Part 1 due 2024-02-26 23:59
Graded files:
  • alloc.c
Part 2 due 2024-03-04 23:59
Graded files:
  • alloc.c

Learning Objectives

The learning objectives for Malloc are:

  • Memory Allocation and Management
  • Performance Optimization
  • Developing in a Restricted Environment

Backstory #

Well, color me impressed! Your shell was so fancy that you actually received that pay raise! However, you may have gone too far with your shell. Your boss is now so impressed at your skills that they sent you to the \(n\)th Inter-Company Turbo Malloc Contest - even though you’re just a new hire! But hey, a business trip doesn’t sound that bad, right?

Upon arriving at the competition venue, you realize that all your peers from CS 341 are in the contest! Apparently, all of them went too far with their shells as well, and ended up in the same scenario as you. Just as you were reminiscing about your time in CS 341, you received an email from your senpai in the company about the contest, and your face turns pale immediately.

Turns out, the Inter-Company Turbo Malloc Contest is the official:tm: way tech companies compete with each other these days - winning the competition guarantees fame and glory for the company, and the losing companies will suffer shame and embarassment. What’s more, any company that cannot beat the baseline will incur severe stock drops! Needless to say, losing the competition will ruin all your efforts in the past weeks to impress your boss, and if you fail to beat the baseline, you will probably lose your job, again (and this time, everyone will know your failures, since this contest is heavily publicized).

The competition lasts for two weeks, and you get total freedom on your implementation. This time, you’ve decided not to procrastinate, since your entire livelihood hinges on how well you perform in this competition. Can you out-think every other contestant’s implementations and secure that epic victory royale?

Overview #

You should write your implementations of calloc, malloc, realloc, and free in alloc.c. alloc.c will be the only file we test.

Don’t modify mcontest.c, contest.h, or Those files create the environment that replaces the standard glibc malloc with your malloc. These files will be used for testing.

Your malloc must allocate heap memory using sbrk. You may not use files, pipes, system shared memory, mmap, a chunk of pre-defined stack memory, other external memory libraries found on the Internet, or any of the various other external sources of memory that exist on modern operating systems. You can find more information in the Memory Allocators coursebook entry.

Malloc and C ; Chicago Blues Style #

Implementing a heap allocator is a challenging assignment that has been known to rewire students’ brains. For inspiration, please listen to this Chicago Blues song (lyrics and description).

A Bad Example #

Memory allocation seems like a mystery, but in actuality, we are making a wrapper around the system call sbrk. Here’s a really simple implementation of malloc:

void *malloc(size_t size) {
    return sbrk(size);

As you can see, when we request size bytes of memory, we call sbrk(size) to increase the heap by size bytes. Then, we return a pointer to this memory, and we’re done. Simple!

Here is our implementation of free:

void free(void *ptr) {

This is a “correct” way to implement free. However, the obvious drawback with our implementation is that we can’t reuse memory after we are done with it. Also, we have not checked for errors when we call sbrk, and we have not implemented realloc or calloc.

Despite all of this, this is still a “working” implementation of malloc. So, the job of malloc is not really to allocate memory, but to keep track of the memory we’ve allocated so that we can reuse it. You will use methods that you’ve learned in class and practiced in the mini_memcheck lab to do this.

Debugging Tips #

Magic Tags

Adding a magic tag is a great way to quickly diagnose issues you find when stepping through your code in GDB. if you add a “magic” tag to your metadata:

struct metadata {
    // metadata items
    int magic;

Then in every function that modifies your block, you can update magic to a unique value. For example, in malloc, you can set magic to 0x1111 if you’re allocating new memory, or 0x2222 if you are assigning to an existing free block. In your split and coalesce, you can choose different magic values as well. Now, when debugging through GDB, if you notice a block is invalid, you can quickly determine what last changed it and narrow down your search. You can also get more creative with the magic tag if you want to, keeping track of any information you’d like. If you’re worried about performance, you can wrap the magic tag in preprocessor definitions like this:

