Memory Management Glossary: BΒΆ

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backing store

Backing store(2) is typically part of a hard disk that is used by a paging or swapping system to store information not currently in main memory. Backing store is slower and cheaper than main memory.

Other storage may, less commonly, be used in place of a hard disk (for instance, magnetic tape, floppy disk, or historically, magnetic drum).

In general, backing store may mean any locations used to store information when its preferred or natural location is otherwise being used: for example, memory used by a graphical interface to keep a copy of the contents of obscured windows.

Similar term

swap space.


A barrier is a block on reading from or writing to certain memory(2) locations by certain threads or processes.

Barriers can be implemented in either software or hardware. Software barriers involve additional instructions around load or store(1) operations, which would typically be added by a cooperative compiler. Hardware barriers don’t require compiler support, and may be implemented on common operating systems by using memory protection.

Relevance to memory management

Barriers are used for incremental or concurrent garbage collection.

Related publications

Pirinen (1998), Zorn (1990).


A memory barrier is an instruction on certain processor architectures that will ensure certain guarantees about the order of accesses to memory.

Some processor architectures make very few guarantees about the relative orders of load and store(1) operations in the instruction stream and the actual order of accesses to main memory. These architectures will often have special instructions that make stronger guarantees.

For example, the ARM has the DMB (Data Memory Barrier) instruction:

It ensures that all explicit memory accesses that appear in program order before the DMB instruction are observed before any explicit memory accesses that appear in program order after the DMB instruction.

These instructions are vital for certain synchronization operations.

barrier hit
base pointer

A base pointer is a pointer to the base or start of an object.

This term is commonly used in opposition to derived pointer.

Note that Boehm & Chase (1992) define “base pointer” to be “any pointer value directly recognizable by the collector(1)”, and this may well include interior pointers.

Opposite term

derived pointer.

In the MPS

For objects with in-band headers, the MPS distinguishes between the base pointer, which points to the start of the header, and the client pointer, which points to the first word after the end of the header.

best fit

The allocation policy that always allocates from the smallest suitable free block. Suitable allocation mechanisms include sequential fit searching for a perfect fit, first fit on a size-ordered free block chain, segregated fits, and indexed fits. Many good fit allocators are also described as best fit.

In theory, best fit may exhibit bad fragmentation, but in practice this is not commonly observed.

Related publication

Wilson et al. (1995).


Also known as

big bag of pages.

BIBOP, or BIg Bag Of Pages, is a technique that encodes object type in the high-order bits of their address, by using a lookup table that maps from those bits to a type.

Despite the name, the blocks involved need not be the size of a page.

BIBOP requires storing only objects of the same type in a block, but this has the same advantages as segregated fits in general.

Historical note

This technique was invented for the PDP-10 MACLISP by JonL White and Stavros Macrakis. It was an advance on earlier techniques that divided the address space into contiguous blocks for each type.

Related publications

Baker (1979), Steele (1977).

big bag of pages



binary buddies

The most common buddy system allocation mechanism, in which all block sizes are a power of two. Finding a block’s buddy is then a matter of flipping the appropriate bit in the block’s address.

Internal fragmentation is usually high, because objects are often not a good fit for power-of-two sized blocks.

Related publication

Wilson et al. (1995).

bit array



bit table



bit vector




Also known as

bit array, bit table, bit vector, bitset.

A table of bits.

Relevance to memory management

Bitmaps are sometimes used to represent the marks in a mark-sweep collector (see bitmap marking), or the used memory in a bitmapped fits allocator.

bitmap marking

In mark-sweep collectors, bitmap marking is a technique for marking objects that stores the mark bits for the objects in a contiguous range of memory in a separate bitmap. This improves the collector’s locality of reference and cache performance, because it avoids setting the dirty bit on the pages containing the marked objects.

Related publication

Zorn (1989).

bitmapped fit

A class of allocation mechanisms that use a bitmap to represent the usage of the heap. Each bit in the map corresponds to a part of the heap, typically a word, and is set if that part is in use. Allocation is done by searching the bitmap for a run of clear bits.

Bitmapped fit mechanisms have good locality of reference, as they avoid examining in-band headers when allocating.

Related publication

Wilson et al. (1995).

A bitmap used to select or exclude a set of bits in another bitmap.




In a tri-color marking scheme, black objects are objects that have been scanned.

More precisely, black objects have been noted reachable and the collector(2) has finished with them and need not visit them again (for the purposes of tracing).

Opposite terms

white, gray.


