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I'm running pdftoppm to convert a user-provided PDF into a 300DPI image. This works great, except if the user provides an PDF with a very large page size. pdftoppm will allocate enough memory to hold a 300DPI image of that size in memory, which for a 100 inch square page is 100*300 * 100*300 * 4 bytes per pixel = 3.5GB. A malicious user could just give me a silly-large PDF and cause all kinds of problems.

So what I'd like to do is put some kind of hard limit on memory usage for a child process I'm about to run--just have the process die if it tries to allocate more than, say, 500MB of memory. Is that possible?

I don't think ulimit can be used for this, but is there a one-process equivalent?

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migrated from stackoverflow.com Aug 8 '12 at 1:45

This question came from our site for professional and enthusiast programmers.

Maybe docker? – user7000 May 12 at 23:40
up vote 26 down vote accepted

There's some problems with ulimit. Here's a useful read on the topic: Limiting time and memory consumption of a program in Linux, which lead to the timeout tool, which lets you cage a process (and its forks) by time or memory consumption.

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If your process doesn't spawn more children that consume the most memory, you may use setrlimit function. More common user interface for that is using ulimit command of the shell:

$ ulimit -Sv 500000     # Set ~500 mb limit
$ pdftoppm ...

This will only limit "virtual" memory of your process, taking into account—and limiting—the memory the process being invoked shares with other processes, and the memory mapped but not reserved (for instance, Java's large heap). Still, virtual memory is the closest approximation for processes that grow really large, making the said errors insignificant.

If your program spawns children, and it's them which allocate memory, it becomes more complex, and you should write auxiliary scripts to run processes under your control. I wrote in my blog, why and how.

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why is setrlimit more complex for more children? man setrlimit tells me that "A child process created via fork(2) inherits its parents resource limits. Resource limits are preserved across execve(2)" – akira Feb 13 '11 at 8:13
Because the kernel does not sum the vm size for all child processes; if it did it would get the answer wrong anyway. The limit is per-process, and is virtual address space, not memory usage. Memory usage is harder to measure. – MarkR Feb 13 '11 at 8:17
if i understand the question correctly then OP whats the limit per subprocess (child) .. not in total. – akira Feb 13 '11 at 8:21
@MarkR, anyway, virtual address space is a good approximation for the memory used, especially if you run a program that's not controlled by a virtual machine (say, Java). At least I don't know any better metric. – Pavel Shved Feb 13 '11 at 8:23
Virtual address space is the best we really have; there isn't an easily measurable alternative. The pages measured don't need to be in core, they don't need to be private to that process, they're still counted. – MarkR Feb 13 '11 at 8:35

Another way to limit this is to use Linux's control groups. This is especially useful if you want to limit a process's (or group of processes') allocation of physical memory distinctly from virtual memory. For example:

cgcreate -g memory:/myGroup
echo $(( 500 * 1024 * 1024 )) > /sys/fs/cgroup/memory/myGroup/memory.limit_in_bytes
echo $(( 5000 * 1024 * 1024 )) > /sys/fs/cgroup/memory/myGroup/memory.memsw.limit_in_bytes

will create a control group named myGroup, cap the set of processes run under myGroup up to 500 MB of physical memory and up to 5000 MB of swap. To run a process under the control group:

cgexec -g memory:myGroup pdftoppm

Note that on a modern Ubuntu distribution this example requires installing the cgroup-bin package and editing /etc/default/grub to change GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT to:

GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT="cgroup_enable=memory swapaccount=1"

and then running sudo update-grub and rebooting to boot with the new kernel boot parameters.

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this is gold.. thanks for the answer! – Dominik Dorn Mar 16 '15 at 22:40

Call setrlimit yourself or use softlimit or something like it.

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In addition to the tools from daemontools suggested by Mark Johnson, you can also consider chpst whish is found in runit. Runit itself is bundeled in busybox hence, you might already have it installed.

The man page of chpst shows the option:

-m bytes limit memory. Limit the data segment, stack segment, locked physical pages, and total of all segment per process to bytes bytes each.

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I'm using the below script, which works great. It uses cgroups through cgmanager. Name this script limitmem and put it in your $PATH and you can use it like limitmem 100M bash. This will limit both memory and swap usage. To limit just memory remove the line with memory.memsw.limit_in_bytes.


set -eu

if [ "$#" -lt 2 ]
        echo Usage: `basename $0` "<limit> <command>..."
        exit 1


echo "limiting memory to $limit (cgroup $cgname) for command $@" >&2

cgm create memory "$cgname" >/dev/null
cgm setvalue memory "$cgname" memory.limit_in_bytes "$limit" >/dev/null
# try also limiting swap usage, but this fails if the system has no swap
cgm setvalue memory "$cgname" memory.memsw.limit_in_bytes "$limit" >/dev/null 2>&1 || true
bytes_limit=`cgm getvalue memory "$cgname" memory.limit_in_bytes | tail -1 | cut -f2 -d\"`

# spawn subshell to run in the cgroup
# set +e so a failing child does not prevent us from removing the cgroup
set +e
set -e
cgm movepid memory "$cgname" `sh -c 'echo $PPID'` > /dev/null
exec "$@"

# grab exit code 
exitcode=`echo $?`

set -e

peak_mem=`cgm getvalue memory "$cgname" memory.max_usage_in_bytes | tail -1 | cut -f2 -d\"`
failcount=`cgm getvalue memory "$cgname" memory.failcnt | tail -1 | cut -f2 -d\"`
percent=`expr "$peak_mem" / \( "$bytes_limit" / 100 \)`
echo "peak memory used: $peak_mem ($percent%); exceeded limit $failcount times" >&2

cgm remove memory "$cgname" >/dev/null

exit $exitcode
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