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Table of contents
Stack management
Why is stack allocation faster?
Advantages in stack allocation
Disadvantages in stack allocation
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the main difference between stack and heap allocation?
In which manner does stack allocate memory?
Who allocates the stack?
Last Updated: Apr 20, 2024

Stack Allocation

Author Malay Gain
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The stack is used to record the current state of the running program. Most CPUs have a specialized register – the stack pointer – which stores the address where the next item will be pushed or popped.  Because the stack grows down from the top of memory, there is a confusing convention: pushing an item on the stack causes the stack pointer to move to a lower-numbered address while popping an item off the stack causes the stack pointer to move to a higher address. So, the “top” of the stack is actually at the lowest address.

Compiler Design

Also See, Top Down Parsing

Stack management

The call stack can also be used to allocate arrays and other data structures. This is done by making room in the current (topmost) frame on the call stack. 


Each invocation of a function occupies a range of memory in the stack, known as a stack frame. The stack frame contains the parameters and the local variables used by that function. When a function is called, a new stack frame is pushed; when the function returns, the stack frame is popped, and execution continues in the caller’s stack frame. Another specialized register known as the frame pointer (or sometimes base pointer) indicates the beginning of the current frame. Code within a function relies upon the frame pointer to identify the location of the current parameters and local variables.


For example, if the main function calls function f, and then f calls g. If we stop the program in the middle of executing g, the stack will look like the below diagram :

Stack Management

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Why is stack allocation faster?

In computer science, memory allocation can occur in two primary locations: the stack and the heap. Stack allocation is generally faster than heap allocation due to several reasons:

  • Memory Management Overhead: Stack allocation involves a simple pointer adjustment, usually achieved through incrementing or decrementing the stack pointer. This operation is very fast because it doesn't involve complex data structures or algorithms. In contrast, heap allocation requires more sophisticated memory management techniques, such as maintaining data structures like free lists or using garbage collection, which incur additional overhead.
  • Locality of Reference: Stack memory allocation provides better data locality compared to heap allocation. When memory is allocated on the stack, consecutive variables or function calls are stored close to each other in memory. This locality of reference improves cache utilization and reduces cache misses, resulting in faster memory access times. In contrast, heap-allocated memory may be scattered across different locations in memory, leading to poorer cache performance.
  • Deallocation Efficiency: Deallocation of stack-allocated memory is inherently more efficient than heap deallocation. In a stack-based allocation system, memory is automatically deallocated when a function returns or a block scope ends. This automatic deallocation, known as stack unwinding, involves simply adjusting the stack pointer, which is a constant-time operation. In contrast, heap deallocation requires explicitly releasing memory using mechanisms like free() or relying on garbage collection, which introduces overhead and may cause fragmentation.
  • Thread Safety: Stack allocation is inherently thread-safe in single-threaded environments or environments where each thread has its own stack. Since each thread has its own stack, there are no concurrency issues related to memory allocation and deallocation. In contrast, heap allocation may require synchronization mechanisms, such as locks or atomic operations, to ensure thread safety in multi-threaded environments, which can impact performance.

Advantages in stack allocation

  • Stack allocation is fairly quick as it can be achieved by just moving the stack pointer or the frame pointer. Releasing the memory again is also fast as it is also possible by moving a pointer. 
  • The space for the array is freed up when the function that allocated the array returns (as the frame in which the array is allocated is taken off the stack). This allows easy reuse of the memory for later stack allocations in the same program execution. 
  • An unbounded number of arrays can be allocated at runtime since recursive functions can allocate an array in each invocation of the function. 
  • The size of the array need not be known at compile time. The frame is at runtime-created to be large enough to hold the array.

Disadvantages in stack allocation

  • Once allocated, the array can not be extended, as we can not (easily) squeeze more space into the middle of the stack, where the array is allocated, nor reallocate it at the top of the stack (unless it is the same frame)
  •  The array will not survive after return from the function in which it is allocated, so it can be used only locally inside this function and the functions that it calls.


In C, arrays that are declared locally in a function are stack-allocated (unless declared static, in which case they are statically allocated). C allows you to return pointers to stack-allocated arrays, and it is up to the programmer to make sure he never follows a pointer to an array that is no longer allocated. This often goes wrong. Other languages (like Pascal) avoid the problem by not allowing pointers to stack-allocated data to be returned from a function.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main difference between stack and heap allocation?

The main difference is stack allocation is faster and safer than heap allocation as data stored can only be accessed by the owner thread.

In which manner does stack allocate memory?

The stack allocates memory in a LIFO manner by moving the stack pointer downwards.

Who allocates the stack?

In most programming languages, the stack is managed by the runtime environment or the operating system. When a program is executed, the runtime environment or operating system allocates a region of memory known as the stack for each thread of execution.


In this article, we have discussed Stack Allocation. It is a fundamental concept in computer science and programming that plays a crucial role in memory management and program execution. By allocating memory on the stack, programs benefit from fast and efficient memory access, locality of reference, deterministic deallocation, and thread safety. 

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