#define MAGIC_DEBUG 0

#define set_magic(block, x) 
#undef set_magic
#define set_magic(block, x) do {block->magic = x;} while(0)

struct metadata {
    // metadata items
    int magic;

Then, changing the define line to #define MAGIC_DEBUG 1 will enable the magic tag, but otherwise it will be disabled

Heap Checker (REQUIRED FOR OH)

New this semester, to aid in your debugging, we are asking you to write a heap checker. To receive help at office hours, course staff will ask to see if anything in your heap checker is failing before debugging specific bugs.

The heap checker is a way to ensure consistency between the actual heap, and any of the internal data structures that you maintain. As such, the heap checker should check and maintain some set of invariants, suggestions are listed below. The invariants and design of your heap checker will depend on the specifics of your malloc implementation.

Suggested invariants:

  • Heap Invariants:
    • Confirm that header and footers store consistent data
    • If coalescing is implemented, confirm that there are no two consecutive free blocks in the heap
  • List Invariants:
    • Check that list pointers are consistent (if A->next == B, then B->prev == A)
    • Check that all list elements are within heap bounds
    • Confirm that number of free blocks match up with number of free blocks in the heap
    • If using a free list, confirm that every block in the list is actually free
    • If using a segregated list, confirm that all elements in the list are of appropriate size

There are many other things you can check to confirm that your malloc implementation is staying consistent, but these are a good starting point and should help you catch the majority of bugs.

You do not need to implement and check every invariant, but doing so will save significant time in avoiding heap corruption whenever you make a change to your malloc implementation. Course staff will ask to see your heap checker, and may suggest adding invariants if you are running into a bug and have not covered everything. The following section outlines an example heap checker to aid you in writing your own:

Example Heap Checker

This heap checker will assume that you have store a list of every allocated block. First, near the top of your alloc.c, we define some preprocessor macros so that we can enable and disable heap checking:

#define HEAP_CHECKER 1

#define heap_check()
#undef heap_check
#define heap_check() do { if(!heap_checker(__LINE__)) exit(1); } while(0)

When HEAP_CHECKER is defined to be 1, calling heap_check() will call a function heap_checker with the current line number, if the function returns 0, it will terminate early. For testcases that do a lot of allocations, this will be slow, so you can disable the heap_check by changing the line to #define HEAP_CHECKER 0; this will make any calls to heap_check() do nothing.

Now, we can define the heap_checker function:

typedef struct metadata {
  int free;
  metadata_t* next;
  // ... anything else you need to store 
} metadata_t;

static metadata_t* lst_head = NULL;
static void* start_of_heap = NULL;

int heap_checker(int lineno) {
    void* top_of_heap = sbrk(0);
    void* heap_curr = start_of_heap;

    int num_free_blocks = 0;
    while (heap_curr < top_of_heap) {
        metadata_t* block = (metadata_t*) heap_curr;
        if (block->free) num_free_blocks++;
        heap_curr = get_next_mem(block);

    metadata_t* list_curr = lst_head;
    int num_free_nodes = 0;
    while(list_curr) {
        if(list_curr->free) num_free_nodes++;
        list_curr = list_curr->next;

    if (num_free_blocks != num_free_nodes) {
        fprintf(stderr, "HEAP CHECK: number of free nodes in list does not match heap at alloc.c:%d\n", lineno);
        return 0;

    return 1;

This example iterates from the start of the heap, which we must initialize elsewhere, until sbrk(0), and at every step along the way, it counts the number of free blocks. This relies on the implementation of a get_next_mem function, which moves from the current metadata block the next one in physical memory. The implementation of get_next_mem will depend on how you structure your blocks in memory, consult the course book for examples! Then, the heap checker loops over our list of blocks, and counts how many nodes are marked free. If these numbers do not align, the heap_checker prints an error message with the line number, and returns 0, or false.

