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Debugging Perl memory usage

Perl is a profligate wastrel when it comes to memory use. There is a saying that to estimate memory usage of Perl, assume a reasonable algorithm for memory allocation, multiply that estimate by 10, and while you still may miss the mark, at least you won't be quite so astonished. This is not absolutely true, but may provide a good grasp of what happens.

Assume that an integer cannot take less than 20 bytes of memory, a float cannot take less than 24 bytes, a string cannot take less than 32 bytes (all these examples assume 32-bit architectures, the result are quite a bit worse on 64-bit architectures). If a variable is accessed in two of three different ways (which require an integer, a float, or a string), the memory footprint may increase yet another 20 bytes. A sloppy malloc(3) implementation can inflate these numbers dramatically.

On the opposite end of the scale, a declaration like

  sub foo;  

may take up to 500 bytes of memory, depending on which release of Perl you're running.

Anecdotal estimates of source-to-compiled code bloat suggest an eightfold increase. This means that the compiled form of reasonable (normally commented, properly indented etc.) code will take about eight times more space in memory than the code took on disk.

There are two Perl-specific ways to analyze memory usage: $ENV{PERL_DEBUG_MSTATS} and -DL command-line switch. The first is available only if Perl is compiled with Perl's malloc(); the second only if Perl was built with -DDEBUGGING. See the instructions for how to do this in the INSTALL podpage at the top level of the Perl source tree.


If your perl is using Perl's malloc() and was compiled with the necessary switches (this is the default), then it will print memory usage statistics after compiling your code when $ENV{PERL_DEBUG_MSTATS} > 1, and before termination of the program when $ENV{PERL_DEBUG_MSTATS} >= 1. The report format is similar to the following example:

  $ PERL_DEBUG_MSTATS=2 perl -e "require Carp"
  Memory allocation statistics after compilation: (buckets 4(4)..8188(8192)
     14216 free:   130   117    28     7     9   0   2     2   1 0 0
		437    61    36     0     5
     60924 used:   125   137   161    55     7   8   6    16   2 0 1
		 74   109   304    84    20
  Total sbrk(): 77824/21:119. Odd ends: pad+heads+chain+tail: 0+636+0+2048.
  Memory allocation statistics after execution:   (buckets 4(4)..8188(8192)
     30888 free:   245    78    85    13     6   2   1     3   2 0 1
		315   162    39    42    11
    175816 used:   265   176  1112   111    26  22  11    27   2 1 1
		196   178  1066   798    39
  Total sbrk(): 215040/47:145. Odd ends: pad+heads+chain+tail: 0+2192+0+6144.  

It is possible to ask for such a statistic at arbitrary points in your execution using the mstat() function out of the standard Devel::Peek module.

Here is some explanation of that format:


Perl's malloc() uses bucketed allocations. Every request is rounded up to the closest bucket size available, and a bucket is taken from the pool of buckets of that size.

The line above describes the limits of buckets currently in use. Each bucket has two sizes: memory footprint and the maximal size of user data that can fit into this bucket. Suppose in the above example that the smallest bucket were size 4. The biggest bucket would have usable size 8188, and the memory footprint would be 8192.

In a Perl built for debugging, some buckets may have negative usable size. This means that these buckets cannot (and will not) be used. For larger buckets, the memory footprint may be one page greater than a power of 2. If so, case the corresponding power of two is printed in the APPROX field above.


The 1 or 2 rows of numbers following that correspond to the number of buckets of each size between SMALLEST and GREATEST. In the first row, the sizes (memory footprints) of buckets are powers of two--or possibly one page greater. In the second row, if present, the memory footprints of the buckets are between the memory footprints of two buckets "above".

For example, suppose under the previous example, the memory footprints were

     free:    8     16    32    64    128  256 512 1024 2048 4096 8192
	   4     12    24    48    80  

With non-DEBUGGING perl, the buckets starting from 128 have a 4-byte overhead, and thus an 8192-long bucket may take up to 8188-byte allocations.


The first two fields give the total amount of memory perl sbrk(2)ed (ess-broken? :-) and number of sbrk(2)s used. The third number is what perl thinks about continuity of returned chunks. So long as this number is positive, malloc() will assume that it is probable that sbrk(2) will provide continuous memory.

