Tag Archives: swap

Swap, swappiness, Servers not responding

I have read a lot of wrong recommendations about the use of Swap and Swappiness so I want to bring some light about it.

The first to say is that every project is different, so it is not possible to make a general rule. However in most of the cases we want systems to operate as fast and efficiently as possible.

So this suggestions try to covert 99% of the cases.

By default Linux will try to be as efficient as possible. So for example, it will use Free Memory to keep IO efficient by keeping in Memory cache and buffers.

That means that if you are using files often, Linux will keep that information cached in RAM.

The swappiness Kernel setting defines what tradeoff will take Linux between keeping buffers with Free Memory and using the available Swap Memory.

# sysctl vm.swappiness
vm.swappiness = 60

The default value is 60 and more or less means that when RAM memory gets to 60%, swap will start to be used.

And so we can find Servers with 256GB of RAM, that when they start to use more than 153 GB of RAM, they start to swap.

Let’s analyze the output of free -h:

carles@vbi78g:~/Desktop/Software/checkswap$ free -h
              total        used        free      shared  buff/cache   available
Mem:          2.9Gi       1.6Gi       148Mi        77Mi       1.2Gi       1.1Gi
Swap:         2.0Gi        27Mi       2.0Gi

So from this VM that has 2.9GB of RAM Memory, 1.6GB are used by applications.

The are 148MB that can immediately used by Applications, and there are 1.2GB in buffers/cache. Does that means that we can only use 148MB (plus swap)?. No, that mean that Linux tried to optimize io speed by keeping 1.2GB of RAM memory in buffers. But this is the best effort of Linux to have performance, for real applications will be also able to use 1.1GB that corresponds to the available field.

About swap, from 2GB, only 27MB have been used.

As vm.swappiness is set to 60, more RAM will be swapped out to swap, even if we have lots available.

As I said every case is different. If we are talking about a Desktop that has NVMe drives, the impact will be low. But if we are talking about a Server that is a hypervisor running VMs and has high usage on CPU and has the swap partition or the swap in a file, that could lead to huge problems. If there is a physical Server with a single spinning drive (or logical unit through RAID), and one partition is for Swap, and the other for mountpoints, and a process is heavily reading/writing to a partition mounted (an elastic search, or a telegraf, prometheus…), and the System tries to swap, then they will be competing for the magnetic head of disk, slowing down everything.

If you take a look on how the process of swapping memory pages from the memory to disk, you will understand that applications may need certain pages before being able to run, so in many cases we get to lock situations, that force everything to wait.

In my career I found Servers that temporarily stopped responding to ping. After a while ping came back, I was able to ssh and uptime showed that the Server did not reboot.

I troubleshooted that, and I saw a combination of high CPU usage spikes and Swap usage.

Using iostat and iotop I monitored what was speed of transference of only 1 MB/second!!.

I even did swapoff and it took one hour to free 4 GB swap partition!.

I also saw swap partition being in a spinning disk, and in another partition of the same spinning drive, having a swapfile. Magnetic spinning drives can only access one are of the drive at the same time, so that situation, using swap is very bad.

And I have seen situations were the swap or swapfile was mounted in a block device shared via network with the Server (like iSCSI or NFS), causing terrible performance when swapping.

So you have to adapt the strategy according to the project.

My preferred strategy for Compute Nodes and NoSQL Databases is to not use swap at all. In other cases, like MySQL Databases I may set swappiness to preferably to 1 or to 10.

I quote here the recommendations from couchbase docs:

The Linux kernel’s swappiness setting defines how aggressively the kernel will swap memory pages versus dropping pages from the page cache. A higher value increases swap aggressiveness, while a lower value tells the kernel to swap as little as possible to disk and favor RAM. The swappiness range is from 0 to 100, and most Linux distributions have swappiness set to 60 by default.

Couchbase Server is optimized with its managed cache to use RAM, and is capable of managing what should be in RAM and what shouldn’t be. Allowing the OS to have too much control over what memory pages are in RAM is likely to lower Couchbase Server’s performance. Therefore, it’s recommended that swappiness be set to the levels listed below.


Another theme, is when you log to a Server and you see all the Swap memory in use.

Linux may have moved the pages that were less used, and that may be Ok for some cases, for example a Cron Service that waits and runs every 24 hours. It is safe to swap that (as long as the swap IO is decent).

When Kernel Swaps it may generate locks.

But if we log to a Server and all the Swap is in use, how can we know that the Swap has been quiet there?.

