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Memory Management

Overview

Memory management in Python involves a private heap containing all Python objects and data structures. The management of this private heap is ensured internally by the Python memory manager. The Python memory manager has different components which deal with various dynamic storage management aspects, like sharing, segmentation, preallocation or caching.

At the lowest level, a raw memory allocator ensures that there is enough room in the private heap for storing all Python-related data by interacting with the memory manager of the operating system. On top of the raw memory allocator, several object-specific allocators operate on the same heap and implement distinct memory management policies adapted to the peculiarities of every object type. For example, integer objects are managed differently within the heap than strings, tuples or dictionaries because integers imply different storage requirements and speed/space tradeoffs. The Python memory manager thus delegates some of the work to the object-specific allocators, but ensures that the latter operate within the bounds of the private heap.

It is important to understand that the management of the Python heap is performed by the interpreter itself and that the user has no control over it, even if she regularly manipulates object pointers to memory blocks inside that heap. The allocation of heap space for Python objects and other internal buffers is performed on demand by the Python memory manager through the Python/C API functions listed in this document.

To avoid memory corruption, extension writers should never try to operate on Python objects with the functions exported by the C library: :c:func:`malloc`, :c:func:`calloc`, :c:func:`realloc` and :c:func:`free`. This will result in mixed calls between the C allocator and the Python memory manager with fatal consequences, because they implement different algorithms and operate on different heaps. However, one may safely allocate and release memory blocks with the C library allocator for individual purposes, as shown in the following example:

PyObject *res;
char *buf = (char *) malloc(BUFSIZ); /* for I/O */

if (buf == NULL)
    return PyErr_NoMemory();
...Do some I/O operation involving buf...
res = PyBytes_FromString(buf);
free(buf); /* malloc'ed */
return res;

In this example, the memory request for the I/O buffer is handled by the C library allocator. The Python memory manager is involved only in the allocation of the string object returned as a result.

In most situations, however, it is recommended to allocate memory from the Python heap specifically because the latter is under control of the Python memory manager. For example, this is required when the interpreter is extended with new object types written in C. Another reason for using the Python heap is the desire to inform the Python memory manager about the memory needs of the extension module. Even when the requested memory is used exclusively for internal, highly-specific purposes, delegating all memory requests to the Python memory manager causes the interpreter to have a more accurate image of its memory footprint as a whole. Consequently, under certain circumstances, the Python memory manager may or may not trigger appropriate actions, like garbage collection, memory compaction or other preventive procedures. Note that by using the C library allocator as shown in the previous example, the allocated memory for the I/O buffer escapes completely the Python memory manager.

Memory Interface

The following function sets, modeled after the ANSI C standard, but specifying behavior when requesting zero bytes, are available for allocating and releasing memory from the Python heap:

The following type-oriented macros are provided for convenience. Note that TYPE refers to any C type.

In addition, the following macro sets are provided for calling the Python memory allocator directly, without involving the C API functions listed above. However, note that their use does not preserve binary compatibility across Python versions and is therefore deprecated in extension modules.

:c:func:`PyMem_MALLOC`, :c:func:`PyMem_REALLOC`, :c:func:`PyMem_FREE`.

:c:func:`PyMem_NEW`, :c:func:`PyMem_RESIZE`, :c:func:`PyMem_DEL`.

Examples

Here is the example from section :ref:`memoryoverview`, rewritten so that the I/O buffer is allocated from the Python heap by using the first function set:

PyObject *res;
char *buf = (char *) PyMem_Malloc(BUFSIZ); /* for I/O */

if (buf == NULL)
    return PyErr_NoMemory();
/* ...Do some I/O operation involving buf... */
res = PyBytes_FromString(buf);
PyMem_Free(buf); /* allocated with PyMem_Malloc */
return res;

The same code using the type-oriented function set:

PyObject *res;
char *buf = PyMem_New(char, BUFSIZ); /* for I/O */

if (buf == NULL)
    return PyErr_NoMemory();
/* ...Do some I/O operation involving buf... */
res = PyBytes_FromString(buf);
PyMem_Del(buf); /* allocated with PyMem_New */
return res;

Note that in the two examples above, the buffer is always manipulated via functions belonging to the same set. Indeed, it is required to use the same memory API family for a given memory block, so that the risk of mixing different allocators is reduced to a minimum. The following code sequence contains two errors, one of which is labeled as fatal because it mixes two different allocators operating on different heaps.

char *buf1 = PyMem_New(char, BUFSIZ);
char *buf2 = (char *) malloc(BUFSIZ);
char *buf3 = (char *) PyMem_Malloc(BUFSIZ);
...
PyMem_Del(buf3);  /* Wrong -- should be PyMem_Free() */
free(buf2);       /* Right -- allocated via malloc() */
free(buf1);       /* Fatal -- should be PyMem_Del()  */

In addition to the functions aimed at handling raw memory blocks from the Python heap, objects in Python are allocated and released with :c:func:`PyObject_New`, :c:func:`PyObject_NewVar` and :c:func:`PyObject_Del`.

These will be explained in the next chapter on defining and implementing new object types in C.