So as a general rule to avoid a stack overflow, big objects should be allocated to the heap (correct me if I am wrong). But, since the heap and the stack expand towards each other, wouldn't this cause heap overflow or alternatively limit the space for the stack and higher the chances of stack overflow?

  • 3
    heap overflow is generally called 'out of memory' Plus: don't forget that 'heap' address space is generally larger than RAM, being backed by a disk page file. Commented May 8, 2013 at 1:36
  • Mitch, I am aware of that but what I am more 'worried' about is that enlarging the heap restricts the space for the stack.
    – Rayhunter
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 2:07
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    Heap and stack starting at opposite ends of memory and expanding towards each other is an old model which AFAIK does not apply to most computers of the last few decades any more.
    – user7043
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 12:12
  • @delnan it's still true in Linux: thegeekstuff.com/2012/03/linux-processes-memory-layout which is only a couple of decades old.
    – user4051
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 13:38
  • 3
    @delnan: The stack size in anything POSIX-y can be changed with a call to setrlimit(2).
    – Blrfl
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 15:30

6 Answers 6


Obviously, storing X byte of data is going to reduce the amount of free memory by at least X bytes, no matter where you put it.

big objects should be allocated to the heap

I don't think that this is the main distinction to draw.

If you need data to be accessible outside of the current stack frame (for example as a global variable, or to pass it to another thread), you cannot put it into the stack.

The stack shrinks when a subroutine returns, so all data stored in its stack frame is lost.

Data on the heap stays "alive" until you de-allocate it.

Beyond that, because stack memory is generally much more limited than heap memory in "real life" (not just two unlimited sections growing towards each other like you alluded to in your question), you may want to put anything large on the heap, even if you could put it on the stack. For example, Java places everything in the heap. The downside is more complex memory management.

  • I see what you mean, but what happens if you try to heap-allocate data which is bigger than your program virtual address space?
    – Rayhunter
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 2:12
  • You'll get an out-of-memory error.
    – Thilo
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 8:43
  • 4
    ...Or, if you have an OS, the heap allocator asks it to increase the amount of virtual address space.
    – Blrfl
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 12:41
  • @Rayhunter: For 32-bit systems, this situation can (and should) be avoided by using memory-mapped file, and by modifying the algorithms to perform the work incrementally (touching a small section of the data at a time - small enough to fit in memory). For 64-bit systems, exhaustion of virtual address space is nearly unheard of.
    – rwong
    Commented May 9, 2013 at 7:21
  • @Blrfl Virtual address space is different from physical memory. You can't just ask the OS to increase your virtual address space. It's fixed. For a 32 bit OS you have 2^32 words in your address space. If you use it all, you can't get more. If your program needs to consume more physical memory than you have virtual memory you need to use means of taking sections of your program's memory out of it's address space. As mentioned before, this could be done through a memory mapped file, although there are other means.
    – Servy
    Commented May 10, 2013 at 19:04

Given the assumptions below, yes -- does not really matter whether you pile it on the floor or hang it from the ceiling.

You question indicates that you choose between heap or stack, only. (And we are not talking about very big objects that might be better mmap'd and other less common scenarios).


  1. Stack and heap live in the same, fixed process memory region, and there exists no other limitation.

  2. Your new big object will be added to the end of the heap respective stack.

  3. Objects on the stack are deallocated when the function returns. To make this choice really symmetric we assume that this holds true when using the heap as well.

Now what happens if we remove these assumptions?

  1. Stack can be limited, for example on old OS or in multi-threaded applications each thread might get its own size-limited stack, then allocating big objects on stack might overflow it. Heap on the other hand is typically backed up by virtual memory management which allows it to grow during process life time.

  2. Normally your heap will contain holes: space leftover from objects being deallocated, if you are lucky your new object fits just inside of such hole. Such a hole could for example open when two or more smaller objects, allocated at adjacent addresses have been deallocated. Often allocations using heap can be satisfied without growing the heap. On the other hand using the heap for small objects could invite memory fragmentation (see also Mozilla), this depends a lot on the allocator.

    In contrast, creating a variable on stack grows the stack by the same amount.