Well, you can use iostat or iotop or you can:

cat /proc/vmstat

This file contains a lot of values related to Memory, we will focus on:

pswpin 508992338
pswpout 280871088

In https://superuser.com/questions/785447/what-is-the-exact-difference-between-the-parameters-pgpgin-pswpin-and-pswpou you can find very interesting description of those values. I paste here an excerpt:

Paging refers to writing portions, termed pages, of a process’ memory to disk.
Swapping, strictly speaking, refers to writing the entire process, not just part, to disk.
In Linux, true swapping is exceedingly rare, but the terms paging and swapping often are used interchangeably.

page-out: The system’s free memory is less than a threshold “lotsfree” and unnused / least used pages are moved to the swap area.
page-in: One process which is running requested for a page that is not in the current memory (page-fault), it’s pages are being brought back to memory.
swap-out: System is thrashing and has deactivated a process and it’s memory pages are moved into the swap area.
swap-in: A deactivated process is back to work and it’s pages are being brought into the memory.

Values from /proc/vmstat:

pgpgin, pgpgout – number of pages that are read from disk and written to memory, you usually don’t need to care that much about these numbers

pswpin, pswpout – you may want to track these numbers per time (via some monitoring like prometheus), if there are spikes it means system is heavily swapping and you have a problem.

In this actual example that means that since the start of the Server there has been 508992338 Page Swap In (with 4K memory pages this is 1,941 GB, so almost 2 TB transferred) and for Page Swat Out (with 4K memory pages this is 1,071 GB, so 1 TB of transferred). I’m talking about a Server that had a 4GB swap partition in a spinning disk and a 12 GB swapfile in another ext4 partition of the same spinning disk.

The 16 GB of swap were in use and iotop showed only two sources of IO, one being 2 VMs writing, another was a journaling process writing to the mountpoint where the swapfile was. That was an spinning drive (underlying hardware was raid, for simplicity I refer to one single drive. I checked that both spinning drives were healthy and fast). I saw small variations in the size of the Swap, so I decided to monitor the changes in pswpin and pswpout in /proc/vmstat to see how much was transferred from/to swap.

I saw then how many pages were being transferred!.

I wrote a small Python program to track those changes:


This little program works in Python 2 and Python 3, and will show the evolution of pswpin and pswpout in /proc/vmstat and will offer the average for last 5 minutes and keep the max value detected as well.

As those values show the page swaps since the start of the Server, my little program, makes the adjustments to show the Page Swaps per second.

A cheap way to reproduce collapse by using swap is using VirtualBox: install an Ubuntu 20.04 LTS in there, with 2 GB of less of memory, and one single core. Ping that VM from elsewhere.

Then you may run a little program like this in order to force it to swap:

#!/usr/bin/env python3
a_items = []
i_total = 0
# Add zeros if your VM has more memory
for i in range(0, 10000000):
    i_total = i_total + i

And checkswap will show you the spikes:

Many voices are discordant. Some say swappiness default value of 60 is good, as Linux will use the RAM memory to optimize the IO. In my experience, I’ve seen Hypervisors Servers running Virtual Machines that fit on the available physical RAM and were doing pure CPU calculations, no IO, and the Hypersivor was swapping just because it had swappiness to 60. Also having swap on spinning drives, mixing swap partition and swapfile, and that slowing down everything. In a case like that it would be much better not using Swap at all.

In most cases the price of Swapping to disk is much more higher than the advantage than a buffer for IO brings. And in the case of a swapfile, well, it’s also a file, so my suspect is that the swapfile is also buffered. Nothing I recommend, honestly.

My program https://gitlab.com/carles.mateo/checkswap may help you to demonstrate how much damage the swapping is doing in terms of IO. Combine it with iostat and iotop –only to see how much bandwidth is wastes writing and reading from/to swap.

You may run checkswap from a screen session and launch it with tee so results are logged. For example:

python3 checkswap.py | tee 2021-05-27-2107-checkswap.log

If you want to automatically add the datetime you can use:

python3 checkswap.py | tee `date +%Y-%m-%d-%H%M`-checkswap.log

Press CTRL + a and then d, in order to leave the screen session and return to regular Bash.

Type screen -r to resume your session if this was the only screen session running in background.

An interesting reflection from help Ubuntu:

The “diminishing returns” means that if you need more swap space than twice your RAM size, you’d better add more RAM as Hard Disk Drive (HDD) access is about 10³ slower then RAM access, so something that would take 1 second, suddenly takes more then 15 minutes! And still more then a minute on a fast Solid State Drive (SSD)…


Do you have a swap history that you want to share?.

cmemgzip Python tool to compress files in memory when there is no free space on the disk


All the Operation Engineers and SREs that work with systems have found the situation of having a Server with the disk full of logs and needing to keep those logs, and at the same time needing the system to keep running.

This is an uncomfortable situation.

