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I have used GNU/Linux on systems from 4 MB RAM to 512 GB RAM. When they start swapping, most of the time you can still log in and kill off the offending process - you just have to be 100-1000 times more patient.

On my new 32 GB system that has changed: It blocks when it starts swapping. Sometimes with full disk activity but other times with no disk activity.

To examine what might be the issue I have written this program. The idea is:

1 grab 3% of the memory free right now
2 if that caused swap to increase: stop
3 keep the chunk used for 30 seconds by forking off
4 goto 1



sub freekb {
    my $free = `free|grep buffers/cache`;
    my @a=split / +/,$free;
    return $a[3];

sub swapkb {
    my $swap = `free|grep Swap:`;
    my @a=split / +/,$swap;
    return $a[2];

my $swap = swapkb();
my $lastswap = $swap;
my $free;
while($lastswap >= $swap) {
    print "$swap $free";
    $lastswap = $swap;
    $swap = swapkb();
    $free = freekb();
    my $used_mem = "x"x(1024 * $free * 0.03);
    if(not fork()) {
    sleep 30;
print "Swap increased $swap $lastswap\n";

Running the program forever ought to keep the system at the limit of swapping, but only grabbing a minimal amount of swap and do that very slowly (i.e. a few MB at a time at most).

If I run:

forever free | stdbuf -o0 timestamp > freelog

I ought to see swap slowly rising every second. (forever and timestamp from https://github.com/ole-tange/tangetools).

But that is not the behaviour I see: I see swap increasing in jumps and that the system is completely blocked during these jumps. Here the system is blocked for 30 seconds with the swap usage increases with 1 GB:

169.527 Swap:     18440184     154184   18286000
170.531 Swap:     18440184     154184   18286000
200.630 Swap:     18440184    1134240   17305944
210.259 Swap:     18440184    1076228   17363956

Blocked: 21 secs. Swap increase 2400 MB:

307.773 Swap:     18440184     581324   17858860
308.799 Swap:     18440184     597676   17842508
330.103 Swap:     18440184    2503020   15937164
331.106 Swap:     18440184    2502936   15937248

Blocked: 20 secs. Swap increase 2200 MB:

751.283 Swap:     18440184     885288   17554896
752.286 Swap:     18440184     911676   17528508
772.331 Swap:     18440184    3193532   15246652
773.333 Swap:     18440184    1404540   17035644

Blocked: 37 secs. Swap increase 2400 MB:

904.068 Swap:     18440184     613108   17827076
905.072 Swap:     18440184     610368   17829816
942.424 Swap:     18440184    3014668   15425516
942.610 Swap:     18440184    2073580   16366604

This is bad enough, but what is even worse is that the system sometimes stops responding at all - even if I wait for hours. I have the feeling it is related to the swapping issue, but I cannot tell for sure.

My first idea was to tweak /proc/sys/vm/swappiness from 60 to 0 or 100, just to see if that had any effect at all. 0 did not have an effect, but 100 did cause the problem to arise less often.

How can I prevent the system from blocking for such a long time?

Why does it decide to swapout 1-3 GB when less than 10 MB would suffice?

System info:

$ uname -a
Linux aspire 3.8.0-32-generic #47-Ubuntu SMP Tue Oct 1 22:35:23 UTC 2013 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux


I tested if the problem is due to 32 GB RAM by removing 24 GB and trying with only 8 GB - I see the same behaviour.

I can also reproduce the swapping behaviour (though not the freezing) by installing GNU/Linux Mint 15 in VirtualBox.

I cannot reproduce the problem on my 8 GB laptop: The script above runs beautifully for hours and hours - swapping out a few megabytes, but never a full gigabyte. So I compared all the variables in /proc/sys/vm/* on both systems: They are exactly the same. This leads me to believe the problem is elsewhere. The laptop runs a different kernel:

Linux hk 3.2.0-55-generic #85-Ubuntu SMP Wed Oct 2 12:29:27 UTC 2013 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux

Maybe something in the VM system changed from 3.2.0 to 3.8.0?

share|improve this question

migrated from serverfault.com Nov 13 '13 at 17:27

This question came from our site for professional system and network administrators.

What's the load and disk IO? –  josten Nov 12 '13 at 22:43
0. The system does nothing else. –  Ole Tange Nov 13 '13 at 12:18

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