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Wolfenstein's memory manager

I just bought Fabien Sanglard's Game Engine Black Book - DOOM, which is now available on Kindle. It looks like a great book and I will do a full review once I've read all of it. However, I dived straight to the section on Id's memory manager for the game. I've put together some notes based on Fabien's work and looking at the Wolf 3D source code (the original version - there are various codebases out there.)

The first question of course is why have a custom memory allocator at all? The problem is using malloc() leads to memory fragmentation as I have talked about on this site and in my extensive notes on allocators in my GitHub.

The problem with memory fragmentation is that when your memory map looks like Swiss cheese (that is, it's full of holes) it can be that an individual hole is not big enough to satisfy a memory request. The game then fails as it cannot load the required texture, level or sound effect.

What you really want to do is take all those lovely holes (free space) and squash them all together so that they make up a much more usable free space lump. This is memory defragmentation or compaction.

Unfortunately malloc() does not compact memory (or at least it did not back in the days of Turbo C - around 1992). Hence the need for the custom allocator.

You have to remember that back in 1992 when Wolf 3D was released the systems of the time could be considered "memory constrained". The Intel 80286, which was the target of Wolf, had a 24-bit address bus. In theory that meant it could address a 16MB address space. However, most 286-based PCs at that time had 1MB. The reason for this was due to the fact that RAM upgrades were hideously expensive (expect to pay something like $1,500 for a 4MB expansion card - yes that is MegaBytes - not GigaBytes).

Also, DOS, which was the prevalent operating system at the time, was essentially designed for the 8086 chip which had a 20-bit address bus. The memory setup on DOS machines was complicated, but basically you had a 640K "conventional memory" area where the program code and most data was stored. Then, depending on your setup, you might have access to the memory between 640K and the 1MB point, and some data could be stored there.

So with all this and complications such as XMS, EMS and upper memory areas, and the need for compaction, the memory manager had to be a custom job.

The Wolf memory manager uses an interesting design. Rather than keeping a list of free blocks it actually keeps a list of allocated blocks. As memory is allocated and freed the memory map becomes fragmented, and you have "holes" (free memory) between the allocated blocks. The Wolf memory manager scans the memory map for these holes and uses them.

It's a bit more complicated than that though because Wolf also has the idea of purgeable blocks. When memory is allocated you can specify a block as purgeable. When the manager scans for a free block it can discard purgeable blocks and reuse their space. This purging idea is neat because it provides a way to make room for new assets to be loaded.

A problem can arise though if you are low on memory and you have a lot of objects in a scene and what happens is the memory manager purges blocks to try and create free space and then reloads those same assets as they are required for the scene. You end up with thrashing going on.

You would expect the frame rate to drop off a cliff at this point because the manager will scan the block list, purge it to try and make space, and then reload assets - all this takes time.

Thrashing might happen on a PC with only conventional memory as the user has not set up the system to use the area above 640K - or has that area clogged up with so-called Terminate and Stay Resident programs (TSRs). TSRs were "a thing" back in the DOS days.

Of course even with purging, you can still end up with fragmentation, and a subsequent "out of memory" error. So the Id memory manager has another trick up its sleeve - compaction.

Compaction in this implementation involves copying allocated blocks so they are contiguous. This eliminates the holes between allocated blocks, in effect collecting the holes together at the upper end of the memory map in a contiguous free space. In other words you gather all the little holes into one big hole!

This is somewhat complicated in the implementation as some blocks are deemed locked and so cannot be moved. I've not investigated this in detail but at a guess I would say that some data in memory is transferred by the DMA controller, say from RAM to the Sound Blaster card, and if you moved the source memory, the DMA controller would quite happily copy over incorrect data, the original source data having moved!

The list of allocated blocks is structured as a singly linked-list, which is set up with a head pointer and a "rover", which points to the last block in the list before the wilderness.

There's an interesting point here which is when you keep a list of free blocks you can embed the list node data structure in the free block itself, as it's not being used for anything - it's free memory. However, if you keep a list of allocated blocks like the Wolf memory manager, where do you store the list node data structures?

Looking at the source code, what Wolf seems to do is allocate memory for the list node data structures on the stack by simply allocating an array. It looks like the array is hardcoded to have enough space for 700 list nodes. I'm guessing this number was based on John Carmack's familiarity with the requirements of the game, some basic instrumenting, and a bit of trial and error. You have to remember this is a game-specific allocator, not a general purpose allocator. You could not really get away with hard-coded limits like this in a general purpose allocator.

There's also another interesting little aspect. When you do a compaction and move blocks of data, it means that the pointer to the original allocation is no longer valid. How is this dealt with?

Well there are a couple of possible approaches. One is to use memory handles which are a lookup into a table of pointers. If a pointer is moved then the pointer entry in the table is updated, but the handle is unchanged and still valid.

What the Wolf memory manager does is store a pointer to the original returned pointer in its allocated memory block data structure. This pointer to a pointer is called the Usepointer (U). This points to the memory pointer (M) which is the thing that actually points to the allocated memory area that the application will use.

In other words the application uses the pointer M, but the memory manager uses U. If a block of allocated memory is moved during compaction, U is dereferenced in order to update the value of M.

I'm not quite sure what would happen if the game logic made a copy of the M pointer and then manipulated itself to process a block of memory. You would then have a potentially rogue pointer on your hands. However, it's possible I didn't fully understand how the usepointer is used. I will need to spend some more time on that to be absolutely sure. (Update: Apparently I did understand it - quick email exchange with Fabien confirmed it - never copy or move the allocated block pointer - this is a good argument for using handles if you can.)

John Carmack himself has said that custom memory managers are a source of many bugs. Any code that has a lot of pointer manipulation (think lists, queues, circular buffers, trees etc.) are a rich source of bugs.

Overall the Wolf memory manager is a clever piece of software that John Carmack wrote when he was just 21 years old. When you consider it was just one of many ground-breaking pieces of technology he had to create in order to get a fast First Person Shooter up and running fast on the limited hardware of the time, it really puts into perspective what an amazing achievement it was.