c – Difference between malloc and calloc?

c – Difference between malloc and calloc?

calloc() gives you a zero-initialized buffer, while malloc() leaves the memory uninitialized.

For large allocations, most calloc implementations under mainstream OSes will get known-zeroed pages from the OS (e.g. via POSIX mmap(MAP_ANONYMOUS) or Windows VirtualAlloc) so it doesnt need to write them in user-space. This is how normal malloc gets more pages from the OS as well; calloc just takes advantage of the OSs guarantee.

This means calloc memory can still be clean and lazily-allocated, and copy-on-write mapped to a system-wide shared physical page of zeros. (Assuming a system with virtual memory.)

Some compilers even can optimize malloc + memset(0) into calloc for you, but you should use calloc explicitly if you want the memory to read as 0.

If you arent going to ever read memory before writing it, use malloc so it can (potentially) give you dirty memory from its internal free list instead of getting new pages from the OS. (Or instead of zeroing a block of memory on the free list for a small allocation).


Embedded implementations of calloc may leave it up to calloc itself to zero memory if theres no OS, or its not a fancy multi-user OS that zeros pages to stop information leaks between processes.

On embedded Linux, malloc could mmap(MAP_UNINITIALIZED|MAP_ANONYMOUS), which is only enabled for some embedded kernels because its insecure on a multi-user system.

A less known difference is that in operating systems with optimistic memory allocation, like Linux, the pointer returned by malloc isnt backed by real memory until the program actually touches it.

calloc does indeed touch the memory (it writes zeroes on it) and thus youll be sure the OS is backing the allocation with actual RAM (or swap). This is also why it is slower than malloc (not only does it have to zero it, the OS must also find a suitable memory area by possibly swapping out other processes)

See for instance this SO question for further discussion about the behavior of malloc

c – Difference between malloc and calloc?

One often-overlooked advantage of calloc is that (conformant implementations of) it will help protect you against integer overflow vulnerabilities. Compare:

size_t count = get_int32(file);
struct foo *bar = malloc(count * sizeof *bar);

vs.

size_t count = get_int32(file);
struct foo *bar = calloc(count, sizeof *bar);

The former could result in a tiny allocation and subsequent buffer overflows, if count is greater than SIZE_MAX/sizeof *bar. The latter will automatically fail in this case since an object that large cannot be created.

Of course you may have to be on the lookout for non-conformant implementations which simply ignore the possibility of overflow… If this is a concern on platforms you target, youll have to do a manual test for overflow anyway.

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