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?

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
  • 3
    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
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    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
  • As Totor said. Sometimes the system will page something out (for whatever reason). If later that page is moved back to memory for a read operation, the copy in swap space is not deleted. If the same page is later paged out again, without being changed, it can do so without writing to the disk again. The copy that is there is already up to date. In other words, a page can take up space both in swap and main memory. – izak Jun 18 '16 at 18:42
up vote 87 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.

  • 36
    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 to 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 or add (if not there) the line:

vm.swappiness

to the desired value. If this file does not exist (e.g. in Arch Linux), then try /etc/sysctl.d/99-sysctl.conf instead.

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. See also this tutorial on Digital Ocean for CentOS.

  • 23
    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
  • @HandyGandy: to be pedantic, /proc isn't regenerated on each boot, but rather proc is a virtual file system, so it is only "generated" when you access them. It doesn't exist on disk at all. – Lie Ryan Apr 12 at 23:56
  • swappiness value has no effect to my system. Even setting it to 0, will continue to move crucial and frequently used pages (e.g my IDE's index) to swap when there is still 2GB free ram. – chefarov Aug 5 at 10:19

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.

  • 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
  • 1
    @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

This is an old post, however, I would still take the liberty of putting up my thoughts here.

Starting from down under, Linux would first divide the memory into pages (usually 4K per page on x86_64 system). Thereafter, virtual memory is created, whose mapping is done with physical memory using MMU (Memory Management Unit).

Processes are allocated memory from the virtual memory area, so please note, when you see /proc/meminfo, you will see VMalloc* as the virtual memory details.

Lets say you have a process which requests for memory (say 300MB - a web browser). The process would be allocated 300MB from the virtual memory, however, it is not necessary it is memory mapped (that is mapped to physical memory). There is concept of "Copy on Write" for memory management, whereby, if your processes actually uses the memory allocated from virtual memory (that is it does some write on the memory), only then it is mapped to physical memory. This assists the kernel to work properly in a multi-process environment efficiently.

What are cache?

A lot of memory used by processes are shared. Lets say the glibc library is used by almost all processes. What is the point of keeping multiple copies of glibc in the memory, when every process could access same memory location and do the job. Such frequently used resources are kept in cache so that when processes demand, they could be referenced to same memory location. This helps in speeding up processes, as reading glibc(etc.) again & again from disk would be time consuming.

The above was for shared libraries per say, similar is also true to file reading as well. If you read a large file (say 100-200MB) for the first time, it would take a lot of time. However, when you try and do the same read again, it would be faster. Data was cached in memory, and re-read was not done for all blocks.

What is buffer?

As far as buffer is concerned, when a processes does file I/O, it relies on kernel's buffer to write data to disk. The processes, requests the kernel to do the job. So, on behalf of the process, the kernel writes the data to its "buffer", and tells process that the write is done. In an async manner, kernel will keep syncing this data in buffer to disk. In this way, the processes is relying on the kernel to choose a correct time to sync data to disk, and the processes could continue working ahead. Remember, this is general I/O that normal processes are doing. However, specialized processes, which need to confirm that I/O is actually done on the disk can use other mechanism to do I/O on disk. Some of opensource utilities are libaio. Also, there are ways to call explicit sync to FDs opened in your processes context, so that you force the kernel the kernel to sync the data to disk for the write you might have done.

What are page faults then?

Consider an example, when you start a process (say a web browser), whose binary is about 300MB. However, the complete 300MB of the web browser binary does not start working instantly. The process keeps moving from functions-to-functions in its code. As said earlier, Virtual Memory would be 300MB consumed however, not all is memory mapped to physical memory (RSS - resident memory would be less, see top output). When code execution reaches a point, for which memory is not actually physically mapped, a page fault would be issues. Kernel would map this memory to physical, associate the memory page to your process. Such a page fault is called "Minor Page Faults". Similarly speaking, when a process is doing file I/O major page faults are raised.

When and why Swap Out happens?

Situation 1:

Inline with the details above, lets consider a scenario when the good amount of memory becomes memory mapped. And now a processes starts up, which requires memory. As discussed above, kernel will have do some memory mapping. However, there not enough physical RAM available to map the memory. Now, the kernel will first look into the cache, it will have some old memory pages which are not being used. It will flush those pages onto a separate partition (called SWAP), free up some pages, and map freed pages to the new request coming. As disk write is much slower than solid-state RAM, this process takes a lot of time, and hence a slow down is seen.

