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Performance Management Guide

Performance Overview of the Virtual Memory Manager (VMM)

The virtual address space is partitioned into segments. A segment is a 256 MB, contiguous portion of the virtual-memory address space into which a data object can be mapped.

Process addressability to data is managed at the segment (or object) level so that a segment can be shared between processes or maintained as private. For example, processes can share code segments yet have separate and private data segments.

Real-Memory Management

Virtual-memory segments are partitioned into fixed-size units called pages. The page size is 4096 bytes. Each page in a segment can be in real memory (RAM), or stored on disk until it is needed. Similarly, real memory is divided into 4096-byte page frames. The role of the VMM is to manage the allocation of real-memory page frames and to resolve references by the program to virtual-memory pages that are not currently in real memory or do not yet exist (for example, when a process makes the first reference to a page of its data segment).

Because the amount of virtual memory that is in use at any given instant can be larger than real memory, the VMM must store the surplus on disk. From the performance standpoint, the VMM has two, somewhat opposed, objectives:

In pursuit of these objectives, the VMM maintains a free list of page frames that are available to satisfy a page fault. The VMM uses a page-replacement algorithm to determine which virtual-memory pages currently in memory will have their page frames reassigned to the free list. The page-replacement algorithm uses several mechanisms:

The following sections describe the free list and the page-replacement mechanisms in more detail.

Free List

The VMM maintains a logical list of free page frames that it uses to accommodate page faults. In most environments, the VMM must occasionally add to the free list by reassigning some page frames owned by running processes. The virtual-memory pages whose page frames are to be reassigned are selected by the VMM's page-replacement algorithm. The VMM thresholds determine the number of frames reassigned.

Persistent versus Working Segments

The pages of a persistent segment have permanent storage locations on disk. Files containing data or executable programs are mapped to persistent segments. Because each page of a persistent segment has a permanent disk storage location, the VMM writes the page back to that location when the page has been changed and can no longer be kept in real memory. If the page has not changed when selected for placement on a free list, no I/O is required. If the page is referenced again later, a new copy is read in from its permanent disk-storage location.

Working segments are transitory, exist only during their use by a process, and have no permanent disk-storage location. Process stack and data regions are mapped to working segments, as are the kernel text segment, the kernel-extension text segments, as well as the shared-library text and data segments. Pages of working segments must also have disk-storage locations to occupy when they cannot be kept in real memory. The disk-paging space is used for this purpose.

The following illustration shows the relationship between some of the types of segments and the locations of their pages on disk. It also shows the actual (arbitrary) locations of the pages when they are in real memory.

Figure 2-3. Persistent and Working Storage Segments. The following illustration shows the relationship between some of the types of segments and the locations of their pages on disk. It also shows the actual (arbitrary) locations of the pages when they are in real memory. Working segments are transitory, meaning they exist only during their use by a process and have no permanent disk-storage location. Process stack and data regions are mapped to working segments, as are the kernel text segment, the kernel-extension text segments, and the shared-library text and data segments. Pages of working segments must also have disk-storage locations to occupy when they cannot be kept in real memory. The disk-paging space is used for this purpose.

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Persistent-segment types are further classified. Client segments are used to map remote files (for example, files that are being accessed through NFS), including remote executable programs. Pages from client segments are saved and restored over the network to their permanent file location, not on the local-disk paging space. Journaled and deferred segments are persistent segments that must be atomically updated. If a page from a journaled or deferred segment is selected to be removed from real memory (paged out), it must be written to disk paging space unless it is in a state that allows it to be committed (written to its permanent file location).

Computational versus File Memory

Computational memory, also known as computational pages, consists of the pages that belong to working-storage segments or program text (executable files) segments.

File memory (or file pages) consists of the remaining pages. These are usually pages from permanent data files in persistent storage.

Page Replacement

When the number of available real memory frames on the free list becomes low, a page stealer is invoked. A page stealer moves through the Page Frame Table (PFT), looking for pages to steal.

The PFT includes flags to signal which pages have been referenced and which have been modified. If the page stealer encounters a page that has been referenced, it does not steal that page, but instead, resets the reference flag for that page. The next time the clock hand (page stealer) passes that page and the reference bit is still off, that page is stolen. A page that was not referenced in the first pass is immediately stolen.

The modify flag indicates that the data on that page has been changed since it was brought into memory. When a page is to be stolen, if the modify flag is set, a pageout call is made before stealing the page. Pages that are part of working segments are written to paging space; persistent segments are written to disk.

Figure 2-4. Page Replacement Example. The illustration consists of excerpts from three tables. The first table is the page frame table with four columns that contain the real address, the segment type, a reference flag, and a modify flag. A second table is called the free list table and contains addresses of all free pages. The last table represents the resulting page frame table after all of the free addresses have been removed.

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In addition to the page-replacement, the algorithm keeps track of both new page faults (referenced for the first time) and repage faults (referencing pages that have been paged out), by using a history buffer that contains the IDs of the most recent page faults. It then tries to balance file (persistent data) page outs with computational (working storage or program text) page outs.

When a process exits, its working storage is released immediately and its associated memory frames are put back on the free list. However, any files that the process may have opened can stay in memory.

