In the C programming language, we typically manage memory manually. A typical heap allocation is a call to malloc followed by a call to free. In C++, you have more options, but it is the same routines under the hood.
// allocate N kB data = malloc(N*1024); // do something with the memory // ... // release the memory free(data);
It stands to reason that if your program just started and the value of N is large, then the call to malloc will result in an increased memory usage by about N kilobytes. And indeed, it is the case.
So what is the memory usage of your process after the call to “free”? Did the N bytes return to the system?
The answer is that, in general, it is not the case. I wrote a small program under Linux that allocates N kilobytes and then frees them. It will then measure the RAM usage after the call to free. The exact results will depend on your system, standard library and so on, but I give my results as an illustration.
As you can observe in the table, the memory does sometimes get released, but only when it is a large block of over 30 MB in my tests. It is likely because in such cases a different code path is used (e.g., calling mmap, munmap). Otherwise, the process holds on to its memory, never again releasing it to the system.
|memory requested||memory usage after a free|
|1 kB||630 kB|
|100 kB||630 kB|
|1000 kB||2000 kB|
|10,000 kB||11,000 kB|
|20,000 kB||21,000 kB|
|30,000 kB||31,000 kB|
|40,000 kB||1,200 kB|
|50,000 kB||1,300 kB|
|100,000 kB||1,300 kB|
Of course, there are ways to force the memory to be released to the system (e.g., malloc_trim may help), but you should not expect that it will do so by default.
Though I use C/C++ as a reference, the exact same effect is likely to occur in a wide range of programming languages.
What are the implications?
- You cannot measure easily the memory usage of your data structures using the amount of memory that the processes use.
- It is easy for a process that does not presently hold any data to appear to be using a lot of memory.
Further reading: glibc malloc inefficiency