TCMalloc Overview

TCMalloc is Google’s customized implementation of C’s malloc() and C++’s operator new used for memory allocation within our C and C++ code. This custom memory allocation framework is an alternative to the one provided by the C standard library (on Linux usually through glibc) and C++ standard library. TCMalloc is designed to be more efficient at scale than other implementations.

Specifically, TCMalloc provides the following benefits:

TCMalloc Cache Operation Mode

TCMalloc may operate in one of two fashions:

NOTE: the “TC” in TCMalloc refers to Thread Caching, which was originally a distinguishing feature of TCMalloc; the name remains as a legacy.

In both cases, these cache implementations allows TCMalloc to avoid requiring locks for most memory allocations and deallocations.

TCMalloc Features

TCMalloc provides APIs for dynamic memory allocation: malloc() using the C API, and ::operator new using the C++ API. TCMalloc, like most allocation frameworks, manages this memory better than raw memory requests (such as through mmap()) by providing several optimizations:

The cache size can also affect performance. The larger the cache, the less any given cache will overflow or get exhausted, and therefore require a lock to get more memory. TCMalloc extensions allow you to modify this cache size, though the default behavior should be preferred in most cases. For more information, consult the TCMalloc Tuning Guide.

Additionally, TCMalloc exposes telemetry about the state of the application’s heap via MallocExtension. This can be used for gathering profiles of the live heap, as well as a snapshot taken near the heap’s highwater mark size (a peak heap profile).

The TCMalloc API

TCMalloc implements the C and C++ dynamic memory API endpoints from the C11, C++11, C++14, and C++17 standards.

From C++, this includes

Unlike in the standard implementations, TCMalloc does not throw an exception when allocations fail, but instead crashes directly. Such behavior can be used as a performance optimization for move constructors not currently marked noexcept; such move operations can be allowed to fail directly due to allocation failures. In Abseil, these are enabled with -DABSL_ALLOCATOR_NOTHROW.

From C, this includes malloc, calloc, realloc, and free.

The TCMalloc API obeys the behavior of C90 DR075 and DR445 which states:

The alignment requirement still applies even if the size is too small for
any object requiring the given alignment.

In other words, malloc(1) returns alignof(std::max_align_t)-aligned pointer. Based on the progress of N2293, we may relax this alignment in the future.

For more complete information, consult the TCMalloc Reference.