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Using swap space instead of RAM can drastically slow down a pc.

So why, when I have more than enough RAM available, does my Linux system (Arch) use the swap?

Checkout my conky output below:

conky output

Also, could this be the cause of speed and system-responsiveness issues I'm having?

updated: output of free -m

$ free -m
             total       used       free     shared    buffers     cached
Mem:          1257       1004        252          0         51        778
-/+ buffers/cache:        174       1082
Swap:          502        144        357
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I'm pretty sure the dynamics of this issue have significantly changed with SSDs becoming the norm. While your regular consumer SSD is still a lot slower than RAM, it is now a matter of what's cheaper - RAM $/GB or SSD $/GB. SSD while slower is a lot cheaper and in most cases fast enough so even swapping shouldn't significantly disturb the user experience like it used to with rotational media. –  lkraav Aug 23 '12 at 21:51
Sometimes, if you used swap in the past because of full RAM, you can have a situation where previously swapped data stay there because it is not usefull data at the moment. –  Totor Mar 21 '13 at 23:46

7 Answers 7

up vote 55 down vote accepted

It is normal for Linux systems to use some swap even if there is still RAM free. The Linux kernel will move to swap memory pages that are very seldom used (e.g., the getty instances when you only use X11, and some other inactive daemon).

Swap space usage becomes an issue only when there is not enough RAM available, and the kernel is forced to continuously move memory pages to swap and back to RAM, just to keep applications running. In this case, system monitor applications would show a lot of disk I/O activity.

For comparison, my Ubuntu 10.04 system, with two users logged in with X11 sessions both running GNOME desktop, uses ~600MB of swap and ~1GB of RAM (not counting buffers and fs cache), so I'd say that your figures for swap usage look normal.

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By swapping out inactive programs, you have more memory for file caching. And that speeds things up. –  jmanning2k Oct 7 '10 at 17:39

This behaviour can be configured by setting the value of /proc/sys/vm/swappiness. The default value is 60, setting it to 0 means “never use swap when there is still RAM left“ and 100 is swapping out memory as soon as possible.

To change the value temporarily (lost on reboot):

sudo sysctl vm.swappiness=10

To change the value permanently: Edit the file /etc/sysctl.conf as root (e.g. sudo nano /etc/sysctl.conf) and change the line vm.swapiness=... to the desired value.

There has been some debate on whether swapping out with free memory available is good or bad, but the Ubuntu help does indeed recommend a value of 10 for Desktop systems: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/SwapFaq

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Note that reducing swappiness does not necessarily mean a performance or responsiveness increase. I've seen reports of increasing swappiness translating into better performance. Don't believe anything you read that doesn't include benchmarks, and check that the benchmarks use a workload similar to yours. –  Gilles Oct 3 '10 at 23:05
Does this persist across reboot? I thought /proc was regenerated each boot. –  HandyGandy Oct 5 '10 at 2:10
@HandyGandy: I added information to the answer how to change it permanently. –  Marcel Stimberg Oct 5 '10 at 6:56

Linux starts swapping before the RAM is filled up. This is done to improve performance and responsiveness:

  • Performance is increased because sometimes RAM is better used for disk cache than to store program memory. So it's better to swap out a program that's been inactive for a while, and instead keep often-used files in cache.

  • Responsiveness is improved by swapping pages out when the system is idle, rather than when the memory is full and some program is running and requesting more RAM to complete a task.

Swapping does slow the system down, of course — but the alternative to swapping isn't not swapping, it's having more RAM or using less RAM.

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So, in a sense, swap is an in-case measure? That, and the hibernate thing? –  Tshepang Jan 13 '11 at 11:58
@Tshepang: Having enough swap to fit your virtual memory isn't “in case”, it's necessary (otherwise your programs will crash due to the lack of memory). –  Gilles Jan 13 '11 at 19:14
That's what I meant. It's in case you run out of memory. Oh, and before they crash, there's always oom-killer (on Linux). –  Tshepang Jan 13 '11 at 19:18
@Tschepang: The OOM killer is the reason they crash. (Technically you could do without an OOM killer and just not be able to allocate anything, but that would have a good chance of locking up the system; the OOM killer makes it a little more likely for the admin to be able to log in and for the important processes to keep running.) –  Gilles Jan 13 '11 at 19:21
+1 for "using less RAM". If you have all that ram, you should yourself "manage" not to ever get into swap situation, by closing unused programs lest the one that fails to allocate crashes. –  tishma Sep 18 '12 at 19:09

Having more available memory

Like everyone said, yes swap will help you get rid of unused memory, so it can help you having more memory available.


