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OLE/OPC Memory Management White Paper

Al Chisholm, Intellution Inc


Ð'© Intellution Inc. 1998



Memory management in COM, Automation and OPC servers is a tricky issue. This paper will offer a concise explanation of the major issues and offer suggestions for creating servers and clients that are free of memory leaks. It assumes that you already know the basics of COM programming and memory allocation. All of these issues are also explained in various areas of the Microsoft Documentation. Also, experts may note that some of the issues are slightly simplified for clarity. That is, while it is always safe to follow the rules presented here, it is possible on rare occasions to break some of these rules but such situations are not discussed here.

When do I need to worry about this?

You need to think about these issues mainly when passing parameters to methods on interfaces. As a general rule you can check the IDL file and examine the parameter direction for each parameter.

All 'in' parameters are owned and managed by the program calling the method. In general no special rules apply and they are generally 'local' memory as discussed later. The called method can copy the data if it needs to be preserved but must never try to save a pointer to the data since the calling program will be reusing that memory after the method returns.

All 'out' parameters are 'shared' ownership. This is where you need to be careful. The called method allocates the memory which must be 'global' or 'string' memory as described below and passes a pointer back to the calling program. The calling program must 'free' the returned memory.

Note that this in/out rule applies to Caller/Callee, not to Client/Server. If the Server calls back into the Client (referred to as a 'Callback'), the same rules apply.

Memory Types

There are three types of memory you may want to allocate and manage in an OPC Server; local scratch memory, global memory to be returned to the client as 'out' parameters and BSTR (string) memory. You must take care to always allocate the right type of memory for the right use and also to free the memory using the proper function for that type of memory. Note that in many cases, calling the wrong 'free' function for a particular memory block will not generate any type of easily detectable runtime error but will still fail to free the memory resulting in leaks that can accumulate over time and eventually cause a system to fail.

Local Memory

Local scratch areas can be used within a function or can be allocated within an object as long as pointers to them are not passed outside the task or DLL. The memory can be allocated and freed using either of two techniques.

• malloc/free - the 'old' way.

• new/delete - the 'new' (recommended) way. If you allocate an array using new, be sure to use the 'delete []' syntax when freeing the memory.

Note that although the two techniques both work, you CANNOT allocate a block with one technique and free it with the other.

Global Memory

Global memory is that which is allocated by the called method and passed back to the caller by way of 'out' parameters (except BSTR memory as noted below). The memory is then freed by the caller. There are two techniques for managing this type of memory.

• CoTaskMemAlloc/CoTaskMemFree - the 'easy' way.

• CoGetMalloc - the 'efficient' way.

These techniques use the same memory 'pool' and are interchangeable. For example you can allocate memory in a called function with CoTaskMemAlloc and free it in a calling method using the IMalloc obtained from CoGetMalloc. Note that in case of error it is also allowed for the called method to free the memory (for example where you get halfway through a method and determined that the data cannot be returned to the



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