To initialize start_of_heap, we can call sbrk(0) at the first malloc call as such:

void *malloc(size_t size) {
    if (start_of_heap == NULL) start_of_heap = sbrk(0);


Now, you can place calls to heap_check at the beginning and end of every function you’d like to analyze, and this will ensure that invariants are held throughout your function calls.

To reiterate, course staff will ask you to demonstrate your heap checker if you are asking for help in office hours!

Testing Your Code #

In order to run your solution on the testers, run ./mcontest with the tester you want. You must do this, or your code will be run with the glibc implementation!


./mcontest testers_exe/tester-1
Memory failed to allocate!
[mcontest]: STATUS: FAILED=(256)
[mcontest]: MAX: 0
[mcontest]: AVG: 0.000000
[mcontest]: TIME: 0.000000

We’ve also distributed a bash script to run all testers. We design the script so that you can easily test your malloc implementation. Here is how you use the script:


It will automatically make clean and make again, and then run each test case in the testers folder. If you want to skip some test cases, you can do:

./ -s 1 2 3

where 1, 2, and 3 are the tests you want to skip. You can skip as many as you like.

Here is what some of our error codes mean:

11: (SIGSEGV) Segmentation fault
15: (SIGTERM) Timed out
65, 66: Dynamic linking error
67: Failed to collect memory info
68: Exceeded memory limit
91: Data allocated outside of heap
92: Data allocated exceeds heap limit

Good Practices

Since you can implement your malloc in whatever way you want, you may end up with a huge chunk of messy code that’s hard to debug. Here are some suggestions for organizing and maintaining your code better:

  • Build simple functions before you add advanced features. In other words, make sure your program does what you want it to do before moving on to optimize it.
  • Separate the functionality of your program into smaller chunks of independent code. For example, if you find that you’re frequently splitting a block of memory into two blocks, you probably want to write a split function instead of copy-pasting the splitting code every time you need to split.
  • Keep your code readable. This can be naming your variables appropriately or commenting your code well. This will really help you understand what your code is doing when you look back at them three days later!

Debugging with GDB

./mcontest runs an optimized version of your code, so you won’t be able to debug with gdb. To solve this, we have provided another version called ./mreplace which uses a version of your malloc compiled without optimization, so you can debug with gdb. Here’s an example, running tester 2 with gdb:

gdb --args ./mreplace testers_exe/tester-2

Since ./mreplace calls fork, you need to change the follow-fork-mode in gdb to be able to set a breakpoint in your alloc.c:

(gdb) set follow-fork-mode child
(gdb) break alloc.c:322
No source file named alloc.c.
Make breakpoint pending on future shared library load? (y or [n]) y
Breakpoint 1 (alloc.c:322) pending.
(gdb) run

Note: if you terminate your running program and run it again, i.e. if you do this:

(gdb) run
Thread 2.1 "tester-2" hit Breakpoint 1, malloc (size=1) at alloc.c:323
323    return ptr;
(gdb) kill
Kill the program being debugged? (y or n) y
[mcontest]: STATUS: FAILED. SIGNAL=(9)
[mcontest]: MAX: 0
[mcontest]: AVG: 0.000000
[mcontest]: TIME: 0.012000
(gdb) run
Starting program: malloc/testers_exe/tester-2
Memory was allocated, used, and freed!

it will no longer use your own implementation, and therefore will not stop at the breakpoints you set, and will use the glibc implementations of malloc/calloc/etc. This is because of the way gdb handles dynamically loaded libraries.

Real Programs

Both mcontest and mreplace can be used to launch “real” programs (not just the testers). For example:

# ignore the warning about an invalid terminal, if you get it
./mreplace /usr/bin/less alloc.c


./mcontest /bin/ls

There are some programs that might not work correctly under your malloc, for a variety of reasons. You might be able to avoid this problem if you make all your global variables static. If you encounter a program for which this fix doesn’t work, post on Ed!

