PCRE - Perl-compatible regular expressions
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
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. Further-
more, 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 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 assertion and "once-only" subpatterns, which are handled like
subroutine calls. Normally, these are never very deep, and the limit on the complexity of
pcre_dfa_exec() is controlled by the amount of workspace it is given. However, it is pos-
sible 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
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 recur-
sion, and therefore 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 either one character that is not "<" or a "<" that is not
followed by "inet". However, each time a parenthesis is processed, a recursion occurs, so
this formulation uses a stack frame for each matched character. For a long string, a lot
of stack is required. Consider now this rewritten pattern, which matches exactly the same
This uses very much less stack, because runs of characters that do not contain "<" are
"swallowed" in one item inside the parentheses. Recursion happens only when a "<" charac-
ter that is not followed by "inet" is encountered (and we assume this is relatively rare).
A possessive quantifier is used to stop any backtracking into the runs of non-"<" charac-
ters, but that is not related to stack usage.
This example shows that one way of avoiding stack problems when matching long subject
strings is to write repeated parenthesized subpatterns to match more than one character
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 efficient 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 recur-
sively. 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 recur-
sions. 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 pat-
tern to match a given subject string. This is done by calling pcre_exec() repeatedly with
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 com-
Unfortunately, the effect of running out of stack is often SIGSEGV, though sometimes a
more explicit error message is given. You can normally 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: http://developer.apple.com/qa/qa2005/qa1419.html.
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Last updated: 03 January 2010
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