Alloca implementation

By : dsimcha

How does one implement alloca() using inline x86 assembler in languages like D, C, and C++? I want to create a slightly modified version of it, but first I need to know how the standard version is implemented. Reading the disassembly from compilers doesn't help because they perform so many optimizations, and I just want the canonical form.

Edit: I guess the hard part is that I want this to have normal function call syntax, i.e. using a naked function or something, make it look like the normal alloca().

Edit # 2: Ah, what the heck, you can assume that we're not omitting the frame pointer.

By : dsimcha


If you can't use c99's Variable Length Arrays, you can use a compound literal cast to a void pointer.

#define ALLOCA(sz) ((void*)((char[sz]){0}))

This also works for -ansi (as a gcc extension) and even when it is a function argument;

some_func(&useful_return, ALLOCA(sizeof(struct useless_return)));

The downside is that when compiled as c++, g++>4.6 will give you an error: taking address of temporary array ... clang and icc don't complain though

implementing alloca actually requires compiler assistance. A few people here are saying it's as easy as:

sub esp, <size>

which is unfortunately only half of the picture. Yes that would "allocate space on the stack" but there are a couple of gotchas.

  1. if the compiler had emitted code which references other variables relative to esp instead of ebp (typical if you compile with no frame pointer). Then those references need to be adjusted. Even with frame pointers, compilers do this sometimes.

  2. more importantly, by definition, space allocated with alloca must be "freed" when the function exits.

The big one is point #2. Because you need the compiler to emit code to symmetrically add <size> to esp at every exit point of the function.

The most likely case is the compiler offers some intrinsics which allow library writers to ask the compiler for the help needed.


In fact, in glibc (GNU's implementation of libc). The implementation of alloca is simply this:

#ifdef  __GNUC__
# define __alloca(size) __builtin_alloca (size)
#endif /* GCC.  */


after thinking about it, the minimum I believe would be required would be for the compiler to always use a frame pointer in any functions which usees alloca, regardless of optimization settings. This would allow all locals to be referenced through ebp safely and the frame cleanup would be handled by restoring the frame pointer to esp.


So i did some experimenting with things like this:

#include <stdlib.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <stdio.h>

#define __alloca(p, N) \
    do { \
        __asm__ __volatile__( \
        "sub %1, %%esp \n" \
        "mov %%esp, %0  \n" \
         : "=m"(p) \
         : "i"(N) \
         : "esp"); \
    } while(0)

int func() {
    char *p;
    __alloca(p, 100);
    memset(p, 0, 100);
    strcpy(p, "hello world\n");
    printf("%s\n", p);

int main() {

which unfortunately does not work correctly. After analyzing the assembly output by gcc. It appears that optimizations get in the way. The problem seems to be that since the compiler's optimizer is entirely unaware of my inline assembly, it has a habit of doing the things in an unexpected order and still referencing things via esp.

Here's the resultant ASM:

8048454: push   ebp
8048455: mov    ebp,esp
8048457: sub    esp,0x28
804845a: sub    esp,0x64                      ; <- this and the line below are our "alloc"
804845d: mov    DWORD PTR [ebp-0x4],esp
8048460: mov    eax,DWORD PTR [ebp-0x4]
8048463: mov    DWORD PTR [esp+0x8],0x64      ; <- whoops! compiler still referencing via esp
804846b: mov    DWORD PTR [esp+0x4],0x0       ; <- whoops! compiler still referencing via esp
8048473: mov    DWORD PTR [esp],eax           ; <- whoops! compiler still referencing via esp           
8048476: call   8048338 <[email protected]>
804847b: mov    eax,DWORD PTR [ebp-0x4]
804847e: mov    DWORD PTR [esp+0x8],0xd       ; <- whoops! compiler still referencing via esp
8048486: mov    DWORD PTR [esp+0x4],0x80485a8 ; <- whoops! compiler still referencing via esp
804848e: mov    DWORD PTR [esp],eax           ; <- whoops! compiler still referencing via esp
8048491: call   8048358 <[email protected]>
8048496: mov    eax,DWORD PTR [ebp-0x4]
8048499: mov    DWORD PTR [esp],eax           ; <- whoops! compiler still referencing via esp
804849c: call   8048368 <[email protected]>
80484a1: leave
80484a2: ret

As you can see, it isn't so simple. Unfortunately, I stand by my original assertion that you need compiler assistance.

Continuation Passing Style Alloca

Variable-Length Array in pure ISO C++. Proof-of-Concept implementation.


void foo(unsigned n)
    cps_alloca<Payload>(n,[](Payload *first,Payload *last)

Core Idea

template<typename T,unsigned N,typename F>
auto cps_alloca_static(F &&f) -> decltype(f(nullptr,nullptr))
    T data[N];
    return f(&data[0],&data[0]+N);

template<typename T,typename F>
auto cps_alloca_dynamic(unsigned n,F &&f) -> decltype(f(nullptr,nullptr))
    vector<T> data(n);
    return f(&data[0],&data[0]+n);

template<typename T,typename F>
auto cps_alloca(unsigned n,F &&f) -> decltype(f(nullptr,nullptr))
        case 1: return cps_alloca_static<T,1>(f);
        case 2: return cps_alloca_static<T,2>(f);
        case 3: return cps_alloca_static<T,3>(f);
        case 4: return cps_alloca_static<T,4>(f);
        case 0: return f(nullptr,nullptr);
        default: return cps_alloca_dynamic<T>(n,f);
    }; // mpl::for_each / array / index pack / recursive bsearch / etc variacion


cps_alloca on github

This video can help you solving your question :)
By: admin