  3. Assume that you want return your object to the calling function instead. Then big objects on the stack must be copied as whole! It is more efficient in both time and space to return a pointer to memory address of the heap instead, which conviently fits inside a register easily. Small objects (such as integers, float, doubles) often fit into a register (typically 4 or 8 bytes) or two. Fortunately modern compiler optimize this case so we do not have to worry about this so much.

Resume: the exact behavior depends a lot on your OS and your compiler, on Linux only the sky it the limit.

Addendum related SO question


Stack overflow is what happens when an architecture with a bounded stack tries to increment its stack pointer beyond its maximum possible value. Sometimes this is a hard limit, such as on the 6502, which had a 256-byte stack at a fixed location in memory and a one-byte stack pointer. Pushing a 257th byte onto the stack would cause the stack pointer to wrap around and clobber the bottom of the stack. In modern systems, it's usually a soft limit that can be reset before starting the program or while the program is running. Step over that line with a POSIX-y system and you get a segmentation fault. It's also theoretically possible to have a stack that continues to grow downward as long as memory is available to hold it.

The phenomenon you're referring to is called a stack-heap collision, where one grows so much that it overlaps the other. You saw these a lot more frequently when address spaces (and memory) were smaller; now it's a lot less common because we don't run out of either nearly as often.

My advice would be to base your decisions on how you're going to dispose of the memory. If it's something that can disappear when you go out of scope, put it on the stack, because it will save you the headache of managing it. If it needs to stay around past the life of the current scope put it on the heap. Don't take this as a hard-and-fast rule, either, because there are situations where it doesn't apply. Use your judgement: if you're going to allocate something you know will run you out of stack, use the heap and make sure you clean up after yourself. Large allocations tend to be re-used, which is why they get put on the heap more often.

The bottom line is that if you're so short on memory that stack and heap will collide, you have bigger problems than where to put what you allocate.


The answer is clearly platform dependent, compiler dependent and even library dependent.

But consider that in a process there is one stack per thread and as many heap as the process requires to the systems (normally 1, but there can be more: an OS can have API to allocate various "heaps").

There are OSs that gives to a process a given chunk, in which heap and stacks are taken by subtraction, and OSs that gives distinct blocks to the process each mapping a different block of physical memory.

On OSs and processors that implement virtual memory, the process address space is mapped to physical memory by some pointer tables invisible to the process itself.

When we say that the stack grows and shrink we are talking in the "process view". In the "OS view", a stack is just a block that doesn't grow or shrink upon every call/return. it is just more or less filled up. When it becomes full, it has to be reallocated on another physical memory area with more space. The cost of "reallocating a stack frame" is heavy (it must have no "holes" inside) so many OSs doesn't allow a stack to grow over a predefined size. But heap dos not need that care: if a heap block is full, another block is added. No need to make it contiguous. This -on many platform- gives the perception (in the "process space") that a stack is limited (usually 4MB or similar) while the heap is "endless" (and limited only by the physical memory or swap area).


The stack's forte is ultra-fast allocation and deallocation of memory that follows a LIFO pattern (last allocated is first deallocated). If you need memory that will follow a different allocation/deallocation pattern then you are going to have to get it from the heap.

Note that for common multiprocessing operating systems every process gets its own stack and its own heap. Typically the stack for a process is only 1MB to 5MB. The small size is why you should avoid allocating large structures on the stack. In contrast the heap can grow to consume as much of the physical memory as the OS will allow. Yes, you can eventually use up all the heap that the OS will grant you, but that's going to typically be a factor of a 1000 times the size of the stack.


This is something that you do not need to worry about. The heap and the stack are managed seperately. More specifically the heap is backed up by virtual memory so if you overallocate it the OS will page things out. The stack is a seperate thing that does not normally expand beyond a certain size. It does not freely allocate from the heap.

The reason that they say allocate the big stuff from the heap is that the heap can handle that and the stack, a fixed size, cannot.

If you look more closely at the stack you might think that it can keep growing forever, or until memory is exhausted, and you are right. However most/all OSes monitor the size of the stack and will prevent it from continously growing.

Lastly when you allocate data off of the heap it is managed data. What I mean by this is that the OS is allocating/deallocating the data when you need it and when its out its out. If the heap were to run out malloc would return a NULL. Note that on most OSes virtual memory backs this up so malloc will always return something.

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