Page replacement is done directly within the scope of the thread if running on a uniprocessor. On a multiprocessor system, page replacement is done through the lrud kernel process, which is dispatched to a CPU when the minfree threshold has been reached. Starting with AIX 4.3.3, the lrud kernel process is multithreaded with one thread per memory pool. Real memory is split into evenly sized memory pools based on the number of CPUs and the amount of RAM. The number of memory pools will be as follows:

In AIX 4.3.3 and later use the vmtune -m <number of memory pools> command to change the number of memory pools that will be configured at system boot. The values for minfree and maxfree in the vmtune command output will be the sum of the minfree and maxfree for each memory pool.


A page fault is considered to be either a new page fault or a repage fault. A new page fault occurs when there is no record of the page having been referenced recently. A repage fault occurs when a page that is known to have been referenced recently is referenced again, and is not found in memory because the page has been replaced (and perhaps written to disk) since it was last accessed.

A perfect page-replacement policy would eliminate repage faults entirely (assuming adequate real memory) by always stealing frames from pages that are not going to be referenced again. Thus, the number of repage faults is an inverse measure of the effectiveness of the page-replacement algorithm in keeping frequently reused pages in memory, thereby reducing overall I/O demand and potentially improving system performance.

To classify a page fault as new or repage, the VMM maintains a repage history buffer that contains the page IDs of the N most recent page faults, where N is the number of frames that the memory can hold. For example, 512 MB memory requires a 128 KB repage history buffer. At page-in, if the page's ID is found in the repage history buffer, it is counted as a repage. Also, the VMM estimates the computational-memory repaging rate and the file-memory repaging rate separately by maintaining counts of repage faults for each type of memory. The repaging rates are multiplied by 0.9 each time the page-replacement algorithm runs, so that they reflect recent repaging activity more strongly than historical repaging activity.

VMM Thresholds

Several numerical thresholds define the objectives of the VMM. When one of these thresholds is breached, the VMM takes appropriate action to bring the state of memory back within bounds. This section discusses the thresholds that the system administrator can alter through the vmtune command.

The number of page frames on the free list is controlled by the following parameters:

Minimum acceptable number of real-memory page frames in the free list. When the size of the free list falls below this number, the VMM begins stealing pages. It continues stealing pages until the size of the free list reaches maxfree.

Maximum size to which the free list will grow by VMM page-stealing. The size of the free list may exceed this number as a result of processes terminating and freeing their working-segment pages or the deletion of files that have pages in memory.

The VMM attempts to keep the size of the free list greater than or equal to minfree. When page faults or system demands cause the free list size to fall below minfree, the page-replacement algorithm runs. The size of the free list must be kept above a certain level (the default value of minfree) for several reasons. For example, the operating system's sequential-prefetch algorithm requires several frames at a time for each process that is doing sequential reads. Also, the VMM must avoid deadlocks within the operating system itself, which could occur if there were not enough space to read in a page that was required to free a page frame.

The following thresholds are expressed as percentages. They represent the fraction of the total real memory of the machine that is occupied by file pages (pages of noncomputational segments).

If the percentage of real memory occupied by file pages falls below this level, the page-replacement algorithm steals both file and computational pages, regardless of repage rates.

If the percentage of real memory occupied by file pages rises above this level, the page-replacement algorithm steals only file pages.

When the percentage of real memory occupied by file pages is between minperm and maxperm, the VMM normally steals only file pages, but if the repaging rate for file pages is higher than the repaging rate for computational pages, computational pages are stolen as well.

The main intent of the page-replacement algorithm is to ensure that computational pages are given fair treatment. For example, the sequential reading of a long data file into memory should not cause the loss of program text pages that are likely to be used again soon. The page-replacement algorithm's use of the thresholds and repaging rates ensures that both types of pages get treated fairly, with a slight bias in favor of computational pages.

VMM Memory Load Control Facility

A process requires real-memory pages to execute. When a process references a virtual-memory page that is on disk, because it either has been paged-out or has never been read, the referenced page must be paged-in and, on average, one or more pages must be paged out (if replaced pages had been modified), creating I/O traffic and delaying the progress of the process.

The operating system attempts to steal real memory from pages that are unlikely to be referenced in the near future, through the page-replacement algorithm. A successful page-replacement algorithm allows the operating system to keep enough processes active in memory to keep the CPU busy. But at some level of competition for memory, no pages are good candidates for paging out to disk because they will all be reused in the near future by the active set of processes. This situation depends on the following:

When this happens, continuous paging-in and paging-out occurs. This condition is called thrashing. Thrashing results in incessant I/O to the paging disk and causes each process to encounter a page fault almost as soon as it is dispatched, with the result that none of the processes make any significant progress.

The most destructive aspect of thrashing is that, although thrashing may have been triggered by a brief, random peak in workload (such as all of the users of a system happening to press Enter in the same second), the system might continue thrashing for an indefinitely long time.

The operating system has a memory load-control algorithm that detects when the system is starting to thrash and then suspends active processes and delays the initiation of new processes for a period of time. Five parameters set rates and bounds for the algorithm. The default values of these parameters have been chosen to be "fail safe" across a wide range of workloads. In AIX Version 4, memory load control is disabled by default on systems that have available memory frames that add up to greater than or equal to 128 MB.