A conservative garbage collector can be made more effective by blacklisting values which resemble addresses that may be allocated at in the future, but are known not to be pointers . This list is then used to avoid allocation at those addresses.

For example, such values can be gathered by scanning the roots before any objects have been allocated.

Related publication

Boehm (1993).


Block is a vague term for an (often contiguous) area of memory(1). Often used to describe memory(2) allocated by an allocator such as malloc.

In the MPS

The term block is used as a general term for a unit of allocation, with object being reserved for formatted objects.

bounds error

Boxed objects are represented by a pointer to a block of memory(2) that contains the object data. Sometimes the pointer is tagged to distinguish it from an unboxed object, or to represent its type. Only the pointer is duplicated when the object is passed around, so updates to the object are reflected everywhere.

Opposite term


See also

tag, BIBOP.

Related publication

Gudeman (1993).


A break-table is a data structure used by a mark-compact collector to store the relocation information.

See also



brk is a Unix system call that sets the limit of the data segment. This limit is known as the break.

brk and its companion sbrk are obsolete on Unix systems that support virtual memory and the mmap system call.

The C library implementation of malloc formerly allocated memory(2) for the heap by extending the data segment using brk or sbrk. The data segment resided immediately above the program code and static data (the “text segment”) in the address space.

Diagram: A simplified view of the address space of a Unix process.

A simplified view of the address space of a Unix process.

More modern Unix systems use address space layout randomization to place these segments at randomized locations in address space, so that the heap is no longer adjacent to the static data.

broken heart

Copying garbage collectors move reachable objects into another semi-space. They leave a forwarding pointer in the old location, pointing to the new. The object at the old location is known as a broken heart.

Similar term

forwarding pointer.


In a generational garbage collector, it is often desirable to divide generations by the age of the object. These divisions are known as buckets.

buddy system

Buddy systems are a subclass of strict segregated fit allocation mechanisms which make splitting and coalescing fast by pairing each block with a unique adjacent buddy block.

There is an array of free lists, one for each allowable block size. Allocation rounds up the requested size to an allowable size and allocates from the corresponding free list. If the free list is empty, a larger block is selected and split. A block may only be split into a pair of buddies.

A block may only be coalesced with its buddy, and this is only possible if the buddy has not been split into smaller blocks.

The advantage of buddy systems is that the buddy of a block being freed can be quickly found by a simple address computation. The disadvantage of buddy systems is that the restricted set of block sizes leads to high internal fragmentation, as does the limited ability to coalesce.

Different sorts of buddy system are distinguished by the available block sizes and the method of splitting. They include binary buddies (the most common), Fibonacci buddies, weighted buddies, and double buddies.

Related publication

Wilson et al. (1995).


A buffer is a large block of memory(2) from which blocks are allocated contiguously, as a simple technique for fast allocation.

By keeping only a high-water mark (that is, a pointer to the start of unused memory), the buffer technique avoids expensive in-band headers and the searching of free block chains. Buffers tend to, however, lead to external fragmentation.

Related publication

Appel et al. (1988).

In the MPS

Buffers are implemented using allocation points attached to pools.

bus error

Strictly speaking, a bus error is a fault on a hardware bus, such as when an invalid address is issued.

Generally, any hardware exception caused by a memory(2) access (for example, loading an unaligned word) is termed a bus error. The term is often used more loosely as a synonym for any memory access error.


A unit of storage measurement, equal to 8 bits.

It does not matter how the bits are arranged: a byte is just a quantity.

This is the sense of byte used in the terms kilobyte, megabyte, gigabyte, terabyte, etc. The prefixes in these terms derive from the SI prefixes for powers of 1000, but since powers of two are much more common in binary computers, they are used to denote powers of 1024 (210).

See also



A data type defined by a processor architecture.

For example, the smallest addressable memory location on the Intel x86 family is the 8-bit byte.

Historical note

The PDP-10 had 36-bit words, and defined “byte” to be a general sub-word bit-field: compare byte(3). On this machine it was commonplace for characters to be packed four or five to a word using 9- or 7-bit bytes respectively.

See also



A contiguous set of bits used to represent a range of values compactly.

The number of bits in a byte is a measure of the information content of the byte. An n-bit byte can represent 2n distinct values.

Bytes may be packed into (or otherwise stored in bit-fields of) integers, words, or other aligned values for space efficiency.


A data type or storage unit defined by a programming language.

In ANSI/ISO C, “the unit of data storage large enough to hold the basic character set of the execution environment”. In this sense, it is often used synonymously with the C type char. C defines sizeof(char) to be 1. Many architectures that run C programs equate this sense of byte and byte(2).

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