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Memory Accessing Alignment

For any data type that requires N bytes, its starting address should be a multiple of N. In most x86 processors the memory interface is designed to read/write blocks that are 8 or 16 bytes long2.

Unaligned memory accesses occur when you try to read N bytes of data starting from an address that is not evenly divisible by N (i.e. addr % N != 0). For example, reading 4 bytes of data from address 0x10004 is fine, but reading 4 bytes of data from address 0x10005 would be an unaligned memory access 6.

Unaligned access may allow the program to use less memory1, but it has many drawbacks:

The effects of performing an unaligned memory access vary from architecture to architecture. A summary of the common scenarios:

  • Some architectures are able to perform unaligned memory accesses transparently, but there is usually a significant performance cost.
  • Some architectures raise processor exceptions when unaligned accesses happen. The exception handler is able to correct the unaligned access, at significant cost to performance.
  • Some architectures raise processor exceptions when unaligned accesses happen, but the exceptions do not contain enough information for the unaligned access to be corrected.
  • Some architectures are not capable of unaligned memory access, but will silently perform a different memory access to the one that was requested, resulting in a subtle code bug that is hard to detect!

If your code causes unaligned memory accesses to happen, your code will not work correctly on certain platforms and will cause performance problems on others 6.


Consider a bitmap data structure where each pixel is represented by 3 bytes (RGB). In order to preserve alignment we add a “padding byte”3, making the structure 32 bits instead of 24:

| : : : : : : : | : : : : : : : | : : : : : : : | : : : : : : : |
     Red             Green           Blue            Padding

This consumes more memory, but is ideally more performant. Of course, YMMV5.

  1. Introduction To ARM Cortex-M Microcontrollers (5th Ed.), p. 96.
  2. Computer Systems: A Programming Perspective (2nd Ed.), p. 290.
  3. Handmande Hero, Day 004 (t. 5:19).
  4. 21st Century C, (2nd Ed.), p. 137.
  5. Data Alignment For Speed: Myth Or Reality?.
  6. Unaligned Memory Access.

Tags: c , lowlevel , performance