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I'm increasing the watch limit on my RHEL 7 server and I'd like my changes to take effect without having to reboot. I've updated the /etc/sysctl.conf file so that the changes will be permanent. If I run sysctl -p after updating the systcl.conf file, will the new watch limits be applied to services that are currently running or will they have to be restarted?

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From man page:

-p Load in sysctl settings from the file(s) specified or /etc/sysctl.conf if none given. Specifying - as filename means reading data from standard input.

YES. the new watch limits are applied to services that are currently running

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