March 2000

Swap This! Swap Space Management

Managing swap space and requirements.

Having a Reference Point

Having a solid reference point is perhaps the best possible situation an administrator can find themselves in. An instance when this might occur might be if one is transferring a particular set(s) of software and function(s) from an older architecture to a newer one. In that particular instance, the manufacturers [ 1 ], user groups and vendors all will usually have sets of comparisons about the differences between one system versus another and (if you are lucky) information about particular application [ 2 ] needs where swap space is concerned.

Another way to beat the problem to the punch is to attempt to test out a particular set of applications on a system before completing the configuration of a newer one; a much more difficult situation to be in, but I have actually been there as it were, it worked out for the best.

One thing I have consistently discovered is when I do have the occasion to test an application prior to deployment, or I already have a reference point, every single time (so far that is) I have grossly overestimated my needs. I believe it is because I do not fully take into account faster bus speeds etc. and a small degree of incredible luck. I can only hope all of my fellow administrators are as haplessly fortunate as I have been, however, by the same token, suddenly the extra resources get swallowed up by unforeseen projects or events in general. In the end it all seems to balance out.

Determining Required Swap Space

There are several methods for determining the amount of swap space you need. Four methods are:

  • The standard swap space rule
  • Following Recommended Guidelines
  • Sizing from a Reference Point
  • Combining methods & knowing the system

Of course, the last one is not a stand alone method, but it deserves special attention.

The Standard Swap Space Rule

In a nutshell, (RAM x 2). For instance, if you had 24GB of memory, 48GB of swap space. While in practice it generally works, it is not always the most efficient. Some flavors of UNIX take special advantage of swap space, while others may not. A system may not even need any (although that is definitely a rarity - it is always a good idea to have some).

Following Recommended Guidelines

A particular method that can be helpful, but it requires a great deal of research. To coin a phrase from a popular movie:

"The sheer logistics of it are mind boggling"

Which can certainly be true of determining swap space needs based on:

  • Getting opinions from scsi and disk vendors
  • Getting opinions from memory vendors
  • Getting opinions from anyone who sells hardware
  • . . .

I think you get the picture.

All is not lost, however. Upon further investigation, one can find all sorts of information to help them make a well informed decision about swap space requirements. Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Newsgroups
  • User Groups
  • Trade Journals
  • Peers and friends who may be in the same field

Sizing From A Reference Point

By far the easiest method is to size from a given reference point. The applied method of doing this is actually somewhat tricky, however, you will find the method in a great deal of trade journals and books (actually I have seen it in several books).

There is a deviation of this method that works on systems that are not yet online (i.e. the system you are about to put online). Simply setup a grossly oversized temporary swapfile to hold you over until you create the swap partition(s).

Basically you have a bunch of knowns, these knowns are how much memory your system will require when running x applications with n instances, following is the exact method:

  1. Estimate your total memory needs by adding up the amount of memory used by as many running programs you believe the system might run at once and the instances of them, for example, if 6 users constantly run a calender program, you could run it then multiply the amount by 6 (taking into account standard login and shell memory usage as well). [ 4 ]
  2. Add some bufferspace to your estimates based upong the amount of RAM you have, for example, if you have 64MB of RAM, a couple of megabytes will do, if you have 50 Gigabytes of RAM, a couple fo Gigabytes should suffice.
  3. Subtract the amount of physical memory from this total. The remainder is the amount of swap you will need.
  4. If the amount in step 3 is three times the size of physical memory, you might run into some problems. If the results show that you do not need any swap space, make some anyway in case your system uses it on a convienence basis.

The method, however, is not full proof. There are instances when a certain architecture will simply require what might seem like more than you will ever use.

Combining Methods and Knowing Your System

As I mentioned earlier, no method is full proof (or fool proof as it were). There are instances when even the old Ram x 2 will not suffice. The reason for this is some applications (databases in particular) are designed to make use of swap in some sort of special way. That being the case, the normal rules may not apply. Additionally, there is always the unforeseen additions and loads that come into play.

Finally, having an initmate knowledge of your systems helps. As an example, had I known the precise bus architecture on a new system, I might have saved some money by not getting the amount of RAM I did initially.

We have covered the methods of determining swap space requirements, next we will examine the definitions of swapfiles and partitions, the pros and cons of each and how to set them up.

Swap Partitions and Swap Files

A swap partition is a predefined and allocated disk area that is used only for swapping. A swapfile is, as it intuitively sounds, a file that does the same job, however, it can grow to the size of the partition it resides on. With that in mind, creating a swapfile on say a /usr partition may not be the wisest idea.

Swapfiles are best employed as a temporary holdover measure, or as I mentioned above, a temporary device for determining swap partition needs. A swapfile may also work well on a small workstation, otherwise, the keyword to remember here is temporary.

Activating and Shutting Off Swapfiles

The syntax for activating a swapfile is pretty simple:

   swapon filename

For example, if we made a temporary swapfile called /var/swapthis:

   swapon /var/swapthis

Allocating a swap partition varies from UNIX system to system, however, the most common command to create swap space is the mkswap command. In the following example, I am creating a swap partition on a logical volume in volume group 00:

   mkswap /dev/vg00/lvol04

Activating swap partitions is similar to files, using the logical volume example, the syntax would look like so:

   swapon /dev/vg00/lvol04

Turning off swap uses the swapoff command. Using the swapfile example, the command would look like so:

   swapoff /var/swapthis

Swap Space Priority

Swap space performance can be enhanced (or worsened) by altering priorities. On some systems, there may be multiple swap partitions on different devices. Since priority is based upon "first come first serve" by default. So, you may have an instance where you would want to alter default priorities because of a new disk installation etc. The syntax is usually something like:

   swapon -p priority

With the priority being a number. In most cases, the higher the number, the higher the priority.

Last Comments on Swap Space Performance

Swap partitions are disks, keeping that in mind, many principles that one might apply to disks can also be apoplied to swap space. Using RAID or striping in general can increase performance. Try to allocate swap partitions near the beginning of a drive etc.

As Usual, This is Not the Endall Document

Any performance issue can never be fully examined in a short column, as I stated earlier, this applies to small to low end enterprise systems. Even so, there will be instances where this particular column may have missed the mark. I highly recommend visiting newsgroups, consulting local documentation and manuals to learn more about how your particular UNIX system interacts with swap space.


  1. Hewlett Packard (HP) and Sun I believe both have this type of information in house and available via commercial partners.
  2. Oracle and H.P. actually have collated information about swap space needs for the Oracle Database Product on Hewlett Packard UNIX (HP-UX) which is distributed throughout larger User Groups.
  3. Take into account the amount of memory used by the kernel as well.
  4. As per the norm, the swap management commands may vary from system to system.