Memory Load Control Algorithm

The memory load control mechanism assesses, once per second, whether sufficient memory is available for the set of active processes. When a memory-overcommitment condition is detected, some processes are suspended, decreasing the number of active processes and thereby decreasing the level of memory overcommitment.

When a process is suspended, all of its threads are suspended when they reach a suspendable state. The pages of the suspended processes quickly become stale and are paged out by the page-replacement algorithm, releasing enough page frames to allow the remaining active processes to progress. During the interval in which existing processes are suspended, newly created processes are also suspended, preventing new work from entering the system. Suspended processes are not reactivated until a subsequent interval passes during which no potential thrashing condition exists. Once this safe interval has passed, the threads of the suspended processes are gradually reactivated.

Memory load-control parameters specify the following:

For information on setting and tuning these parameters, see Tuning VMM Memory Load Control with the schedtune Command.

Once per second, the scheduler (process 0) examines the values of all the above measures that have been collected over the preceding one-second interval, and determines if processes are to be suspended or activated. If processes are to be suspended, every process eligible for suspension by the -p and -e parameter test is marked for suspension. When that process next receives the CPU in user mode, it is suspended (unless doing so would reduce the number of active processes below the -m value). The user-mode criterion is applied so that a process is ineligible for suspension during critical system activities performed on its behalf. If, during subsequent one-second intervals, the thrashing criterion is still being met, additional process candidates meeting the criteria set by -p and -e are marked for suspension. When the scheduler subsequently determines that the safe-interval criterion has been met and processes are to be reactivated, some number of suspended processes are put on the run queue (made active) every second.

Suspended processes are reactivated by:

  1. Priority
  2. The order in which they were suspended

The suspended processes are not all reactivated at once. A value for the number of processes reactivated is selected by a formula that recognizes the number of then-active processes and reactivates either one-fifth of the number of then-active processes or a monotonically increasing lower bound, whichever is greater. This cautious strategy results in increasing the degree of multiprogramming roughly 20 percent per second. The intent of this strategy is to make the rate of reactivation relatively slow during the first second after the safe interval has expired, while steadily increasing the reintroduction rate in subsequent seconds. If the memory-overcommitment condition recurs during the course of reactivating processes, the following occur:

Allocation and Reclamation of Paging Space Slots

The operating system supports three allocation methods for working storage, also referred to as paging-space slots, as follows:

Note: Paging-space slots are only released by process (not thread) termination or by the disclaim() system call. The slots are not released by the free() system call.

Late Allocation Algorithm

Prior to AIX 4.3.2 with the late allocation algorithm, a paging slot is allocated to a page of virtual memory only when that page is first touched. That is the first time that the page's content is of interest to the executing program.

Many programs exploit late allocation by allocating virtual-memory address ranges for maximum-sized structures and then only using as much of the structure as the situation requires. The pages of the virtual-memory address range that are never accessed never require real-memory frames or paging-space slots.

This technique does involve some degree of risk. If all of the programs running in a machine happened to encounter maximum-size situations simultaneously, paging space might be exhausted. Some programs might not be able to continue to completion.

Early Allocation Algorithm

The second operating system's paging-space-slot-allocation method is intended for use in installations where this situation is likely, or where the cost of failure to complete is intolerably high. Aptly called early allocation, this algorithm causes the appropriate number of paging-space slots to be allocated at the time the virtual-memory address range is allocated, for example, with the malloc() subroutine. If there are not enough paging-space slots to support the malloc() subroutine, an error code is set. The early-allocation algorithm is invoked as follows:

# export PSALLOC=early

This example causes all future programs to be executed in the environment to use early allocation. The currently executing shell is not affected.

Early allocation is of interest to the performance analyst mainly because of its paging-space size implications. If early allocation is turned on for those programs, paging-space requirements can increase many times. Whereas the normal recommendation for paging-space size is at least twice the size of the system's real memory, the recommendation for systems that use PSALLOC=early is at least four times the real memory size. Actually, this is just a starting point. Analyze the virtual storage requirements of your workload and allocate paging spaces to accommodate them. As an example, at one time, the AIXwindows server required 250 MB of paging space when run with early allocation.

Deferred Allocation Algorithm

The third operating system's paging-space-slot-allocation method is the default beginning with AIX 4.3.2 Deferred Page Space Allocation (DPSA) policy delays allocation of paging space until it is necessary to page out the page, which results in no wasted paging space allocation. This method can save huge amounts of paging space, which means disk space.

On some systems, paging space might not ever be needed even if all the pages accessed have been touched. This situation is most common on systems with very large amount of RAM. However, this may result in overcommitment of paging space in cases where more virtual memory than available RAM is accessed.

To disable DPSA and preserve the Late Page Space Allocation policy, run the following command:

# /usr/samples/kernel/vmtune -d 0

To activate DPSA, run the following command:

# /usr/samples/kernel/vmtune -d 1

For further information, see Choosing a Page Space Allocation Method and Placement and Sizes of Paging Spaces.

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