I remember when I was being interviewed in Facebook, in Menlo Park, for a SDM position in the SRE (Software Development Manager) back in 2013-2014. They asked me about a situation where they have the Server disk full, and they deleted a big log file from Apache, but the space didn’t come back. They told me that nobody ever was able to solve this.

I explained that what happened is that Apache still had the fd (file descriptor), and that he will try to write to end of that file, even if they removed the huge log file with rm command, from the system they will not get back any free space. I explained that the easiest solution was to stop apache. They agreed and asked me how we could do the same without restarting the Webserver and I said that manipulating the file descriptors under /proc. They told me what I was the first person to solve this.

How it works

Basically cmemgzip will read a file, as binary, and will load it completely in to Memory.

Then it will compress it also in Memory. Then it will release the memory used to keep the original, will validate write permissions on the folder, will check that the compressed file is smaller than the original, and will delete the original and, using the new space now available in disk, write the compressed and smaller version of the file in gzip format.

Since version 0.3 you can specify an amount of memory that you will use for the blocks of data read from the file, so you can limit greatly the memory usage and compress files much more bigger than the amount of memory.

If for whatever reason the gz version cannot be written to disk, you’ll be asked for another route.

I mentioned before about File Descriptors, and programs that may keep those files open.

So my advice here, is that if you have to compress Apache logs or logs from a multi-thread program, and disk is full, and several instances may be trying to write to the log file: to stop Apache service if you can, and then run cmemgzip. I want to add it the future to auto-release open fd, but this is delicate and requires a lot of time to make sure it will be reliable in all the circumstances and will obey the exact desires of the SRE realizing the operation, without unexpected undesired side effects. It can be implemented with a new parameter, so the SysAdmin will know what is requesting.

Get the source code

You can decompress it later with gzip/gunzip.

So about cmemgzip you can git clone the project from here:


git clone https://gitlab.com/carles.mateo/cmemgzip

The README.md is very clear:


The program is written in Python 3, and I gave it License MIT, so you can use it and the Open Source really with Freedom.

Do you want to test in other platforms?

This is a version 0.3.

I have only tested it in:

  • Ubuntu 20.04 LTS Linux for x64
  • Ubuntu 20.04 LTS 64 bits under Raspberry Pi 4 (ARM Processors)
  • Windows 10 Professional x64
  • Mac OS X
  • CentOS

It should work in all the platforms supporting Python, but if you want to contribute testing for other platforms, like Windows 32 bit, Solaris or BSD, let me know.

Alternative solutions

You can create a ramdisk and compress it to there. Then delete the original and move the compressed file from ramdisk to the hard drive, and unload the ramdrive Kernel Module. However we find very often with this problems in Docker containers or in instances that don’t have the Kernel module installed. Is much more easier to run cmemgzip.

Another strategy you can do for the future is to have a folder based on ZFS and compression. Again, ZFS should be installed on the system, and this doesn’t happen with Docker containers.

cmemgzip is designed to work when there is no free space, if there is free space, you should use gzip command.

In a real emergency when you don’t have enough RAM, neither disk space, neither the possibility to send the log files to another server to be compressed there, you could stop using the swap, and fdisk the swap partition to be a ext4 Linux format, format it, mount is, and use the space to compress the files. And after moving the files compressed to the original folder, fdisk the old swap partition to change type to Swap again, and enable swap again (swapon).

Memory requirements

As you can imagine, the weak point of cmemgzip, is that, if the file is completely loaded into memory and then compressed, the requirements of free memory on the Server/Instance/VM are at least the sum of the size of the file plus the sum of the size of the file compressed. You guess right. That’s true.

If there is not enough memory for loading the file in memory, the program is interrupted gracefully.

I decided to keep it simple, but this can be an option for the future.

So if your VM has 2GB of Available Memory, you will be able to use cmemgzip in uncompressed log files around 1.7GB.

In version 0.3 I implemented the ability to load chunks of the original file, and compress into memory, so I would be able use less memory. But then the compression is less efficient and initial tests point that I’ll have to keep a separate file for each compressed chunk. So I will need to created a uncompress tool as well, when now is completely compatible with gzip/gunzip, zcat, the file extractor from Ubuntu, etc…

For a big Server with a logfile of 40TB, around 300GB of RAM should be sufficient (the Servers I use have 768 GB of RAM normally).

Honestly, nowadays we find ourselves more frequently with VMs or Instances in the Cloud with small drives (10 to 15GB) and enough Available RAM, rather than Servers with huge mount points. This kind of instances, which means scaling horizontally, makes more difficult to have NFS Servers were we can move those logs, for security.

So cmemgzip covers very well some specific cases, while is not useful for all the scenarios.

I think it’s safe to say it covers 95% of the scenarios I’ve found in the past 7 years.

cmemgzip will not help you if you run out inodes.