Grading #

Here is the grading breakdown:

  • Correctness (75%)
    • Part 1 (25%): tests 1-6 complete successfully.
    • Part 2 (50%): tests 1-12 complete successfully.
  • Performance (25%): Points only awarded if all part 2 testers complete successfully - due with part2

There are 12 testcases in total. For part 1, you will be graded using tests 1 through 6. For part 2, you will be graded using tests 1 to 12 (tests 1 through 6 get graded twice). Tester 13 is not graded.

There are also performance points, which you are only eligible for if you pass all the testcases. Your malloc will be compared against the glibc version of malloc, and given a base performance score as a percentage (accounting for runtime, maximum memory usage, and average memory usage). The base score is calculated using the formula from the contest section below; higher percentages are better. Performance points are then awarded in buckets:

  • Better than or equal to 85% of glibc: Full 25% awarded.
  • 75-85% (include 75%, exclude 85%): 20% awarded.
  • 60-75%: 15% awarded.
  • 40-60%: 10% awarded.
  • 40% and worse: 0% awarded.

So, let’s work out some scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: A student gets tests 1 through 6 working for part1 and misses 2 tests on part2. Then they get all of the correctness points for part1, 10/12 of the correctness points for part2 and none of the performance points. Thus this student will receive a (6 / 6) * 25 + (10 / 12) * 50 + 0 = 66.67%.
  • Scenario 2: A student gets none of the tests working for part1 and gets everything working for part2 and beats glibc. Then they get none of the correctness points for part1, 12/12 of the correctness points for part2, and the performance points. This student will receive a (0 / 6) * 25 + (12 / 12) * 50 + 25 = 75.00%.
  • Scenario 3: A student gets tests 1 through 6 working for part1, then they get all the tests except test 4 working for part2. Then they get all of the correctness points for part1, 11/12 of the correctness points for part2, but they will not receive any of the performance points. This student will receive a (6 / 6) * 25 + (11 / 12) * 50 + 0 = 70.83%.
  • Scenario 4: A student gets tests 1 through 6 working for part1, then they get all of the tests working for part2, but they can only get to 65% of glibc. In this case, they get all of the correctness points for part 1, all of the correctness points for part 2, but only 15% performance points. So, they get (6 / 6) * 25 + (12 / 12) * 50 + 15 = 90.00%

  • We modify the allocation numbers slightly when we actually grade.

Contest #

View the malloc contest here!

The malloc contest pits your memory allocator implementation against your fellow students. There are a few things to know:

  • The test cases used for grading will be randomized with a different seed every day.
  • There may be additional, more advanced tests added which won’t count for anything but the contest.
  • The memory limit is 2.500GB.
  • To submit your program to the contest, you simply commit, push your code and run the distributed autograder. The contest page will be updated to reflect the results. You will have a number of runs per day, so that you can update your score as desired.
  • We will assign a score to each of the three categories (max heap, average heap, and total time) based on how well your program performs memory management relative to a standard solution.
  • You can pick a nickname in nickname.txt. You will show up as this name on the contest webpage.
  • On the webpage, each test will either be green, which signifies that you passed the test, or red, which signifies that you failed the test.

Scores and ranking

Your score will be computed by the following formula:

\(100\% \times \frac{1}{3n} \sum_{i=1}^n \bigg(\log_2\Big(\frac{time_{\textit{reference}, i}}{time_{\textit{student}, i}} + 1\Big) + \log_2\Big(\frac{avg_{\textit{reference}, i}}{avg_{\textit{student}, i}} + 1\Big) + \log_2\Big(\frac{max_{\textit{reference}, i}}{max_{\textit{student}, i}} + 1\Big)\bigg)\)


  • \(n\) is the number of tests
  • \(\textit{reference}\) in the subscript means reference implementation, and \(\textit{student}\) means student’s implementation
  • \(time_{\textit{reference}, i}\) is the time reference implementation spends on test \(i\)
  • \(time_{\textit{student}, i}\) is the time student spends on test \(i\)
  • \(avg_{\textit{reference}, i}\) is the average memory used by reference implementation on test \(i\)
  • \(avg_{\textit{student}, i}\) is the average memory used by student implementation on test \(i\)
  • \(max_{\textit{reference}, i}\) is the max memory used by the reference implementation on test \(i\)
  • \(max_{\textit{student}, i}\) is the max memory used by the student implementation on test \(i\)

Higher scores are better.

