Little C++ Standard Library Utility: std::align

Last Modify: December 28, 2021 | Create: December 13, 2021

I recently learned about std::align, one of the lesser-known functions in the C++ standard library due to its limited use cases. Since it is hard to describe without a specific use case, I will use a simple implementation of an arena allocator as a motivating example.

Arena allocator

Arena, also called bump allocator or region-based allocator, is probably the most straightforward allocation strategy. It is so widely used that even the C++ standard library has an arena implementation called std::pmr::monotonic_buffer_resource.

With arena, we start with a large chunk of pre-allocated memory coming from either the stack or another allocator such as malloc. Afterward, we allocate memory from that chunk by bumping a pointer offset.

Arena before allocation
Figure.1 - Arena before allocation
Arena after allocation
Figure.2 - Arena after allocation

Arena allocator has exceptional performance characteristics, especially when compared to complicated beasts like malloc. Each allocation only requires a pointer bump, and the deallocation is almost free as long as the objects allocated are trivially destructible1. If we need to call destructors, we must maintain a list of objects to destroy. Supporting destructors complicates arena implementation considerably and is beyond the scope of this post.

The downside of the arena is that you can only free all the allocated memory at once since the arena doesn't track each individual allocation. Nevertheless, it is helpful in situations where we have a lot of heterogeneous allocations that only need to be freed together, and is widely used in application domains from compilers to video games.

A minimum implementation of an arena

A straightforward implementation of the arena looks like the following:

struct Arena {
  std::byte* ptr = 0;
  std::size_t size_remain = 0;

  [[nodiscard]] auto alloc(std::size_t size) noexcept -> void*
    if (size_remain < size) return nullptr;
    auto* alloc_ptr = ptr;
    ptr += size;
    size_remain -= size;
    return alloc_ptr;

We can also store an end pointer instead of size_remain and compare ptr + size to the end pointer, though that won't change the overall picture too much.

To use our arena, we first construct the arena from a pre-allocated buffer. Then we can allocate raw memory from the arena and create objects on top of the allocated memory:

std::byte buffer[1000];
Arena arena {
  .ptr = buffer, 
  .size_remain = std::size(buffer)

auto* ptr = static_cast<std::uint8_t*>(arena.alloc(sizeof(std::uint8_t)));
ptr = new(ptr) std::uint8_t{42};
auto* ptr2 = static_cast<std::uint32_t*>(arena.alloc(sizeof(std::uint32_t)));
ptr2 = new(ptr2) std::uint32_t{1729};

The placement news here are no-op since our types are integers, but they are required to start the object lifetime. Without placement new, doing assignments like *ptr = 42 directly is technically an undefined behavior in C++.


The simple solution above would be perfect if we don't forget about alignment. However, in the real world, the pointer returned by alloc may not be appropriately aligned for the object we want to create at that memory location.

In C++, every type and object has an alignment manually controlled by alignas and queried by alignof.

Starting the lifetime of objects on unaligned locations is undefined behavior. Depending on different architectures, you may get slow memory access or even a mysterious crash if you try to access a misaligned object.

We usually don't care about alignment that much since the compiler can figure it out for us, and standard library functions such as malloc automatically provides sufficient alignment (alignof(std::max_aligned_t)) for all allocations. However, when we start to play with custom memory allocation strategies, alignment suddenly becomes essential to understand.

Consider what our previous usage of the arena does. At first, our arena is empty. Then we allocate a byte of memory and construct a std::uint8_t on it, and everything seems totally fine. However, when we allocate 4 bytes now, we will allocate it at the place off by one byte of the 4-bytes alignment boundary that required by std::uint32_t:

Arena after allocating one uint8_t and one uint32_t
Figure.3 - Arena after two allocations

The above example should convince you the importance of alignment when we start to get adventurous and come up with custom memory allocation strategies.

Arena, fixed

To implement an arena that considers alignment, we first need to have a helper function align_forward that bump a given pointer forward to an aligned address given a specific alignment:

[[nodiscard]] inline auto align_forward(std::byte* ptr, std::size_t alignment) noexcept
  -> std::byte*
  const auto addr = std::bit_cast<uintptr_t>(ptr);
  const auto aligned_addr = (addr + (alignment - 1)) & -alignment;
  return ptr + (aligned_addr - addr);

We first cast our pointer into an integer and then round up our (integer) address to the alignment boundary with the expression (addr + (alignment - 1)) & -alignment.

To understand what this expression is doing exactly, you need to think about the meaning of the - on integers in a bit-wise setting: it flips all the bits and then adds one to the result. For example, let's say our alignment is 4, it is represented as


and when we apply negation, we get -4, which is represented in two's complement as


I omitted all the leading bytes, but you should be able to see the pattern: the negation of an alignment is precisely the bit-mask we want to mask out the lower bits.