Usage is very simple, and I kept it very verbose as the nature of the work is Operations, Engineers need to know what is going on.

I return error level/exit code 0 if everything goes well or 1 on errors.

./cmemgzip.py /home/carles/test_extract/SherlockHolmes.txt
 cmemgzip.py v.0.1

 Verifying access to: /home/carles/test_extract/SherlockHolmes.txt
 Size of file: /home/carles/test_extract/SherlockHolmes.txt is 553KB (567,291 bytes)
 Reading file: /home/carles/test_extract/SherlockHolmes.txt (567,291 bytes) to memory.
 567,291 bytes loaded.
 Compressing to Memory with maximum compression level…
 Size compressed: 204KB (209,733 bytes). 36.97% of the original file
 Attempting to create the gzip file empty to ensure write permissions
 Deleting the original file to get free space
 Writing compressed file /home/carles/test_extract/SherlockHolmes.txt.gz
 Verifying space written match size of compressed file in Memory
 Write verification completed.

You can also simulate, without actually delete or write to disk, just in order to know what will be the


There are no third party libraries to install. I only use the standard ones: os, sys, gzip

So clone it with git in your preferred folder and just create a symbolic link with your favorite name:

sudo ln --symbolic /home/carles/code/cmemgzip/cmemgzip.py /usr/bin/cmemgzip

I like to create the link without the .py extension.

This way you can invoke the program from anywhere by just typing: cmemgzip

Adding a swapfile on the fly as a temporary solution for a Server with few memory

Here is an easy trick that you can use for adding swap temporarily to a Server, VMs or Workstations, if you are in an emergency.

In this case I had a cluster composed from two instances running out of memory.

I got an alert for one of the Servers, reporting that only had 7% of free memory.

Immediately I checked it, but checked also any other forming part of the cluster.

Another one appeared, had just only a bit more memory than the other, but was considered in Critical condition too.

The owner of the Service was contacted and asked if we can hold it until US Business hours. Those Servers were going to be replaced next day in US Business hours, and when possible it would be nice not to wake up the Team. It was day in Europe, but night in US.

I checked the status of the Server with those commands:

# df -h

There are 13GB of free space in /. More than enough to be safe as this service doesn’t use much.

# free -h
              total        used        free      shared  buff/cache   available
Mem:           5.7G        4.8G        139M        298M        738M        320M
Swap:            0B          0B          0B

I checked the memory, ok, there are only 139MB free in this node, but 738MB are buff/cache. Buff/Cache is memory used by Linux to optimize I/O as long as it is not needed by application. These 738 MB in buff/cache (or most of it) will be used if needed by the System. The field available corresponds to the memory that is available for starting new applications (not counting the swap if there was any), and basically is the free memory plus a fragment of the buff/cache. I’m sure we could use more than 320MB and there is a lot if buff/cache, but to play safe we play by the book.

With that in mind it seemed that it would hold perfectly to Business hours.

I checked top. It is interesting to mention the meaning of the Column RES, which is resident memory, in other words, the real amount of memory that the process is using.

I had a Java process using 4.57GB of RAM, but a look at how much Heap Memory was reserved and actually being used showed a Heap of 4GB (Memory reserved) and 1.5GB actually being used for real, from the Heap, only.

It was unlikely that elastic search would use all those 4GB, and seemed really unlikely that the instance will suffer from memory starvation with 2.5GB of 4GB of the Heap free, ~1GB of RAM in buffers/cache plus free, so looked good.

To be 100% sure I created a temporary swap space in a file on the SSD.

# fallocate -l 1G /swapfile-temp

# dd if=/dev/zero of=/swapfile-temp bs=1024 count=1048576 status=progress
1034236928 bytes (1.0 GB) copied, 4.020716 s, 257 MB/s
1048576+0 records in
1048576+0 records out
1073741824 bytes (1.1 GB) copied, 4.26152 s, 252 MB/s

If you ask me why I had to dd, I will tell you that I needed to. I checked with command blkid and filesystem was xfs. I believe that was the reason.

The speed writing to the file is fair enough for a swap.

# chmod 600 /swapfile-temp

# mkswap /swapfile-temp
Setting up swapspace version 1, size = 1048572 KiB
no label, UUID=5fb12c0c-8079-41dc-aa20-21477808619a

# swapon /swapfile-temp

I check that memory is good:

# free -h
              total        used        free      shared  buff/cache   available
Mem:           5.7G        4.8G        117M        298M        770M        329M
Swap:          1.0G          0B        1.0G

And finally I check that the Kernel parameter swappiness is not too aggressive:

# sysctl vm.swappiness
vm.swappiness = 30

Cool. 30 is a fair enough value.