-generic x86_64 GNU/Linux

The following observations were recorded for the write speeds of the above program based on different values of BUFSIZE -

BUFSIZE (KiB) Write speed (GiB/s)
4 3.68
8 4.18
16 4.92
32 4.86

Write speed of yes(1) on my machine - 4.17 GiB/s

The speed of the program I have written seems to be 0.75 GiB/s more than that of GNU yes(1).
I’ve repeated the experiment multiple times with the same results.

It should be noted that the parameter which affects the performance of the above program is BUFSIZE.

Before moving ahead, a mini refresher on aligned v/s misaligned memory accesses.

Let’s see what is happening here at a finer granularity.
It appears that using a buffer size of 16 KiB leads to larger write speed than using a 4 KiB buffer (a difference of ~ 1.24 GiB/s). This is because there’s no guarantee that malloc(3) returns page-aligned address during allocation. Most versions of malloc grab large chunks from some other allocator (brk(2)/sbrk(2)), and satisfy small allocations from that large one–but a single larger allocation will more or less be passed through to the other allocator. In this case, the cutoff between the two may easily be 16 KiB. The other allocator probably does (always) returns page-aligned chunks, so when we exceed that limit, we’re guaranteed a page-aligned chunk. But if we don’t, we get whatever address malloc(3) happens to have handy. The write speed saturates to around 4.9 GiB/s for buffer sizes greater than 16 KiB.

NOTE: using valloc(3) should always return a page aligned memory address.

Thanks for reading.


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