UP ONE LEVEL: ENGG 335 Course Handout List

Activation Records and the Stack
ENGG 335 Fall 1998 Course Handout

Author: Steve Norman
Date of first publication: September 20, 1995
Minor revisions made for Fall 1996 and Spring 1997
Converted from C to C++ for Fall 1997; used again in Fall 1998
Paper copies handed out Friday, Sept. 18, 1998
Last modified: Tue Sep 15 14:33:49 MDT 1998


Memory allocation

To allocate memory for a variable or array means to reserve a piece of a program's memory space to store the value of the variable or the values of the array elements.

To deallocate memory is to ``turn off'' the reservation that was made when the memory was allocated. Deallocated memory is recycled - it may be used again for storage of other variables or arrays.

There are three types of memory allocation in C++ programs: automatic allocation, static allocation and dynamic allocation.

Automatic allocation is the main topic of this handout, and is discussed in detail starting in the next section.

Static allocation is used for global variables, static local variables, and string constants. Allocation of static storage takes places just before execution of the program starts. Deallocation does not occur until after the program has finished running.

Dynamic allocation is controlled using the new and delete operators. Allocation and deallocation of dynamic storage is under the programmer's direct control.

Another handout will say a bit more about static and dynamic allocation.

[back to top of document]

Activation records

In a C++ program, multiple functions can be active at the same time. For example, suppose main calls f, which in turn calls g. Then while g is executing, main, f, and g are all active.

Each active function has an activation record, a chunk of computer memory which holds the arguments and ``normal'' local variables of the function. (Another widely-used term for activation record is ``stack frame''.) In this context ``normal'' means ``not declared to be static or register.'' The official C++ terminology for ``normal local variable'' is automatic variable, because activation records are automatically allocated when a function is called and automatically deallocated when a function returns to its caller.

(In addition to arguments and local variables, an activation record is likely to contain two other pieces of data: a ``return address'' and a ``saved frame pointer''. To understand how C++ programs work at a machine language level, it is important to know what these things are. However, this document is treating C++ with a slightly higher level of abstraction, so these two pieces of data will be left out of the dicussion and left out of the diagrams.)

The activation records for all of the active functions are stored in the region of computer memory called the stack. A good way to remember this is to think of the stack as ``the region of memory where all the activation records are stacked''.

The activation record lives just long enough to allow a function to do its job. it is allocated when the function is called (becomes active) and it is deallocated when the function returns (becomes inactive). Once an activation record is deallocated, the memory it occupied is available for use when new activation records are created.

In C++, arguments are sometimes passed by value and sometimes by reference. Call by value, means that value of an expression in a list of arguments in a function call gets copied into a location in the activation record of the function being called. Data transmission through the argument list is one-way, because if the values of the arguments change in the called function, these changes are not copied back to the calling function.

Functions cannot directly access the activation records of other functions, nor can they directly access the static local variables of other functions. The scope of a function's arguments and local variables is limited to the block that defines the function.

Reference arguments can be used to give functions indirect access to the local data (variables and arguments) of other functions. Pointers can be used to achieve a similar effect.

[back to top of document]

Conventions for stack diagrams in ENGG 335

When drawing stack diagrams, please use the conventions described here.

Activation records should be drawn as rectangles. There should be a horizontal line dividing the activation record into two regions. Function arguments should appear below the line and local variables above the line.

If a function has are no arguments, write ``no arguments'' in the argument area. If there are no local variables, write ``no local variables'' in the local variable area.

Draw activation records for active functions only.

The activation records (ARs) should be drawn in a stack. The AR for main should be at the bottom of the stack, and the AR for the currently executing function should be at the top. The ordering of the ARs in between the bottom and the top should reflect the sequence of function calls that led from main to the currently executing function.

These conventions are used to draw stack diagrams for the examples in the next section.

[back to top of document]

Example program: introduction and listing

Listed below is a small example program. The purpose of this program is to demonstrate how activation records work; the program is not intended to serve as a good example of style or program organization.

There are comments in the program marking point 1, point 2, etc. For example, the program is at point 1 just before the statement i = -8; is executed. The program passes through these points in order. Diagrams showing what the stack looks like at each of these are shown further down in this document. If you are using a Web browser to read this document, you can use hypertext links to jump back and forth between the listing and the diagrams.

(Note that labels such as point 1 do not always correspond to a unique moment in the execution of a program. For example, if the comment is inside a loop or inside a function that is called more than once, the program may pass through a marked point more than once. This situation will come up near the end of the course when you will be asked to illustrate the progress of recursive functions.)

#include <iostream.h>

void print_facts(int num1, int num2);
int max_of_two(int j, int k);
double avg_of_two(int c, int d);

int main()
  int i;
  int j;
  // point  1
  i = -8;
  j = 7;
  // point  2
  print_facts(i, j);
  // point 10
  return 0;

void print_facts(int num1, int num2)
  int larger;
  double the_avg;
  // point  3
  larger = max_of_two(num1, num2);
  // point  6
  the_avg = avg_of_two(num1, num2);
  // point  9
  cout << "For the two integers " << num1 << " and "
       << num2 << ',' << endl;
  cout << "the larger is " << larger
       << " and the average is " << the_avg << '.' << endl;

int max_of_two(int j, int k)
  // point  4
  if (j < k)
    j = k;
  // point  5
  return j;

double avg_of_two(int c, int d)
  double sum;
  // point  7
  sum = c + d;
  // point  8
  return (c + d) / 2.0;

You should be able to trace through the execution of the program, following the appearance and disappearance of activation records and the changes to the values of variables. Here are some specific things to note:

main is a function, so it has an activation record like any other function.

The effect of call by value is demonstrated several times. The first time is at point 3, where you can see that the values from i and j of main have been copied into num1 and num2 of print_facts. It is important to realize that i and num1 have distinct storage locations, as do j and num2.

Immediately after a function is called, its local variables contain ``garbage'' values. The garbage remains there until it is overwritten with valid data. Variables are never ``empty'' - they contain either garbage data or meaningful data.

main has a variable named j and max_of_two has an argument named j. There is no conflict here because the scopes of the two j's do not overlap. (On the other hand, it's confusing style, especially since the j of max_of_two ends up receiving the value of the i of main.)

The strange style of the definition of max_of_two shows that an argument can be used like a local variable. Note how j gets a new value in max_of_two. Note also that this does not affect the value of num1 in print_facts. Once the value of num1 gets copied into j, there is no further connection between num1 and j.

[back to top of document]

Example program: diagrams for points 1, 2, 3 and 4

[back to code listing]

points 1, 2, 3, 4

[back to top of document]

Example program: diagrams for points 5, 6 and 7

[back to code listing]

points 5, 6, 7

[back to top of document]

Example program: diagrams for points 8, 9 and 10

[back to code listing]

points 8, 9, 10

[back to top of document]

More to come

This handout is just the beginning of coverage of how memory is organized in running C++ programs. Here are some important topics yet to be covered:

[back to top of document]