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swap space

Linux and other Unix-like operating systems use the term "swap" to describe both the act of moving memory pages between RAM and disk, and the region of a disk the pages are stored on. It is common to use a whole partition of a hard disk for swapping. However, with the 2.6 Linux kernel, swap files are just as fast as swap partitions. Now, many admins (both Windows and Linux/UNIX) follow an old rule of thumb that your swap partition should be twice the size of your main system RAM. Let us say I've 32GB RAM, should I set swap space to 64 GB? Is 64 GB of swap space really required? How big should your Linux / UNIX swap space be?

Old dumb memory managers

I think the '2x swap space' rule came from Old Solaris and Windows admins. Also, earlier memory mangers were very badly designed. There were not very smart. Today, we have very smart and intelligent memory manager for both Linux and UNIX.

Nonsense rule: Twice the size of your main system RAM for Servers

According to OpenBSD FAQ:

Many people follow an old rule of thumb that your swap partition should be twice the size of your main system RAM. This rule is nonsense. On a modern system, that's a LOT of swap, most people prefer that their systems never swap. You don't want your system to ever run out of RAM+swap, but you usually would rather have enough RAM in the system so it doesn't need to swap.

Select right size for your setup

Here is my rule for normal server (Web / Mail etc):

  1. Swap space == Equal RAM size (if RAM < 2GB)
  2. Swap space == 2GB size (if RAM > 2GB)

My friend who is a true Oracle GURU recommends something as follows for heavy duty Oracle server with fast storage such as RAID 10:

  1. Swap space == Equal RAM size (if RAM < 8GB)
  2. Swap space == 0.50 times the size of RAM (if RAM > 8GB)

Red Hat Recommendation

Red hat recommends setting as follows for RHEL 5:

The reality is the amount of swap space a system needs is not really a function of the amount of RAM it has but rather the memory workload that is running on that system. A Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 system will run just fine with no swap space at all as long as the sum of anonymous memory and system V shared memory is less than about 3/4 the amount of RAM. In this case the system will simply lock the anonymous and system V shared memory into RAM and use the remaining RAM for caching file system data so when memory is exhausted the kernel only reclaims pagecache memory.

Considering that 1) At installation time when configuring the swap space there is no easy way to predetermine the memory a workload will require, and 2) The more RAM a system has the less swap space it typically needs, a better swap space

  1. Systems with 4GB of ram or less require a minimum of 2GB of swap space
  2. Systems with 4GB to 16GB of ram require a minimum of 4GB of swap space
  3. Systems with 16GB to 64GB of ram require a minimum of 8GB of swap space
  4. Systems with 64GB to 256GB of ram require a minimum of 16GB of swap space

Swap will just keep running servers...

Swap space will just keep operation running for a while on heavy duty servers by swapping process. You can always find out swap space utilization using any one of the following command:
cat /proc/swaps
swapon -s
free -m

See how to find out disk I/O and related information under Linux. In the end, you need to add more RAM, adjust software (like controlling Apache workers or using lighttpd web server to save RAM) or use some sort of load balancing.

Also, refer Linux kernel documentation for /proc/sys/vm/swappiness. With this you can fine tune swap space.

A note about Desktop and Laptop

If you are going to suspend to disk, then you need swap space more than actual RAM. For example, my laptop has 1GB RAM and swap is setup to 2GB. This only applies to Laptop or desktop but not to servers.

Kernel hackers need more swap space

If you are a kernel hacker (debugging and fixing kernel issues) and generating core dumps, you need twice the RAM swap space.


If Linux kernel is going to use more than 2GiB swap space at a time, all users will feel the heat. Either, you get more RAM (recommend) and move to faster storage to improve disk I/O. There are no rules, each setup and configuration is unique. Adjust values as per your requirements. Select amount of swap that is right for you.

What do you think? Please add your thoughts about 'swap space' in the comments below.

March 6, 2007 : nixCraft FAQ Roundup

Recently updated/posted Linux and UNIX FAQ:

How do I Find Out Linux CPU Utilization?

Whenever a Linux system CPU is occupied by a process, it is unavailable for processing other requests. Rest of pending requests must wait till CPU is free. This becomes a bottleneck in the system. Following command will help you to identify CPU utilization, so that you can troubleshoot CPU related performance problems.

Finding CPU utilization is one of the important tasks. Linux comes with various utilities to report CPU utilization. With these commands, you will be able to find out:

* CPU utilization
* Display the utilization of each CPU individually (SMP cpu)
* Find out your system's average CPU utilization since the last reboot etc
* Determine which process is eating the CPU(s)

Old good top command to find out Linux cpu load

The top program provides a dynamic real-time view of a running system. It can display system summary information as well as a list of tasks currently being managed by the Linux kernel.
The top command monitors CPU utilization, process statistics, and memory utilization. The top section contains information related to overall system status - uptime, load average, process counts, CPU status, and utilization statistics for both memory and swap space.

