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Where does misaligned data come from?

Guest Author

A good question about data (mis)alignment is "Where did it come from?". So here's a reasonably detailed answer to that...

If the compiler has generated the code for you and you've not done anything "weird" then the data should be correctly aligned. So most apps don't have misaligned data, and most of the time you (as a developer) don't have to worry about it. For example, if you allocate a local variable, or a global variable, then the compiler will correctly align it. If you cast a call to malloc() into a pointer to a structure, then that structure will be correctly aligned. And so on.... so if the compiler is doing all this correctly, when could it every be possible to have misaligned data. There's a bunch of situations.

But first let's quickly review the -xmemalign flag. What it actually tells the compiler to do is to assume a particular alignment (and trap behaviour) for variables where it is unsure what the alignment is. If a variable is aligned, then the compiler will generate code exploiting that fact. So the -xmemalign only really applies to dynamically allocated data accessed through pointers. So what does this apply - the following is not an exhaustive list:

  • Packed data structures. If a data structure has been declared as being packed, then the compiler will squash the members together to occupy the minimum space - so the alignments may be wrong. If a structure is not packed the compiler adds padding to ensure that members are correctly aligned.
  • Buffers. Suppose your application gets packets across the network. If the packet contains an integer there's no guarantee that the integer will be placed on a four byte boundary.
  • Pointers into bytes. Suppose you have a string of characters and you want load 4 of them into an int - perhaps you're doing some bit-twiddling. Then you have to take care to handle strings that don't start at 4 byte boundaries.

The take away from this should be that alignment is not something that most developers need worry about. Most code gets the correct alignment out of the box - that's why the example program is so contrived: misalignment is the result of a developer choice, decision, or requirement. It does sometimes come up in porting, and that's why it's important to be able to diagnose when and where it happens, but most folks can get by assuming that they'll never see it! :)

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