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Mmap vs. Malloc: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on March 3, 2024
mmap maps files or devices into memory, offering fine-grained control over page caching and protection. malloc allocates memory on the heap, simplifying dynamic memory management.

Key Differences

mmap (memory map) and malloc (memory allocation) are two different mechanisms used for memory management in programming, particularly in the C language and UNIX-like operating systems. mmap is used to map files or devices into memory, allowing a program to access files or devices as if they were part of its memory space. On the other hand, malloc is a standard C library function that allocates a specified amount of memory from the heap. The memory allocated by malloc is uninitialized and must be freed by the programmer using free to avoid memory leaks. malloc is simpler to use for general-purpose dynamic memory allocation without the need for file or device mapping.
mmap offers advantages like directly mapping file contents into a process's address space, enabling efficient file reading and writing. This can reduce the overhead of system calls and I/O operations. mmap also allows for shared memory regions between processes, facilitating inter-process communication. However, it requires more setup and parameters than malloc, such as protection flags and mapping options.
malloc is typically used for allocating small to moderately sized blocks of memory for temporary data structures or when no file mapping is needed. It is more straightforward than mmap for simple memory allocation tasks but lacks the direct file mapping and shared memory capabilities. malloc does not directly interact with the file system or offer the same level of control over memory protection and visibility as mmap.
Both mmap and malloc serve crucial roles in memory management, but their usage depends on the specific needs of the application. Choosing between them involves considering factors like the size of the memory needed, whether file mapping is required, and the need for shared memory between processes.

Comparison Chart


Maps files or devices into memory.
Allocates memory on the heap.

Use Cases

File I/O, shared memory, large allocations.
Dynamic memory allocation for data structures.

Memory Initialization

Maps existing content, if any.
Allocates uninitialized memory.

Control Over Memory

Fine-grained control (protection, visibility).
No control over protection or visibility.

Inter-process Communication

Facilitates shared memory between processes.
Not applicable.

Mmap and Malloc Definitions


Maps files or devices into memory space.
Used mmap to access the configuration file directly from memory.


Allocates a specified amount of uninitialized memory on the heap.
Used malloc to allocate memory for an array of integers.


Enables shared memory between processes for IPC.
Created a shared memory segment using mmap for process communication.


Commonly used for dynamic data structures allocation.
Malloc allocated memory for the linked list nodes.


Allows for efficient file handling by avoiding explicit I/O operations.
Mmap improved the database's read performance significantly.


Requires manual memory management (freeing) by the programmer.
After using malloc, always remember to free the memory.


Provides control over page caching and memory protection.
Set up mmap with PROT_READ to safely read from the mapped file.


Does not offer direct file or device mapping capabilities.
For dynamic array allocation, malloc was the go-to function.


Can simulate dynamic memory allocation with file backing.
Mmap was used to allocate a large memory block with disk backing for the data.


Simple to use for general-purpose memory allocation.
Initialized the struct with memory from malloc.


(computing) A subroutine in the C programming language's standard library for performing dynamic memory allocation.


(computing) To allocate memory using the C programming language malloc subroutine.


Is memory allocated by mmap automatically freed?

No, you must explicitly unmap it using munmap.

What is mmap used for?

mmap is used for mapping files or devices into memory, enabling efficient file access and inter-process communication.

Can mmap and malloc be used interchangeably?

No, they serve different purposes: mmap for file/device mapping and shared memory, malloc for heap memory allocation.

Do I need to free memory allocated by malloc?

Yes, use free to avoid memory leaks.

Can mmap improve file I/O performance?

Yes, by mapping files directly into memory, reducing system call overhead.

Can mmap be used for memory shared between processes?

Yes, it's commonly used for shared memory IPC.

What is malloc used for?

malloc is used for allocating memory on the heap for dynamic data structures or arrays.

Is malloc suitable for allocating large memory blocks?

While possible, mmap might be better for very large allocations due to its control over paging.

How does malloc affect the heap?

malloc increases the heap size by the amount of memory allocated.

Can malloc map files to memory?

No, malloc is strictly for dynamic memory allocation on the heap.

How does mmap handle memory protection?

mmap allows specifying memory protection flags to control read/write/execute permissions.

What is a major advantage of mmap over malloc?

mmap offers direct memory mapping of files for efficient access and can create shared memory spaces.

Can mmap allocations be shared with child processes?

Yes, mappings can be inherited by child processes, facilitating shared memory.

How do you determine the size of a malloc allocation?

The size is determined at runtime by the argument passed to malloc.

How does malloc handle memory initialization?

malloc allocates uninitialized memory; you must initialize it manually.

Is there any memory overhead with using mmap?

Yes, mapping files can consume virtual memory address space, which is a consideration for large files.

Can mmap allocation be resized?

Resizing mmap allocations is complex and usually involves remapping.

What happens if you forget to free memory allocated by malloc?

This leads to memory leaks, which can consume available memory and affect performance.

What are the limits of mmap?

Limits include available address space and system-imposed limits on mapped files.

How is malloc different in terms of usage compared to mmap?

malloc is simpler and more straightforward for general memory allocation without the additional capabilities of mmap for file mapping and shared memory.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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