String internals

Guide to the original implementation of Redis strings

Note: this document was written by the creator of Redis, Salvatore Sanfilippo, early in the development of Redis (c. 2010). Virtual Memory has been deprecated since Redis 2.6, so this documentation is here only for historical interest.

The implementation of Redis strings is contained in sds.c (sds stands for Simple Dynamic Strings). The implementation is available as a standalone library at

The C structure sdshdr declared in sds.h represents a Redis string:

struct sdshdr {
    long len;
    long free;
    char buf[];

The buf character array stores the actual string.

The len field stores the length of buf. This makes obtaining the length of a Redis string an O(1) operation.

The free field stores the number of additional bytes available for use.

Together the len and free field can be thought of as holding the metadata of the buf character array.

Creating Redis Strings

A new data type named sds is defined in sds.h to be a synonym for a character pointer:

typedef char *sds;

sdsnewlen function defined in sds.c creates a new Redis String:

sds sdsnewlen(const void *init, size_t initlen) {
    struct sdshdr *sh;

    sh = zmalloc(sizeof(struct sdshdr)+initlen+1);
    if (sh == NULL) sdsOomAbort();
    if (sh == NULL) return NULL;
    sh->len = initlen;
    sh->free = 0;
    if (initlen) {
        if (init) memcpy(sh->buf, init, initlen);
        else memset(sh->buf,0,initlen);
    sh->buf[initlen] = '\0';
    return (char*)sh->buf;

Remember a Redis string is a variable of type struct sdshdr. But sdsnewlen returns a character pointer!!

That's a trick and needs some explanation.

Suppose I create a Redis string using sdsnewlen like below:

sdsnewlen("redis", 5);

This creates a new variable of type struct sdshdr allocating memory for len and free fields as well as for the buf character array.

sh = zmalloc(sizeof(struct sdshdr)+initlen+1); // initlen is length of init argument.

After sdsnewlen successfully creates a Redis string the result is something like:

^   ^
sh  sh->buf

sdsnewlen returns sh->buf to the caller.

What do you do if you need to free the Redis string pointed by sh?

You want the pointer sh but you only have the pointer sh->buf.

Can you get the pointer sh from sh->buf?

Yes. Pointer arithmetic. Notice from the above ASCII art that if you subtract the size of two longs from sh->buf you get the pointer sh.

The sizeof two longs happens to be the size of struct sdshdr.

Look at sdslen function and see this trick at work:

size_t sdslen(const sds s) {
    struct sdshdr *sh = (void*) (s-(sizeof(struct sdshdr)));
    return sh->len;

Knowing this trick you could easily go through the rest of the functions in sds.c.

The Redis string implementation is hidden behind an interface that accepts only character pointers. The users of Redis strings need not care about how it's implemented and can treat Redis strings as a character pointer.


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