Zend Memory Manager

Zend Memory Manager, often abbreviated as ZendMM or ZMM, is a C layer that aims to provide abilities to allocate and release dynamic request-bound memory.

Note the “request-bound” in the above sentence.

ZendMM is not just a classical layer over libc’s dynamic memory allocator, mainly represented by the couple API calls malloc()/free(). ZendMM is about request-bound memory that PHP must allocate while treating a request.

The two main kind of dynamic memory pools in PHP

PHP is a share-nothing architecture. Well, not at 100%. Let us explain.


You may need to read the PHP lifecycle chapter before continuing here, you’ll get additional information about the different steps and cycles that can be drawn from PHP lifetime.

PHP can treat several hundreds or thousands of requests into the same process. By default, PHP will forget anything it knows of the current request, when that later finishes.

“Forgetting” things translates to freeing any dynamic buffer that got allocated while treating a request. That means that when in the process of treating a request, one must not allocate dynamic memory using traditional libc calls. Doing that is perfectly valid, but you give a chance to forget to free such a buffer.

ZendMM comes with an API that substitute to libc’s dynamic allocator, by copying its API. When in the process of treating a request, the programmer must use that API instead of libc’s allocator.

For example, when PHP treats a request, it will parse PHP files. Those ones will lead to functions and classes declarations, for example. When the compiler comes to compile the PHP files, it will allocate some dynamic memory to store classes and functions it discovers. But, at the end of the request, PHP will forget about those latter. By default, PHP forgets a very huge number of information from one request to another.

There exists however some pretty rare information you need to persist across several requests. But that’s uncommon.

What could be kept unchanged through requests ? What we call persistent objects. Once more let us insist : those are rare cases. For example, the current PHP executable path won’t change from requests to requests. That latter information is allocated permanently, that means it is allocated with a traditional libc’s malloc() call.

What else? Some strings. For example, the “_SERVER” string will be reused from request to request, as every request will create the $_SERVER PHP array. So the “_SERVER” string itself can be permanently allocated, because it will be allocated once.

What you must remember:

  • There exists two kinds of dynamic memory allocations while programming PHP Core or extensions:
    • Request-bound dynamic allocations.

    • Permanent dynamic allocations.

  • Request-bound dynamic memory allocations
    • Must only be performed when PHP is treating a request (not before, nor after).

    • Should only be performed using the ZendMM dynamic memory allocation API.

    • Are very common in extensions design, basically 95% of your dynamic allocations will be request-bound.

    • Are tracked by ZendMM, and you’ll be informed about leaking.

  • Permanent dynamic memory allocations
    • Should not be performed while PHP is treating a request (not forbidden, but a bad idea).

    • Are not tracked by ZendMM, and you won’t be informed about leaking.

    • Should be pretty rare in an extension.

Also, keep in mind that all PHP source code has been based on such a memory level. Thus, many internal structures get allocated using the Zend Memory Manager. Most of them got a “persistent” API call, which when used, lead to traditional libc allocation.

Here is a request-bound allocated zend_string:

zend_string *foo = zend_string_init("foo", strlen("foo"), 0);

And here is the persistent allocated one:

zend_string *foo = zend_string_init("foo", strlen("foo"), 1);

Same for HashTable. Request-bound allocated one:

zend_array ar;
zend_hash_init(&ar, 8, NULL, NULL, 0);

Persistent allocated one:

zend_array ar;
zend_hash_init(&ar, 8, NULL, NULL, 1);

It is always the same in all the different Zend APIs. Usually, it is whether a “0” to pass as last parameter to mean “I want this structure to be allocated using ZendMM, so request-bound”, or “1” meaning “I want this structure to get allocated bypassing ZendMM and using a traditional libc’s malloc() call”.

Obviously, those structures provide an API that remembers how it did allocate the structure, to use the right deallocation function when destroyed. Hence in such a code:


The API knows whether those structures were allocated using request-bound allocation, or permanent one, and in the first case will use efree() to release it, and in the second case libc’s free().

Zend Memory Manager API

The API is located into Zend/zend_alloc.h

The API calls are mainly C macros and not functions, so get prepared if you debug them and want to look at how they work. Those calls copy libc’s calls, they usually add an “e” in the function name; So you should not be lost, and there is not many things to detail about the API.

Basically what you’ll use most are emalloc(size_t) and efree(void *).

You are also provided with ecalloc(size_t nmemb, size_t size) that allocates nmemb of individual size size, and zeroes the area. If you are a strong C programmer with experience, you should know that whenever possible, it is better to use ecalloc() over emalloc() as ecalloc() will zero out the memory area which could help a lot in pointer bug detection. Remember that emalloc() works basically like the libc malloc(): it will look for a big enough area in different pools, and return you the best fit. So you may be given a recycled pointer which points to garbage.

Then comes safe_emalloc(size_t nmemb, size_t size, size_t offset), which is an emalloc(size * nmemb + offset) but that does check against overflows for you. You should use this API call if the numbers you must provide come from an untrusted source, like the userland.

About string facilities, estrdup(char *) and estrndup(char *, size_t len) allow to duplicate strings or binary strings.

Whatever happens, pointers returned by ZendMM must be freed using ZendMM, aka efree() call and not libc’s free().