Finally, we need to cast our aligned_addr back into a pointer. I choose to do some pointer arithmetic instead of doing another bit cast (std::bit_cast<std::byte*>(aligned_addr)) so we don't get pointer provenance warning from clang-tidy.

With the helper function in place, we can now implement our Arena:

struct Arena {
  std::byte* ptr = 0;
  std::size_t size_remain = 0;

  auto aligned_alloc(std::size_t alignment, std::size_t size) noexcept -> void*
    std::byte* aligned_ptr = align_forward(ptr, alignment);
    const size_t size_for_alignment = aligned_ptr - ptr;
    const size_t bump_size = size_for_alignment + size;
    if (size_remain < bump_size) return nullptr;

    ptr = aligned_ptr + size;
    size_remain -= bump_size;
    return aligned_ptr;

Notice that I changed the function name from alloc to aligned_alloc since we must explicitly pass an alignment argument to this function. First, we call align_forward to adjust our pointer to the alignment boundary in the function. And then, we calculate how many bytes we need for the allocation (which is the number of bytes used for alignment plus the actual size we need to allocate). And finally, if we have enough size to allocate, we need to bump our pointer, decrease the remaining size, and return the adjusted pointer.

To use this implementation, we need to explicitly pass alignment to our arena:

auto* ptr = static_cast<std::uint8_t*>(
  arena.aligned_alloc(alignof(std::uint8_t), sizeof(std::uint8_t)));
ptr = new(ptr) std::uint8_t{42};
auto* ptr2 = static_cast<std::uint32_t*>(
  arena.aligned_alloc(alignof(std::uint32_t), sizeof(std::uint32_t)));
ptr2 = new(ptr2) std::uint32_t{1729};

You can see that our client-side code becomes a bit more nuisance to write. However, in practice, we can hide calls to aligned_alloc behind a templated function. The important thing is that our allocations will be properly aligned:

Alignment-aware arena after allocating one uint8_t and one uint32_t
Figure.4 - Alignment-aware arena after two allocations

If you still want the old alloc member function that doesn't consider alignment, we can write it as a wrapper of aligned_alloc that takes the alignment of std::max_align_t:

auto alloc(std::size_t size) noexcept -> void*
  return aligned_alloc(alignof(std::max_align_t), size);

This version of alloc always returns pointers aligned as strictly as std::max_align_t, similar to std::malloc. This way also guarantees to have a correct alignment for each allocation, though it can waste space if we have many allocations for small objects.

Enter std::align

The above implementation of the arena is reliable. I use an essentially identical version of the arena in a bunch of C projects. However, with a little bit of help from the standard library, we can do better in C++.

std::align is a standard function defined in <memory>. It has the following interface:

namespace std {
  auto align(std::size_t alignment,
           std::size_t size,
           void*& ptr,
           std::size_t& space)
  -> void*;

It does the following:

Given a pointer ptr to a buffer of size space, returns a pointer aligned by the specified alignment for size number of bytes and decreases space argument by the number of bytes used for alignment. The first aligned address is returned. — cppreference.

The interface of std::align is undoubtedly not easy to grasp, mainly because it has two in-out parameters passed by reference. But it serves a similar purpose as our align_forward function. The first two parameters, alignment and size, are the same parameters we passed to aligned_alloc. And ptr and space is the state of our arena.

std::align starts by checking whether we have enough space to allocate size bytes after the alignment adjustment. If so, it adjusts our pointer ptr, decreases space by the number of bytes used for alignment, and returns the aligned pointer.

with std::align, our code can be greatly simplified:

struct Arena {
  void* ptr = 0;
  std::size_t size_remain = 0;
  auto aligned_alloc(std::size_t alignment, std::size_t size) noexcept -> void*
    void* res = std::align(alignment, size, ptr, size_remain);
    if (res) {
        ptr = static_cast<std::byte*>(res) + size;
        size_remain -= size;
        return res;
    return nullptr;

We no longer need our helper function, align_forward, since std::align serves a similar purpose. It is nice that we don't need to write pointer-to-integer casting and bit manipulation ourselves. And our aligned_alloc function also looks almost as simple as our initial alloc function that doesn't consider alignment.

Notice that since std::align only increases ptr to alignment boundary and decreases size_remain by the number of bytes used for alignment, we still need to change those two variables with the actual size of the allocation.

Another small change is that std::align requires us to use void* while our previous implementation uses std::byte*. Since we don't need to do pointer arithmetics ourselves anymore, it is OK to use void*, which is also the type our aligned_alloc needs to return anyway.


I am not sure how many use cases std::align has outside of custom allocators. Maybe it is also helpful to implement flexible array members-like structures. Nevertheless, I am glad we have this little utility in the C++ standard library to save me from scratching head on manual alignment calculation.

  1. In C++, a type is trivially destructible if it doesn't have a destructor that performs actions. For example, std::string and std::vector are not trivially destructible since their destructors free memory. Everything that contains non-trivially destructible types are also not trivially destructible.