Top command to find out Linux cpu usage

Type the top command:
$ top


You can see Linux CPU utilization under CPU stats. The task’s share of the elapsed CPU time since the last screen update, expressed as a percentage of total CPU time. In a true SMP environment (multiple CPUS), top will operate in number of CPUs. Please note that you need to type q key to exit the top command display.

The top command produces a frequently-updated list of processes. By default, the processes are ordered by percentage of CPU usage, with only the "top" CPU consumers shown. The top command shows how much processing power and memory are being used, as well as other information about the running processes.

Find Linux CPU utilization using mpstat and other tools

Please note that you need to install special package called sysstat to take advantage of following commands. This package includes system performance tools for Linux (Red Hat Linux / RHEL includes these tools by default).

# apt-get install sysstat
Use up2date command if you are using RHEL:
# up2date sysstat

Display the utilization of each CPU individually using mpstat

If you are using SMP (Multiple CPU) system, use mpstat command to display the utilization of each CPU individually. It report processors related statistics. For example, type command:
# mpstat Output:

Linux (debian)         Thursday 06 April 2006
05:13:05  IST  CPU   %user   %nice    %sys %iowait    %irq   %soft  %steal   %idle    intr/s
05:13:05  IST  all   16.52    0.00    2.87    1.09    0.07    0.02    0.00   79.42    830.06

The mpstat command display activities for each available processor, processor 0 being the first one. Global average activities among all processors are also reported. The mpstat command can be used both on SMP and UP machines, but in the latter, only global average activities will be printed.:
# mpstat -P ALL

Linux (wwwportal1.xxxx.co.in)         Thursday 06 April 2006
05:14:58  IST  CPU   %user   %nice    %sys %iowait    %irq   %soft  %steal   %idle    intr/s
05:14:58  IST  all   16.46    0.00    2.88    1.08    0.07    0.02    0.00   79.48    835.96
05:14:58  IST    0   16.46    0.00    2.88    1.08    0.07    0.02    0.00   79.48    835.96
05:14:58  IST    1   15.77    2.70    3.17    2.01    0.05    0.03    0.00   81.44    822.54

Another output from my HP Dual Opteron 64 bit server:# mpstat -P ALLOutput:

Linux 2.6.5-7.252-smp (ora9.xxx.in)   04/07/06
07:44:18     CPU   %user   %nice %system %iowait    %irq   %soft   %idle    intr/s
07:44:18     all    3.01   57.31    0.36    0.13    0.01    0.00   39.19   1063.46
07:44:18       0    5.87   69.47    0.44    0.05    0.01    0.01   24.16    262.11
07:44:18       1    1.79   48.59    0.36    0.23    0.00    0.00   49.02    268.92
07:44:18       2    2.19   42.63    0.28    0.16    0.01    0.00   54.73    260.96
07:44:18       3    2.17   68.56    0.34    0.06    0.03    0.00   28.83    271.47

Report CPU utilization using sar command

You can display today’s CPU activity, with sar command:
# sar

Linux 2.6.9-42.0.3.ELsmp (dellbox.xyz.co.in)         01/13/2007
12:00:02 AM       CPU     %user     %nice   %system   %iowait     %idle
12:10:01 AM       all      1.05      0.00      0.28      0.04     98.64
12:20:01 AM       all      0.74      0.00      0.34      0.38     98.54
12:30:02 AM       all      1.09      0.00      0.28      0.10     98.53
12:40:01 AM       all      0.76      0.00      0.21      0.03     99.00
12:50:01 AM       all      1.25      0.00      0.32      0.03     98.40
01:00:01 AM       all      0.80      0.00      0.24      0.03     98.92
04:40:01 AM       all      8.39      0.00     33.17      0.06     58.38
04:50:01 AM       all      8.68      0.00     37.51      0.04     53.78
05:00:01 AM       all      7.10      0.00     30.48      0.04     62.39
05:10:01 AM       all      8.78      0.00     37.74      0.03     53.44
05:20:02 AM       all      8.30      0.00     35.45      0.06     56.18
Average:          all      3.09      0.00      9.14      0.09     87.68

Comparison of CPU utilization

The sar command writes to standard output the contents of selected cumulative activity counters in the operating system. The accounting system, based on the values in the count and interval parameters. For example display comparison of CPU utilization; 2 seconds apart; 5 times, use:
# sar -u 2 5
Output (for each 2 seconds. 5 lines are displayed):