A note on persistent allocations. Persistent allocations stay alive between requests. You traditionnaly use the common libc malloc/free to perform that, but ZendMM has got some shortcuts to libc allocator : the “persistent” API. This API starts by the “p” letter and let you choose between ZendMM alloc, or persistent alloc. Hence a pemalloc(size_t, 1) is nothing more than a malloc(), a pefree(void *, 1) is a free() and a pestrdup(void *, 1) is a strdup(). Just to say.

Zend Memory Manager debugging shields

ZendMM provides the following abilities:

  • Memory consumption management.

  • Memory leak tracking and automatic-free.

  • Speed up in allocations by pre-allocating well-known-sized buffers and keeping a warm cache on free

Memory consumption management

ZendMM is the layer behind the PHP userland “memory_limit” feature. Every single byte allocated using the ZendMM layer is counted and added. When the INI’s memory_limit is reached, you know what happens. That also mean that any allocation you perform via ZendMM is reflected in the memory_get_usage() call from PHP userland.

As an extension developer, this is a good thing, because it helps mastering the PHP process’ heap size.

If a memory limit error is launched, the engine will bail out from the current code position to a catch block, and will terminate smoothly. But there is no chance it goes back to the location in your code where the limit blew up. You must be prepared to that.

That means that in theory, ZendMM cannot return a NULL pointer to you. If the allocation fails from the OS, or if the allocation generates a memory limit error, the code will run into a catch block and won’t return to you allocation call.

If for any reason you need to bypass that protection, you must then use a traditional libc call, like malloc(). Take care however and know what you do. It may happen that you need to allocate lots of memory and could blow up the PHP memory_limit if using ZendMM. Thus use another allocator (like libc) but take care: your extension will grow the current process heap size. That cannot be seen using memory_get_usage() in PHP, but by analyzing the current heap with the OS facilities (like /proc/{pid}/maps)


If you need to fully disable ZendMM, you can launch PHP with the USE_ZEND_ALLOC=0 env var. This way, every call to the ZendMM API (like emalloc()) will be directed to a libc call, and ZendMM will be disabled. This is especially useful when debugging memory.

Memory leak tracking

Remember the main ZendMM rules: it starts when a request starts, it then expects you call its API when in need of dynamic memory as you are treating a request. When the current request ends, ZendMM shuts down.

By shutting down, it will browse every of its active pointer, and if using a debug build of PHP, it will warn you about memory leaking.

Let’s be clear here: if at the end of the current request ZendMM finds some active memory blocks, that means those are leaking. There should not be any active memory block living onto ZendMM heap at the end of the request, as anyone who allocated some should have freed them.

If you forget to free blocks, they will all get displayed on stderr. This process of memory leak reporting only works in the following conditions:

  • You are using a debug build of PHP

  • You have report_memleaks=On in php.ini (default)

Here is an example of a simple leak into an extension:

    void *foo = emalloc(128);

When launching PHP with that extension activated, on a debug build, that generates on stderr:

[Fri Jun 9 16:04:59 2017]  Script:  '/tmp/foobar.php'
/path/to/extension/file.c(123) : Freeing 0x00007fffeee65000 (128 bytes), script=/tmp/foobar.php
=== Total 1 memory leaks detected ===

Those lines are generated when the Zend Memory Manager shuts down, that is at the end of each treated request.

Beware however:

  • Obviously ZendMM doesn’t know anything about persistent allocations, or allocations that were performed in another way than using it. Hence, ZendMM can only warn you about allocations it is aware of, every traditional libc allocation won’t be reported in here, f.e.

  • If PHP shuts down in an incorrect maner (what we call an unclean shutdown), ZendMM will report tons of leaks. This is because when incorrectly shutdown, the engine uses a longjmp() call to a catch block, preventing every code that cleans memory to fire-in. Thus, many leaks get reported. This happens especially after a call to PHP’s exit()/die(), or if a fatal error gets triggered in some critical parts of PHP.

  • If you use a non-debug build of PHP, nothing shows on stderr, ZendMM is dumb but will still clean any allocated request-bound buffer that’s not been explicitly freed by the programmer

What you must remember is that ZendMM leak tracking is a nice bonus tool to have, but it does not replace a true C memory debugger.

ZendMM internal design

Common errors and mistakes

Here are the most common errors while using ZendMM, and what you should do about them.

  1. Usage of ZendMM as you are not treating a request.

Get infos about the PHP lifecycle to know in your extensions when you are treating a request, and when not. If you use ZendMM out of the scope of a request (like in MINIT()), the allocation will be silently cleared by ZendMM before treating the first request, and you’ll probably use-after-free : simply don’t.

  1. Buffer overflow and underflows.

Use a memory debugger. If you write below or past a memory area returned by ZendMM, you will overwrite crucial ZendMM structures and trigger a crash. It may happen that the “zend_mm_heap corrupted” message gets display in case ZendMM was able to detect the mess for you. The stack trace will show a crash from some code, to some ZendMM code. ZendMM code does not crash itself. If you get crashed in the middle of ZendMM code, that highly probably means you messed up with a pointer somewhere. Kick in your favorite memory debugger and look for the guilty part and fix it.

  1. Mix API calls

If you allocate a ZendMM pointer (emalloc() f.e) and free it using libc (free()), or the opposite scenario: you will crash. Be rigorous. Also if you pass to ZendMM’s efree() any pointer it doesn’t know about: you will crash.