Understanding free memory in Linux

It used to worry me when I found that Linux was using almost all the memory available to a system. However all that worry was for naught. Linux is very good at memory management and making sure it has enough memory to do what it needs to do. You can run out of memory of course, but you are likely in better shape than you think you are.

If you run a command like “top -c” your server will likely tell you almost all the memory is used:


# top -c
top - 12:26:21 up 4 days, 3:09, 2 users, load average: 0.73, 0.58, 0.48
Tasks: 568 total, 1 running, 567 sleeping, 0 stopped, 0 zombie
Cpu(s): 2.4%us, 0.2%sy, 0.1%ni, 97.2%id, 0.1%wa, 0.0%hi, 0.0%si, 0.0%st
Mem: 8165824k total, 8064488k used, 101336k free, 83604k buffers
Swap: 6088624k total, 1338756k used, 4749868k free, 2445728k cached

Glancing at this result, you would think I only have 101mb free of 8gb here. However those numbers are as misleading as the load average on a multi-cpu server.

If you look at another command

# free -mt
total used free shared buffers cached
Mem: 7974 7921 53 0 27 2107
-/+ buffers/cache: 5786 2187
Swap: 5945 923 5022
Total: 13920 8844 5075

You get a similar misleading result, but you get to see the actual server condition too.

As you can see, the first free value is very low and that’s what is concerning you.

However I want to draw your attention to the next line. That’s really where you need to watch.
If you look at the buffers/cache line, you can see that used value is 5786mb and we have 2107mb in the free column. That free column is the Free + Cached + buffers (plus/minus rounding error of less than 2 Kbytes). That’s really the line that you need to watch.

From that line we can tell that we have used 5.79gb out of the 7.97gb of total physical memory already used by programs. We can also see that we have 2.19gb of RAM that is in the cached pool that is available for usage.

As I mentioned before, Linux doesn’t usually let memory go to waste. So you will watch that free number drop on the first line down to the double digits, but even then the cached value will be around 2gb. That means is we have roughly 2gb of memory available for programs right now. If a program needs more, it will pull it out of the cached memory pool and even after that, it will use the swap space before it is really out of memory and that is an additional 5gb.

To look at how much memory each program is using, I use this line:

# ps aux|head -1;ps aux | sort -nr -k 4 | head -20
USER PID %CPU %MEM VSZ RSS TTY STAT START TIME COMMAND
102 4123 0.4 10.8 1196416 885840 ? Ssl Feb18 25:26 memcached [...]
mysql 17929 7.6 3.0 949372 248040 pts/3 Sl 06:05 23:32 /usr/libexec/mysqld [...]
root 7059 0.0 1.6 204360 138040 ? Ssl Feb18 0:28 /usr/sbin/clamd
apache 26931 1.2 0.8 225096 69956 ? S 11:06 0:05 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 26631 1.0 0.8 223304 66856 ? S 11:04 0:05 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 26458 1.5 0.8 223488 66824 ? S 11:03 0:09 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 23879 0.5 0.8 225068 68376 ? S 10:48 0:08 /usr/bin/php-cgi
root 26404 0.0 0.7 131956 58708 ? S Feb20 0:04 spamd child
root 24156 0.1 0.7 136320 63308 ? S 07:04 0:28 spamd child
apache 26937 2.5 0.7 221812 59788 ? S 11:06 0:11 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 26567 0.6 0.7 222416 61756 ? S 11:04 0:03 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 26405 0.0 0.7 222748 58228 ? S 11:03 0:00 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 23890 0.4 0.7 214040 57508 ? S 10:48 0:06 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 23851 0.1 0.7 221972 58596 ? S 10:48 0:01 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 17990 0.0 0.7 223916 58320 ? S 06:06 0:00 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 17164 0.1 0.7 215152 58956 ? S 10:13 0:04 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 14406 0.0 0.7 221164 63616 ? S Feb21 0:05 /usr/bin/php-cgi
root 7099 0.0 0.6 124312 49792 ? Ss Feb18 0:03 /usr/bin/spamd [...]
apache 26932 1.3 0.6 212336 52944 ? S 11:06 0:05 /usr/bin/php-cgi
apache 26628 2.2 0.6 213964 55164 ? S 11:04 0:11 /usr/bin/php-cgi

That shows you the 20 most memory intensive programs. Right now, on this server, the top to are memcached and mysqld – as it should be. Then there’s a huge list of php-cgi instances prelaunched to handle an influx of connections. Also the spam checker coming up a few times. Most of the instances only take up ~220K, which isn’t bad either. So from this, I can see that I have used a lot of memory in preparing many instances of php that are ready to go as connections come in. I also have APC installed and that is allowing the use of shared memory and that is reducing the overall footprint.

All in all, while I am showing a really low free memory value on this server, I know I actually have more memory available and already have a lot of existing memory taken up in preparation for when I get a much heavier load. As I speak, the server is dealing with 630 connections quite nicely.

 

BONUS TIP

To visually monitor memory usage, try this:

watch -n 1 -d free -mt

4 thoughts on “Understanding free memory in Linux”

  1. Wonderful analysis ! Thanks I used to always see the first line and worry. Like in your case: Mem: 7974 7921 53 0 27 2107 i used to read it as i have 7974m out of which 7921m is used and only 53 free (and worry who is eating top saying no one )

    I guess all is pooled in cached. Example mines shows:
    free -mt
    total used free shared buffers cached
    Mem: 16049 15997 51 0 58 13421
    -/+ buffers/cache: 2518 13531
    Swap: 12287 0 12287
    Total: 28337 15998 12339

    With only 2gb used by JVM. Shows total 2.5 (including other procs) and 13.5 available. But why linux kernel puts 13.4 in cached to start with.

  2. Sometimes this error was irritating or worrying me when thinking on how to handle this issue. I am sure Linux is very good to handle the memory management and coordinating the things around the same. Thanks for the tips.

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