Situation 2:

Lets say you see a lot of free memory available in the system. Even then you see that there is a lot of swap-out happening. There could be a probable issue of memory fragmentation. Consider a processes, which demands 50MB of contiguous memory from kernel. (keep in mind contiguous). Obviously, the kernel would have allocated pages randomly to different processes, and freed some of them. However, when we demand contiguous memory, it will have to look for a chunk which satifies the processes demand. If it is not able to get such a memory, it will have to do a swap-out of some old memory pages and then allocate contiguous ones. Even in such cases SWAP out would happen. Starting Kernel ver 2.6 and above, such fragmentation problems have reduced considerably. However, if the system is running for a long time, such problems could still come.

See this example (vmstat output)

2016-10-29 03:55:32 procs -----------memory---------- ---swap-- -----io---- --system-- -----cpu------
2016-10-29 03:55:32  r  b   swpd   free   buff  cache   si   so    bi    bo   in   cs us sy id wa st
2016-10-30 03:56:04 19 23 2914752 4692144 3344908 12162628 1660    1  8803 12701 4336 37487 14  7 40 38  0
2016-10-30 03:56:34  3 20 2889296 4977580 3345316 12026752 2109    2  8445 14665 4656 36294 12  7 46 34  0
2016-10-30 03:57:04  1 11 3418868 4939716 3347804 11536356  586 4744  2547  9535 3086 24450  6  3 59 33  0  <<<-----
2016-10-30 03:57:34  3 19 3456252 5449884 3348400 11489728 3291 13371  6407 17957 2997 22556  6  4 66 24  0
2016-10-30 03:58:04  7  6 4194500 5663580 3349552 10857424 2407 12240  3824 14560 2295 18237  4  2 65 29  0
2016-10-30 03:58:34  2 16 4203036 5986864 3348908 10838492 4601 16639  7219 18808 2575 21563  6  4 60 31  0
2016-10-30 03:59:04  3 14 4205652 6059196 3348760 10821448 6624 1597  9431  4357 1750 20471  6  2 60 31  0
2016-10-30 03:59:34  2 24 4206968 6053160 3348876 10777216 5221 2067 10106  7377 1731 19161  3  3 62 32  0
2016-10-30 04:00:04  0 13 4205172 6005084 3348932 10785896 6236 1609 10330  6264 1739 20348  4  2 67 26  0
2016-10-30 04:00:34  4 11 4206420 5996396 3348976 10770220 6554 1253 10382  4896 1964 42981 10  5 58 27  0
2016-10-30 04:01:04  6  4 4177176 5878852 3348988 10825840 8682  765 10126  2716 1731 32949  8  4 69 19  0

@2016-10-30 03:57:04, we see that there is still good amount of free RAM available. However, even then swap out happened. We checked the process tree at this point, and we did not see any process coming up which would demand such high amount of memory (more than free memory). The obvious suspicion was Situation 2 described above. We checked buddyinfo and zoneinfo logs above (Use echo m > /proc/sysrq-trigger to check these, output goes into syslogs).

For a normal system of ours, the comparison of zone info goes this this. And graphs for cache/free/low mem is also mentioned below

zone info

swap free low free

Looking at the info, it is clear that there is memory fragmentation in node 0 & node 1 normal (Node it is NUMA based machine, hence multiple nodes (see numactl to check info for your system)).

Memory fragmentation is also a reason why swap usage can increases even when free memory is there.

  • 1
    You should clarify if in your "situation 2", the demanding process is allocating physical memory which is an unusual case. Most processes are only dealing with virtual memory where fragmentation is almost irrelevant. You might also want to explain better how you assert there is memory fragmentation from the numbers and chart displayed as it is not obvious at first sight. Oh, and by the way, you are actually talking about contiguous memory, hopefully not contagious memory ;-) – jlliagre Dec 8 '16 at 0:58
  • @jlliagre : Thanks for the inputs. I am editing the "contiguous" error. – Anugraha Sinha Dec 8 '16 at 1:36

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.

Hibernating

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.

Short-comings

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.

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.

  • 4
    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
  • 2
    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
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    @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
  • 1
    @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
  • 4
    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.

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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