Note: We reserve the right to slightly modify constants inside the formula to ensure fair grading and prevent gaming the system. However, the basic idea will not be changing, and whatever we use will be the same for everyone.

Example 1.

If a student implementation \(x\) performs like the reference implementation, which means it spends the same time and memory as the reference, then \(x\)’s score will be: \(\begin{aligned} score_x &= 100\% \times \frac{1}{3n} \sum_{i=1}^n \bigg(\log_2\Big(\frac{time_{\textit{reference}, i}}{time_{x, i}} + 1\Big) + \log_2\Big(\frac{avg_{\textit{reference}, i}}{avg_{x, i}} + 1\Big) + \log_2\Big(\frac{max_{\textit{reference}, i}}{max_{x, i}} + 1\Big)\bigg) \\ &= 100\% \times \frac{1}{3n} \sum_{i=1}^n \big(\log_2(2) + \log_2(2) + \log_2(2)\big) \\ &= 100\%\times \frac{1}{3n} \sum_{i=1}^n 3\\ &= 100\% \end{aligned}\)

Example 2.

If a student implementation \(y\) performs the same as the reference implementation on memory usage, but is twice as slow (meaning \(time_{y, i} = 2 \times time_{\textit{reference}, i}\)), then \(y\)’s score will be: \(\begin{aligned} score_y &= 100\% \times \frac{1}{3n} \sum_{i=1}^n \bigg(\log_2\Big(\frac{time_{\textit{reference}, i}}{time_{y, i}} + 1\Big) + \log_2\Big(\frac{avg_{\textit{reference}, i}}{avg_{y, i}} + 1\Big) + \log_2\Big(\frac{max_{\textit{reference}, i}}{max_{y, i}} + 1\Big)\bigg) \\ &= 100\% \times \frac{1}{3n} \sum_{i=1}^n \big(\log_2(\tfrac{1}{2} + 1) + \log_2(2) + \log_2(2)\big) \\ &= 100\%\times \frac{1}{3n} \sum_{i=1}^n 2.585\\ &= 86.2\% \end{aligned}\)

Example 3.

If a student implementation \(z\) performs three times better than the reference implementation, which means \(time_{z, i} = \frac{time_{\textit{reference}, i}}{3}\), \(avg_{z, i} = \frac{avg_{\textit{reference}, i}}{3}\), and \(max_{z, i} = \frac{max_{\textit{reference}, i}}{3}\), then \(z\)’s score will be: \(\begin{aligned} score_z &= 100\% \times \frac{1}{3n} \sum_{i=1}^n \bigg(\log_2\Big(\frac{time_{\textit{reference}, i}}{time_{z, i}} + 1\Big) + \log_2\Big(\frac{avg_{\textit{reference}, i}}{avg_{z, i}} + 1\Big) + \log_2\Big(\frac{max_{\textit{reference}, i}}{max_{z, i}} + 1\Big)\bigg) \\ &= 100\% \times \frac{1}{3n} \sum_{i=1}^n \big(\log_2(4) + \log_2(4) + \log_2(4)\big) \\ &= 100\%\times \frac{1}{3n} \sum_{i=1}^n 6 \\ &= 200\% \end{aligned}\)

WARNING: As the deadline approaches, the contest page will refresh more slowly. There are 400 students, 12 test cases, and up to a minute or so. It will only retest a student’s code if it has been updated, but many more students will be updating their code causing longer waits. Start early, and don’t become reliant on the contest page by testing locally!