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How to use dynamic memory in safety systems

The safety standard IEC 61508 highly recommends using static memory management. We all are following this recommendation - unless there is a good reason to be more dynamic, right?

The time will come when we need features like:

  • Run time configuration
  • Remove compile-time configuration
  • Flexibility to external behavior or hardware
  • A platform for a complete generation of products

then it is time to discuss dynamic solutions because it’s not efficient (or even possible) to eliminate dynamic memory management out of the system while designing such features.

We must avoid and detect programming errors

Let’s go back to the IEC61508. The reason for the recommendation is the potential risk of multiple well known and hard to detect programming errors concerning dynamic memory management:

  1. Memory Fragmentation
  2. No Memory Available
  3. Missing Memory Free
  4. Free Memory to Wrong Pool
  5. Free Memory multiple Times
  6. Using Memory after Free
  7. Free Memory while Using

Some solutions allow only the allocation of memory (I call them ’pseudo-dynamic’). These type of solutions are addressing the listed problems 1 and 2.

For a more general approach, we need mechanisms to avoid or detect all of the listed situations systematically.

1. Memory Fragmentation

The memory fragmentation is an effect, which may result when we perform multiple allocations and free cycles with different memory sizes.

In real-time systems, we need determinism and constant execution times. With improved allocation algorithms like the first fit algorithm, the execution timing depends heavily on previous memory activities. This dependency is terrible for many of our system designs.

The traditional way to avoid memory fragmentation is working with fixed size memory block pools.

Good news: professional real-time kernels provide memory management with fixed size memory blocks. Even some real-time kernel for non-safety systems give us this kind of service. Let's use the provided service of our preferred real-time kernel.

For this article, we consider the principal function interface of a real-time kernel. For reference, a simple usage cycle is:

ptr = MemAlloc(pool);
/* use memory via ptr */
MemFree(pool, ptr);

and somewhere during start up:

pool = Create(mem, size, num);

2. No Memory Available

All memory allocation functions are giving us feedback (e.g., a NULL pointer) if not enough memory is available for the current allocation request. I think it is straight forward to check this and take appropriate action.

ptr = MemAlloc(pool);
if (ptr == NULL) {
/* use memory via ptr */
MemFree(pool, ptr);

When using a real-time kernel, we can furthermore avoid the risk of a missing check and failure handling: we extend our memory allocation function with a blocking wait for free memory:

ptr = MemAllocWait(pool);
/* use memory via ptr */
MemFree(pool, ptr);

Now we guarantee, that the returned pointer is always a valid allocated memory block. The mandatory safety task monitor will detect if a task will not get enough memory within the defined deadline.

3. Free Memory to Wrong Pool

If we are responsible for freeing the memory to the correct memory pool (e.g., giving the right memory pool as an argument while freeing the memory block), we could do this wrong.

This error is not a big issue, because we can avoid this error entirely by adding the required argument to an info area. For simple (and fast) access of this data, the info area is a part of the allocated memory.

This part is not usable for the application and located in front of the application memory block reference:

Memory Block Layout

The usage sequence with this improvement is now:

ptr = MemAllocWait(pool);
/* use memory via ptr */

4. Missing Memory Free

A so-called 'memory leak' occurs when we allocate memory and after usage, we miss to free the memory block. This error is not easy to detect, especially when allocation and free actions will take place in different functions (or tasks).

One method I found for detecting a memory leak, without knowing the application details, is a memory watchdog. This watchdog is working analogously to a typically used execution watchdog.

Let us assume we define a watchdog time during the memory allocation. This watchdog forces us to trigger the watchdog within this period to keep the memory block valid.

We store the memory timing data in the already introduced info area.

For checking the watchdog period of all allocated memory blocks, we introduce a checking function. The pseudo code should give you an idea of how we check the blocks.

void MemCheck(pool)
    for each 'block' in 'pool' do:
        if ( 'block::timeout' is greater than 0 ) then:
            decrement 'block::timeout' by 1
            if ( 'block::timeout' is equal to 0 ) then:
                call MemErrTimeout (block)

We call this function periodically as part of the system safety self-tests. Our using sequence looks like the following lines.

ptr = MemAllocWait(timeout, pool);
/* use memory via ptr */

Note: between the lines, we allow a maximum period of the given timeout. This timeout may occur, when an interrupt leads to a task switch between these lines.

In case we miss the watchdog period with our use-trigger, we can define an appropriate action on this detection in a callback function:

void MemErrTimeout(ptr)
    /* action on timeout:  */
    /* log diagnostic data */
    /* initiate safe state */

5. Free Memory multiple Times

When we free a memory block multiple times (by mistake) without a detection mechanism, we are running in strange behavior of the system. This kind of error is tough to debug.

With an additional redundancy value within the info area, we can handle this very efficiently. I prefer the complement value of the pool argument. We must set both values to a matching pair within the memory allocation function.

The memory free function can check this redundant information, put back the memory block into the addressed pool and has to corrupt the redundant information. A pseudo-code could look like:

void MemFree(ptr)
    if ( 'ptr::pool' is equal to complement of 'ptr::inv_pool' ) then:
        release memory block 'ptr' to ’ptr::pool'
        set 'ptr::inv_pool' to 'ptr::pool'
        call MemErrDoubleFree (ptr)

In the end, we can define an appropriate action for this erroneous case in a callback function: MemErrDoubleFree(ptr).

6. Using Memory after Free

This programming error sounds crazy, but in multi-tasking environments, this error may exist, in worst case undetected for a long time.

For detecting this situation, we can reuse our data redundancy in the info area. In this case, we check that the redundancy is uncorrupted before using the memory block. To get the usage sequence as simple as possible, we can integrate the memory watchdog triggering:

void MemStartAccess(ptr)
    if ( 'ptr::pool' is not equal to complement of 'ptr::inv_pool' ) then:
        call MemErrUsedFree (ptr)
        set 'ptr::timeout' to 'ptr::watchdog_time'

In the end, we can define an appropriate action for this erroneous case in a callback function: MemErrUsedFree(ptr).

The usage sequence for that detection mechanism will need an additional function call before using the memory block.

ptr = MemAllocWait(timeout, pool);
/* use memory block via ptr */

7. Free Memory while Using

This programming error is in the same class of errors as the previous one. In a multi-tasking environment, it is possible to free a memory block which was used by the interrupted task. Coming back to the task which uses the memory, we use memory that is already released.

When thinking about this problem, I found a solution with symmetric functions. We already have a MemStartAccess() function - so why not introduce a function at the end, too? (I like to have symmetric functions for this kind of use cases.)

This new function can inform us, that the memory block is now unused:

void MemEndAccess(ptr);

With a corresponding blocking function for releasing the memory, we can avoid this programming error.

void MemFreeWait(ptr);

This leads us to the final dynamic memory usage sequence in this article:

ptr = MemAllocWait(timeout, pool);
/* use memory block via ptr */


In this article, we discovered a dynamic memory management approach for use in IEC61508 systems.

We systematically avoid the following programming errors:

  • memory fragmentation
  • free memory to wrong pool
  • no memory is available
  • free memory while using

and we can detect and perform individual reactions on the situations:

  • missing free memory
  • free memory multiple times
  • usage of memory after free

The price we pay for these safety features is:

  • additional memory space (e.g., 16 bytes) within each allocated memory block
  • deterministic amount of CPU run time

Nevertheless, for safety-critical systems, I still recommend using dynamic memory with care. With the provided measures, I think it is acceptable.

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