Kernel Korner - Allocating Memory in the Kernel

In this article, Robert offers a refresher on kernel memory allocation and how it has changed for the 2.6 kernel.

With a little understanding, getting a hold of memory in the kernel is demystified and not too much more difficult to do than it is in user space. A few simple rules of thumb can go a long way:

  • Decide whether you can sleep (that is, whether the call to kmalloc() can block). If you are in an interrupt handler, in a bottom half, or if you hold a lock, you cannot. If you are in process context and do not hold a lock, you probably can.

  • If you can sleep, specify GFP_KERNEL.

  • If you cannot sleep, specify GFP_ATOMIC.

  • If you need DMA-capable memory (for example, for an ISA or broken PCI device), specify GFP_DMA.

  • Always check for and handle a NULL return value from kmalloc().

  • Do not leak memory; make sure you call kfree() somewhere.

  • Ensure that you do not race and call kfree() multiple times and that you never access a block of memory after you free it.

Robert Love ( is a kernel hacker at MontaVista Software and a student at the University of Florida. He is the author of Linux Kernel Development. Robert enjoys fine wine and lives in Gainesville, Florida.



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Kernel flags

Anonymous's picture

Hi, i see in my aircraft linux system flag 7 and flag 0 from 2 different kernel versions. What are they? Pls help. Thks

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