Global and static variables are guaranteed to be initialized to 0 by the C standard. avr-gcc does this by placing the appropriate code into section .init4 (see The .initN Sections). With respect to the standard, this sentence is somewhat simplified (because the standard allows for machines where the actual bit pattern used differs from all bits being 0), but for the AVR target, in general, all integer-type variables are set to 0, all pointers to a NULL pointer, and all floating-point variables to 0.0.

As long as these variables are not initialized (i. e. they don't have an equal sign and an initialization expression to the right within the definition of the variable), they go into the .bss section of the file. This section simply records the size of the variable, but otherwise doesn't consume space, neither within the object file nor within flash memory. (Of course, being a variable, it will consume space in the target's SRAM.)

In contrast, global and static variables that have an initializer go into the .data section of the file. This will cause them to consume space in the object file (in order to record the initializing value), and in the flash ROM of the target device. The latter is needed since the flash ROM is the only way that the compiler can tell the target device the value this variable is going to be initialized to.

Now if some programmer "wants to make doubly sure" their variables really get a 0 at program startup, and adds an initializer just containing 0 on the right-hand side, they waste space. While this waste of space applies to virtually any platform C is implemented on, it's usually not noticeable on larger machines like PCs, while the waste of flash ROM storage can be very painful on a small microcontroller like the AVR.

So in general, variables should only be explicitly initialized if the initial value is non-zero.


Recent versions of GCC are now smart enough to detect this situation, and revert variables that are explicitly initialized to 0 to the .bss section. Still, other compilers might not do that optimization, and as the C standard guarantees the initialization, it is safe to rely on it.

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