PCRE DISCUSSION OF STACK USAGE
When you call pcre_exec(), it makes use of an internal function
called match(). This calls itself recursively at branch points in the
pattern, in order to remember the state of the match so that it can
back up and try a different alternative if the first one fails. As
matching proceeds deeper and deeper into the tree of possibilities, the
recursion depth increases. The match() function is also called in other
circumstances, for example, whenever a parenthesized sub-pattern is
entered, and in certain cases of repetition.
Not all calls of match() increase the recursion depth; for an item such
as a* it may be called several times at the same level, after matching
different numbers of a's. Furthermore, in a number of cases where the
result of the recursive call would immediately be passed back as the
result of the current call (a "tail recursion"), the function is just
The above comments apply when pcre_exec() is run in its normal
interpretive manner. If the pattern was studied with the
PCRE_STUDY_JIT_COMPILE option, and just-in-time compiling was success-
ful, and the options passed to pcre_exec() were not incompatible,
the matching process uses the JIT-compiled code instead of the match()
function. In this case, the memory requirements are handled entirely
differently. See the pcrejit documentation for details.
The pcre_dfa_exec() function operates in an entirely different way,
and uses recursion only when there is a regular expression recursion or
subroutine call in the pattern. This includes the processing of asser-
tion and "once-only" subpatterns, which are handled like subroutine
calls. Normally, these are never very deep, and the limit on the com-
plexity of pcre_dfa_exec() is controlled by the amount of workspace
it is given. However, it is possible to write patterns with runaway
infinite recursions; such patterns will cause pcre_dfa_exec() to
run out of stack. At present, there is no protection against this.
The comments that follow do NOT apply to pcre_dfa_exec(); they are
relevant only for pcre_exec() without the JIT optimization.
Reducing pcre_exec()'s stack usage
Each time that match() is actually called recursively, it uses memory
from the process stack. For certain kinds of pattern and data, very
large amounts of stack may be needed, despite the recognition of "tail
recursion". You can often reduce the amount of recursion, and there-
fore the amount of stack used, by modifying the pattern that is being
matched. Consider, for example, this pattern:
It matches from wherever it starts until it encounters "<inet" or the
end of the data, and is the kind of pattern that might be used when
processing an XML file. Each iteration of the outer parentheses matches
quantifier is used to stop any backtracking into the runs of non-"<"
characters, but that is not related to stack usage.
This example shows that one way of avoiding stack problems when match-
ing long subject strings is to write repeated parenthesized subpatterns
to match more than one character whenever possible.
Compiling PCRE to use heap instead of stack for pcre_exec()
In environments where stack memory is constrained, you might want to
compile PCRE to use heap memory instead of stack for remembering back-
up points when pcre_exec() is running. This makes it run a lot more
slowly, however. Details of how to do this are given in the pcrebuild
documentation. When built in this way, instead of using the stack, PCRE
obtains and frees memory by calling the functions that are pointed to
by the pcre_stack_malloc and pcre_stack_free variables. By
default, these point to malloc() and free(), but you can replace the
pointers to cause PCRE to use your own functions. Since the block sizes
are always the same, and are always freed in reverse order, it may be
possible to implement customized memory handlers that are more effi-
cient than the standard functions.
Limiting pcre_exec()'s stack usage
You can set limits on the number of times that match() is called, both
in total and recursively. If a limit is exceeded, pcre_exec()
returns an error code. Setting suitable limits should prevent it from
running out of stack. The default values of the limits are very large,
and unlikely ever to operate. They can be changed when PCRE is built,
and they can also be set when pcre_exec() is called. For details of
these interfaces, see the pcrebuild documentation and the section on
extra data for pcre_exec() in the pcreapi documentation.
As a very rough rule of thumb, you should reckon on about 500 bytes per
recursion. Thus, if you want to limit your stack usage to 8Mb, you
should set the limit at 16000 recursions. A 64Mb stack, on the other
hand, can support around 128000 recursions.
In Unix-like environments, the pcretest test program has a command line
option (-S) that can be used to increase the size of its stack. As long
as the stack is large enough, another option (-M) can be used to find
the smallest limits that allow a particular pattern to match a given
subject string. This is done by calling pcre_exec() repeatedly with
Obtaining an estimate of stack usage
The actual amount of stack used per recursion can vary quite a lot,
depending on the compiler that was used to build PCRE and the optimiza-
tion or debugging options that were set for it. The rule of thumb value
of 500 bytes mentioned above may be larger or smaller than what is
actually needed. A better approximation can be obtained by running this
instead of the stack for recursion, the value that is output is the
size of each block that is obtained from the heap.
Changing stack size in Unix-like systems
In Unix-like environments, there is not often a problem with the stack
unless very long strings are involved, though the default limit on
stack size varies from system to system. Values from 8Mb to 64Mb are
common. You can find your default limit by running the command:
Unfortunately, the effect of running out of stack is often SIGSEGV,
though sometimes a more explicit error message is given. You can nor-
mally increase the limit on stack size by code such as this:
struct rlimit rlim;
rlim.rlim_cur = 100*1024*1024;
This reads the current limits (soft and hard) using getrlimit(), then
attempts to increase the soft limit to 100Mb using setrlimit(). You
must do this before calling pcre_exec().
Changing stack size in Mac OS X
Using setrlimit(), as described above, should also work on Mac OS X. It
is also possible to set a stack size when linking a program. There is a
discussion about stack sizes in Mac OS X at this web site:
University Computing Service
Cambridge CB2 3QH, England.
Last updated: 21 January 2012
Copyright (c) 1997-2012 University of Cambridge.
PCRE 8.30 21 January 2012 PCRESTACK(3)
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