Linux 2.6.9-42.0.3.ELsmp (www1lab2.xyz.ac.in)         01/13/2007
05:33:24 AM       CPU     %user     %nice   %system   %iowait     %idle
05:33:26 AM       all      9.50      0.00     49.00      0.00     41.50
05:33:28 AM       all     16.79      0.00     74.69      0.00      8.52
05:33:30 AM       all     17.21      0.00     80.30      0.00      2.49
05:33:32 AM       all     16.75      0.00     81.00      0.00      2.25
05:33:34 AM       all     14.29      0.00     72.43      0.00     13.28
Average:          all     14.91      0.00     71.49      0.00     13.61


  • -u 12 5 : Report CPU utilization. The following values are displayed:
    • %user: Percentage of CPU utilization that occurred while executing at the user level (application).
    • %nice: Percentage of CPU utilization that occurred while executing at the user level with nice priority.
    • %system: Percentage of CPU utilization that occurred while executing at the system level (kernel).
    • %iowait: Percentage of time that the CPU or CPUs were idle during which the system had an outstanding disk I/O request.
    • %idle: Percentage of time that the CPU or CPUs were idle and the system did not have an outstanding disk I/O request.

To get multiple samples and multiple reports set an output file for the sar command. Run the sar command as a background process using.
# sar -o output.file 12 8 >/dev/null 2>&1 &
Better use nohup command so that you can logout and check back report later on:
# nohup sar -o output.file 12 8 >/dev/null 2>&1 &

All data is captured in binary form and saved to a file (data.file). The data can then be selectively displayed ith the sar command using the -f option.
# sar -f data.file

Task: Find out who is monopolizing or eating the CPUs

Finally, you need to determine which process is monopolizing or eating the CPUs. Following command will displays the top 10 CPU users on the Linux system.
# ps -eo pcpu,pid,user,args | sort -k 1 -r | head -10
# ps -eo pcpu,pid,user,args | sort -r -k1 | less

  96  2148 vivek    /usr/lib/vmware/bin/vmware-vmx -C /var/lib/vmware/Virtual Machines/Ubuntu 64-bit/Ubuntu 64-bit.vmx -@ ""
 0.7  3358 mysql    /usr/libexec/mysqld --defaults-file=/etc/my.cnf --basedir=/usr --datadir=/var/lib/mysql --user=mysql --pid-file=/var/run/mysqld/mysqld.pid --skip-locking --socket=/var/lib/mysql/mysql.sock
 0.4 29129 lighttpd /usr/bin/php
 0.4 29128 lighttpd /usr/bin/php
 0.4 29127 lighttpd /usr/bin/php
 0.4 29126 lighttpd /usr/bin/php
 0.2  2177 vivek    [vmware-rtc]
 0.0     9 root     [kacpid]
 0.0     8 root     [khelper]

Now you know vmware-vmx process is eating up lots of CPU power. ps command displays every process (-e) with a user-defined format (-o pcpu). First field is pcpu (cpu utilization). It is sorted in reverse order to display top 10 CPU eating process.

iostat command

You can also use iostat command which report Central Processing Unit (CPU) statistics and input/output statistics for devices and partitions. It can be use to find out your system's average CPU utilization since the last reboot.
# iostatOutput:

Linux (debian)         Thursday 06 April 2006
avg-cpu:  %user   %nice %system %iowait  %steal   %idle
     16.36    0.00    2.99    1.06    0.00   79.59
Device:            tps   Blk_read/s   Blk_wrtn/s   Blk_read   Blk_wrtn
hda               0.00         0.00         0.00         16          0
hdb               6.43        85.57       166.74     875340    1705664
hdc               0.03         0.16         0.00       1644          0
sda               0.00         0.00         0.00         24          0 

You may want to use following command, which gives you three outputs every 5 seconds (as previous command gives information since the last reboot):$ iostat -xtc 5 3

GUI tools for your laptops/desktops

Above tools/commands are quite useful on remote server. For local system with X GUI installed you can try out gnome-system-monitor. It allows you to view and control the processes running on your system. You can access detailed memory maps, send signals, and terminate the processes.
$ gnome-system-monitor

gnome-system-monitor - view and control the processes
(Click to enlarge image)

In addition, the gnome-system-monitor provides an overall view of the resource usage on your system, including memory and CPU allocation.

gnome-system-monitor - view and control the processes
(Click to enlarge image)

Further readings

  • For more information and command option please read man pages of top, iostat, mpstat, sar, ps commands.