Memory allocated by external libraries is not counted.

pad: 0
The amount of sbrk(2)ed memory needed to keep buckets aligned.
heads: 2192
Although memory overhead of bigger buckets is kept inside the bucket, for smaller buckets, it is kept in separate areas. This field gives the total size of these areas.
chain: 0
malloc() may want to subdivide a bigger bucket into smaller buckets. If only a part of the deceased bucket is left unsubdivided, the rest is kept as an element of a linked list. This field gives the total size of these chunks.
tail: 6144
To minimize the number of sbrk(2)s, malloc() asks for more memory. This field gives the size of the yet unused part, which is sbrk(2)ed, but never touched.

Example of using -DL switch

Below we show how to analyse memory usage by

  do 'lib/auto/POSIX/autosplit.ix';  

The file in question contains a header and 146 lines similar to

  sub getcwd;  

WARNING: The discussion below supposes 32-bit architecture. In newer releases of Perl, memory usage of the constructs discussed here is greatly improved, but the story discussed below is a real-life story. This story is mercilessly terse, and assumes rather more than cursory knowledge of Perl internals. Type space to continue, `q' to quit. (Actually, you just want to skip to the next section.)

Here is the itemized list of Perl allocations performed during parsing of this file:

 !!! "after" at line 3.
    Id  subtot   4   8  12  16  20  24  28  32  36  40  48  56  64  72  80 80+
  0 02   13752   .   .   .   . 294   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   4
  0 54    5545   .   .   8 124  16   .   .   .   1   1   .   .   .   .   .   3
  5 05      32   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   1   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
  6 02    7152   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   . 149   .   .   .   .   .
  7 02    3600   .   .   .   .   . 150   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
  7 03      64   .  -1   .   1   .   .   2   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
  7 04    7056   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   7
  7 17   38404   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   1   .   . 442 149   .   . 147   .
  9 03    2078  17 249  32   .   .   .   .   2   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

To see this list, insert two warn('!...') statements around the call:

  do 'lib/auto/POSIX/autosplit.ix';
  warn('!!! "after"');  

and run it with Perl's -DL option. The first warn() will print memory allocation info before parsing the file and will memorize the statistics at this point (we ignore what it prints). The second warn() prints increments with respect to these memorized data. This is the printout shown above.

Different Ids on the left correspond to different subsystems of the perl interpreter. They are just the first argument given to the perl memory allocation API named New(). To find what 9 03 means, just grep the perl source for 903. You'll find it in util.c, function savepvn(). (I know, you wonder why we told you to grep and then gave away the answer. That's because grepping the source is good for the soul.) This function is used to store a copy of an existing chunk of memory. Using a C debugger, one can see that the function was called either directly from gv_init() or via sv_magic(), and that gv_init() is called from gv_fetchpv()--which was itself called from newSUB(). Please stop to catch your breath now.

NOTE: To reach this point in the debugger and skip the calls to savepvn() during the compilation of the main program, you should set a C breakpoint in Perl_warn(), continue until this point is reached, and then set a C breakpoint in Perl_savepvn(). Note that you may need to skip a handful of Perl_savepvn() calls that do not correspond to mass production of CVs (there are more 903 allocations than 146 similar lines of lib/auto/POSIX/autosplit.ix). Note also that Perl_ prefixes are added by macroization code in perl header files to avoid conflicts with external libraries.

Anyway, we see that 903 ids correspond to creation of globs, twice per glob - for glob name, and glob stringification magic.

Here are explanations for other Ids above:


Creates bigger XPV* structures. In the case above, it creates 3 AVs per subroutine, one for a list of lexical variable names, one for a scratchpad (which contains lexical variables and targets), and one for the array of scratchpads needed for recursion.

It also creates a GV and a CV per subroutine, all called from start_subparse().


Creates a C array corresponding to the AV of scratchpads and the scratchpad itself. The first fake entry of this scratchpad is created though the subroutine itself is not defined yet.

It also creates C arrays to keep data for the stash. This is one HV, but it grows; thus, there are 4 big allocations: the big chunks are not freed, but are kept as additional arenas for SV allocations.


Creates a HEK for the name of the glob for the subroutine. This name is a key in a stash.

Big allocations with this Id correspond to allocations of new arenas to keep HE.

Creates a GP for the glob for the subroutine.
Creates the MAGIC for the glob for the subroutine.
Creates arenas which keep SVs.

-DL details

If Perl is run with -DL option, then warn()s that start with `!' behave specially. They print a list of categories of memory allocations, and statistics of allocations of different sizes for these categories.

If warn() string starts with

print changed categories only, print the differences in counts of allocations.
print grown categories only; print the absolute values of counts, and totals.
print nonempty categories, print the absolute values of counts and totals.

Limitations of -DL statistics

If an extension or external library does not use the Perl API to allocate memory, such allocations are not counted.




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