But swap can also be used for hibernating which can be really useful when you have a laptop or want to save energy and put your computer and work in hibernation before leaving work. So you can have a quicker start the morning after.

Having a hibernating function is one of the main reason we still see nowadays advise to have at least the size of RAM for the swap. That way the system can put all used RAM into the swap and goes into hibernation.


Take care that once swapped a process data could be read in the swap even after shutdown, unless the swap was encrypted (of course).

Using encrypted swap with hibernation doesn't work out-of-the-box with all distributions. You need to use a constant encryption key (some setups randomly generate the swap space encryption key at each boot) and an initrd/initramfs to activate the encrypted volume before resuming.

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From Ubuntu Swap F.A.Q. that Marcel linked to

As a base minimum, it is highly recommended that the swap space should be equal to the amount of physical memory (RAM). Also, it is recommended that the swap space is twice the amount of physical memory (RAM) depending upon the amount of hard disk

I think you should increase your swap space in your system. The swap speeds up RAM memory allocation by allowing to discard already paged data.

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I still find this unbelievable. Why should I need 8 GB of swap for my 4GB, never-hibernating system? Do I really need 128GB of swap for my 64GB compute node? I usually allocate no more than 1GB for swap unless there is a highly-specific reason. –  David Mackintosh Oct 4 '10 at 18:45
It leaves more space for caching the slow-as-all-heck HDD in lightning fast RAM. (Plus, some hibernation schemes save a copy of RAM into swapspace) –  Arafangion Oct 5 '10 at 13:36
@David, @Jader: The swap=2*ram figure is an old chestnut that survived well after the original justification became irrelevant — now people try to find a way to justify this figure, instead of coming up with an appropriate figure for their system. See why do we need to set swap space as twice big as our physical memory?. –  Gilles Nov 12 '10 at 13:05
@Gilles I stick with my position because I saw once an authoritative paper on this subject that contradicts a bunch of experts that I don't know how deep their knowledge is. –  Jader Dias Nov 13 '10 at 1:47
If you can remember the reference, please share. –  Gilles Nov 13 '10 at 10:46

A lot of modern programs are built on bloated frameworks that drag in a lot of junk you don't actually need in order to run the program. Swapping those unused pages out frees RAM for cache and programs that can actually make use of the RAM.

I speak from painful personal experience here.

Last year, I switched one of my web sites to a promising new web server framework that was built on top of Firefox. It may sound strange to build a server-side system on top of a client-focused program like Firefox, but it had some huge benefits. Firefox is very powerful, offers some really impressive internal services, and it reduces the impedance mismatch between server and client to have both running similar platforms.

But there's a downside: Firefox is big. Really big. This was a version 1.x sort of project, so they hadn't gotten around to things like removing the GUI support.[*] My site didn't need any of that, but because the VPS technology my hosting provider used didn't allow swap space, that GUI code and all the other parts of Firefox I didn't use ate real RAM. I ended up needing 512 MB RAM minimum just to run the site without it crashing due to memory exhaustion. If my VPS had some swap space, I probably could have gotten by with a 256 MB plan.

[*] Removing the GUI code from the framework may not even have been desirable, since one of the benefits of this platform was high-fidelity web scraping, because the server side framework could download web pages from another site, and you could manipulate them just as you would on the client side. Think mashups. A lot of that sort of thing would break if you can't "render" the web page into some graphical context.

By the way, this web framework is essentially dead now, so there's no point name-and-shaming it. Best to just take the broader lesson to heart: yes, swap is still useful even if you have gigs of free RAM.

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I think "Gilles" already mentioned the fact that, while you may have more than enough RAM, swap can be useful during certain "shortcomings" as well as persistently saving some data even after shutdowns--or am I wrong in assuming that?(since RAM gets flushed out after reboots) I have 12GB of RAM available on my system, and I, too, have pondered about this question before. At one point, when I had disabled all swap and was only relying on my RAM, I had painfully difficult experiences trying to debug some system error, or crash, etc. after system shutdowns. Since then, I have re-enabled the swap partition.

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