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name Punditsdkoslkdosdkoskdo

What REALLY happens when you don't free after malloc?

This has been something that has bothered me for ages now.

We are all taught in school (at least, I was) that you MUST free every pointer that is allocated. I'm a bit curious, though, about the real cost of not freeing memory. In some obvious cases, like when malloc is called inside a loop or part of a thread execution, it's very important to free so there are no memory leaks. But consider the following two examples:

First, if I have code that's something like this:

int main()
    char *a = malloc(1024);
    /* Do some arbitrary stuff with 'a' (no alloc functions) */
    return 0;

What's the real result here? My thinking is that the process dies and then the heap space is gone anyway so there's no harm in missing the call to free (however, I do recognize the importance of having it anyway for closure, maintainability, and good practice). Am I right in this thinking?

Second, let's say I have a program that acts a bit like a shell. Users can declare variables like aaa = 123 and those are stored in some dynamic data structure for later use. Clearly, it seems obvious that you'd use some solution that will calls some *alloc function (hashmap, linked list, something like that). For this kind of program, it doesn't make sense to ever free after calling malloc because these variables must be present at all times during the program's execution and there's no good way (that I can see) to implement this with statically allocated space. Is it bad design to have a bunch of memory that's allocated but only freed as part of the process ending? If so, what's the alternative?

Just about every modern operating system will recover all the allocated memory space after a program exits. The only exception I can think of might be something like Palm OS where the program's static storage and runtime memory are pretty much the same thing, so not freeing might cause the program to take up more storage. (I'm only speculating here.)

So generally, there's no harm in it, except the runtime cost of having more storage than you need. Certainly in the example you give, you want to keep the memory for a variable that might be used until it's cleared.

However, it's considered good style to free memory as soon as you don't need it any more, and to free anything you still have around on program exit. It's more of an exercise in knowing what memory you're using, and thinking about whether you still need it. If you don't keep track, you might have memory leaks.

On the other hand, the similar admonition to close your files on exit has a much more concrete result - if you don't, the data you wrote to them might not get flushed, or if they're a temp file, they might not get deleted when you're done. Also, database handles should have their transactions committed and then closed when you're done with them. Similarly, if you're using an object oriented language like C++ or Objective C, not freeing an object when you're done with it will mean the destructor will never get called, and any resources the class is responsible might not get cleaned up.

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