Which is faster: Stack allocation or Heap allocation


This question may sound fairly elementary, but this is a debate I had with another developer I work with.

I was taking care to stack allocate things where I could, instead of heap allocating them. He was talking to me and watching over my shoulder and commented that it wasn't necessary because they are the same performance wise.

I was always under the impression that growing the stack was constant time, and heap allocation's performance depended on the current complexity of the heap for both allocation (finding a hole of the proper size) and de-allocating (collapsing holes to reduce fragmentation, as many standard library implementations take time to do this during deletes if I am not mistaken).

This strikes me as something that would probably be very compiler dependent. For this project in particular I am using a Metrowerks compiler for the PPC architecture. Insight on this combination would be most helpful, but in general, for GCC, and MSVC++, what is the case? Is heap allocation not as high performing as stack allocation? Is there no difference? Or are the differences so minute it becomes pointless micro-optimization.

5/20/2015 6:52:48 PM

Accepted Answer

Stack allocation is much faster since all it really does is move the stack pointer. Using memory pools, you can get comparable performance out of heap allocation, but that comes with a slight added complexity and its own headaches.

Also, stack vs. heap is not only a performance consideration; it also tells you a lot about the expected lifetime of objects.

8/20/2011 1:37:07 AM

Stack is much faster. It literally only uses a single instruction on most architectures, in most cases, e.g. on x86:

sub esp, 0x10

(That moves the stack pointer down by 0x10 bytes and thereby "allocates" those bytes for use by a variable.)

Of course, the stack's size is very, very finite, as you will quickly find out if you overuse stack allocation or try to do recursion :-)

Also, there's little reason to optimize the performance of code that doesn't verifiably need it, such as demonstrated by profiling. "Premature optimization" often causes more problems than it's worth.

My rule of thumb: if I know I'm going to need some data at compile-time, and it's under a few hundred bytes in size, I stack-allocate it. Otherwise I heap-allocate it.

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