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PostPosted: Wed Feb 08, 2006 7:55 am    Post subject: Understanding memory usage on Linux Reply with quote

Understanding memory usage on Linux from

This entry is for those people who have ever wondered, "Why the hell is a simple KDE text editor taking up 25 megabytes of memory?" Many people are led to believe that many Linux applications, especially KDE or Gnome programs, are "bloated" based solely upon what tools like ps report. While this may or may not be true, depending on the program, it is not generally true -- many programs are much more memory efficient than they seem.

What ps reports
The ps tool can output various pieces of information about a process, such as its process id, current running state, and resource utilization. Two of the possible outputs are VSZ and RSS, which stand for "virtual set size" and "resident set size", which are commonly used by geeks around the world to see how much memory processes are taking up.

For example, here is the output of ps aux for KEdit on my computer:

dbunker   3468  0.0  2.7  25400 14452 ?        S    20:19   0:00 kdeinit: kedit

According to ps, KEdit has a virtual size of about 25 megabytes and a resident size of about 14 megabytes (both numbers above are reported in kilobytes). It seems that most people like to randomly choose to accept one number or the other as representing the real memory usage of a process. I'm not going to explain the difference between VSZ and RSS right now but, needless to say, this is the wrong approach; neither number is an accurate picture of what the memory cost of running KEdit is.

Why ps is "wrong"
Depending on how you look at it, ps is not reporting the real memory usage of processes. What it is really doing is showing how much real memory each process would take up if it were the only process running. Of course, a typical Linux machine has several dozen processes running at any given time, which means that the VSZ and RSS numbers reported by ps are almost definitely "wrong". In order to understand why, it is necessary to learn how Linux handles shared libraries in programs.

Most major programs on Linux use shared libraries to facilitate certain functionality. For example, a KDE text editing program will use several KDE shared libraries (to allow for interaction with other KDE components), several X libraries (to allow it to display images and copy and pasting), and several general system libraries (to allow it to perform basic operations). Many of these shared libraries, especially commonly used ones like libc, are used by many of the programs running on a Linux system. Due to this sharing, Linux is able to use a great trick: it will load a single copy of the shared libraries into memory and use that one copy for every program that references it.

For better or worse, many tools don't care very much about this very common trick; they simply report how much memory a process uses, regardless of whether that memory is shared with other processes as well. Two programs could therefore use a large shared library and yet have its size count towards both of their memory usage totals; the library is being double-counted, which can be very misleading if you don't know what is going on.

Unfortunately, a perfect representation of process memory usage isn't easy to obtain. Not only do you need to understand how the system really works, but you need to decide how you want to deal with some hard questions. Should a shared library that is only needed for one process be counted in that process's memory usage? If a shared library is used my multiple processes, should its memory usage be evenly distributed among the different processes, or just ignored? There isn't a hard and fast rule here; you might have different answers depending on the situation you're facing. It's easy to see why ps doesn't try harder to report "correct" memory usage totals, given the ambiguity.

Seeing a process's memory map
Enough talk; let's see what the situation is with that "huge" KEdit process. To see what KEdit's memory looks like, we'll use the pmap program (with the -d flag):


Address   Kbytes Mode  Offset           Device    Mapping
08048000      40 r-x-- 0000000000000000 0fe:00000 kdeinit
08052000       4 rw--- 0000000000009000 0fe:00000 kdeinit
08053000    1164 rw--- 0000000008053000 000:00000   [ anon ]
40000000      84 r-x-- 0000000000000000 0fe:00000
40015000       8 rw--- 0000000000014000 0fe:00000
40017000       4 rw--- 0000000040017000 000:00000   [ anon ]
40018000       4 r-x-- 0000000000000000 0fe:00000
40019000       4 rw--- 0000000000000000 0fe:00000
40027000     252 r-x-- 0000000000000000 0fe:00000
40066000      20 rw--- 000000000003e000 0fe:00000
4006b000    3108 r-x-- 0000000000000000 0fe:00000
40374000     116 rw--- 0000000000309000 0fe:00000
40391000       8 rw--- 0000000040391000 000:00000   [ anon ]
40393000    2644 r-x-- 0000000000000000 0fe:00000
40628000     164 rw--- 0000000000295000 0fe:00000
40651000       4 rw--- 0000000040651000 000:00000   [ anon ]
40652000     100 r-x-- 0000000000000000 0fe:00000
4066b000       4 rw--- 0000000000019000 0fe:00000
4066c000      68 r-x-- 0000000000000000 0fe:00000
4067d000       4 rw--- 0000000000011000 0fe:00000
4067e000       4 rw--- 000000004067e000 000:00000   [ anon ]
4067f000    2148 r-x-- 0000000000000000 0fe:00000
40898000      64 rw--- 0000000000219000 0fe:00000
408a8000       8 rw--- 00000000408a8000 000:00000   [ anon ]
... (trimmed) ...
mapped: 25404K    writeable/private: 2432K    shared: 0K

I cut out a lot of the output; the rest is similar to what is shown. Even without the complete output, we can see some very interesting things. One important thing to note about the output is that each shared library is listed twice; once for its code segment and once for its data segment. The code segments have a mode of "r-x--", while the data is set to "rw---". The Kbytes, Mode, and Mapping columns are the only ones we will care about, as the rest are unimportant to the discussion.

If you go through the output, you will find that the lines with the largest Kbytes number are usually the code segments of the included shared libraries (the ones that start with "lib" are the shared libraries). What is great about that is that they are the ones that can be shared between processes. If you factor out all of the parts that are shared between processes, you end up with the "writeable/private" total, which is shown at the bottom of the output. This is what can be considered the incremental cost of this process, factoring out the shared libraries. Therefore, the cost to run this instance of KEdit (assuming that all of the shared libraries were already loaded) is around 2 megabytes. That is quite a different story from the 14 or 25 megabytes that ps reported.

What does it all mean?
The moral of this story is that process memory usage on Linux is a complex matter; you can't just run ps and know what is going on. This is especially true when you deal with programs that create a lot of identical children processes, like Apache. ps might report that each Apache process uses 10 megabytes of memory, when the reality might be that the marginal cost of each Apache process is 1 megabyte of memory. This information becomes critial when tuning Apache's MaxClients setting, which determines how many simultaneous requests your server can handle (although see one of my past postings for another way of increasing Apache's performance).

It also shows that it pays to stick with one desktop's software as much as possible. If you run KDE for your desktop, but mostly use Gnome applications, then you are paying a large price for a lot of redundant (but different) shared libraries. By sticking to just KDE or just Gnome apps as much as possible, you reduce your overall memory usage due to the reduced marginal memory cost of running new KDE or Gnome applications, which allows Linux to use more memory for other interesting things (like the file cache, which speeds up file accesses immensely).
Do you hear the sound of inevitability?
With age, comes great grumpiness and that, was 20 years ago...

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Joined: 01 Feb 2006
Posts: 210
Location: New York

PostPosted: Wed Feb 08, 2006 8:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thats a very interesting point there about this share memory thing, really learnt something new here =) as a matter of fact, i have never checked how much mem does my applications take, but i have heard people complaining alot about kde and gnome, so they switch to fluxbox etc....but to me i never noticed any 'lags' that seems to be caused by memory...maybe this post explains why...

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 08, 2006 9:58 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

That is really interesting, good job :) (so good that I find it a bit short :cry: ) :)
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PostPosted: Wed Feb 08, 2006 12:17 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

very good post :)
"LINUX, MS-DOS, Windows : known as the Good, the Bad and the Ugly." :)
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