When using virtualization extensively, you will pretty soon hit the limits of your system (at least, the resources on it). When the virtualization is used primarily for testing (such as in my case), the limit is memory. So it makes sense to seek memory optimization strategies on such systems. The first thing to enable is KSM or Kernel Samepage Merging.

This Linux feature looks for memory pages that the applications have marked as being a possible candidate for optimization (sharing) which are then reused across multiple processes. The idea is that, especially for virtualized environments (but KSM is not limited to that), some processes will have the same contents in memory. Without any sharing abilities, these memory pages will be unique (meaning at different locations in your system's memory). With KSM, such memory pages are consolidated to a single page which is then referred to by the various processes. When one process wants to modify the page, it is "unshared" so that there is no corruption or unwanted modification of data for the other processes.

Such features are not new - VMWare has it named TPS (Transparent Page Sharing) and Xen calls it "Memory CoW" (Copy-on-Write). One advantage of KSM is that it is simple to setup and advantageous for other processes as well. For instance, if you host multiple instances of the same service (web service, database, tomcat, whatever) there is a high chance that several of its memory pages are prime candidates for sharing.

Now before I do mention that this sharing is only enabled when the application has marked it as such. This is done through the madvise() method, where applications mark the memory with MADV_MERGEABLE, meaning that the applications explicitly need to support KSM in order for it to be successful. There is work on the way to support transparent KSM (such as UKSM and PKSM) where no madvise calls would be needed anymore. But beyond quickly reading the home pages (or translated home pages in case of UKSM ;-) I have no experience with those projects.

So let's get back to KSM. I am currently running three virtual machines (all configured to take at most 1.5 Gb of memory). Together, they take just a little over 1 Gb of memory (sum of their resident set sizes). When I consult KSM, I get the following information:

 # grep -H '' /sys/kernel/mm/ksm/pages_*

The pages_shared tells me that 48911 pages are shared (which means about 191 Mb) through 90090 references (pages_sharing - meaning the various processes have in total 90090 references to pages that are being shared). That means a gain of 41179 pages (160 Mb). Note that the resident set sizes do not take into account shared pages, so the sum of the RSS has to be subtracted with this to find the "real" memory consumption. The pages_unshared value tells me that 123002 pages are marked with the MADV_MERGEABLE advise flag but are not used by other processes.

If you want to use KSM yourself, configure your kernel with CONFIG_KSM and start KSM by echo'ing the value "1" into /sys/kernel/mm/ksm/run. That's all there is to it.


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