The Linux kernel has a number of code sections which look at the apparent size of the machine and determine what would be the best size for buffers. For physical hardware this makes sense as the hardware doesn’t change at runtime. There are many situations where performance can be improved by using more memory for buffers, enabling large buffers for those situations when the machine has a lot of memory makes it convenient for the sysadmin.
Virtual machines change things as the memory available to the kernel may change at run-time. For Xen the most common case is the Dom0 automatically shrinking when memory is taken by a DomU – but it also supports removing memory from a DomU via the xm mem-set command (the use of xm mem-set seems very rare).
Now a server that is purchased for the purpose of running Xen will have a moderate amount of RAM. In recent times the smallest machine I’ve seen purchased for running Xen had 4G of RAM – and it has spare DIMM slots for another 4G if necessary. While a non-virtual server with 8G of RAM would be an unusually powerful machine dedicated for some demanding application, a Xen server with 8G or 16G of RAM is not excessively big, it’s merely got space for more DomU’s. For example one of my Xen servers has 8 CPU cores, 8G of RAM, and 14 DomUs. Each DomU has on average just over half a gig of RAM and half of a CPU core – not particularly big.
In a default configuration the Dom0 will start by using all the RAM in the machine, which in this case meant that the buffer sizes were appropriate for a machine with 8G of RAM. Then as DomUs are started memory is removed from the Dom0 and these buffers become a problem. This ended up forcing a reboot of the machine by preventing Xen virtual network access to most of the DomUs. I was seeing many messages in the Dom0 kernel message log such as “xen_net: Memory squeeze in netback driver” and most DomUs were inaccessible from the Internet (I didn’t verify that all DomUs were partially or fully unavailable or test the back-end network as I was in a hurry to shut it down and reboot before too many customers complained).
The solution to this is to have the Dom0 start by using a small amount of RAM. To do this I edited the GRUB configuration file and put “dom0_mem=256000” at the end of the Xen kernel line (that is the line starting with “kernel /xen.gz“). This gives the Dom0 kernel just under 256M of RAM from when it is first loaded and prevents allocation of bad buffer sizes, it’s the only solution to this network problem that a quick Google search (the kind you do when trying to fix a serious outage before your client notices (*)) could find.
One thing to note is that my belief that it’s kernel buffer sizes that are at the root cause of this problem is based on my knowledge of how some of the buffers are allocated plus an observation of the symptoms. I don’t have a test machine with anything near 8G of RAM so I really can’t do anything more to track this down.
There is another benefit to limiting the Dom0 memory, I have found that on smaller machines it’s impossible to reduce the Dom0 memory below a certain limit at run-time. In the past I’ve had problems in reducing the memory of a Dom0 below about 250M, while such a reduction is hardly desirable on a machine with 8G of RAM, when running an old P3 machine with 512M of RAM there are serious benefits to making Dom0 smaller than that. As a general rule I recommend having a limit on the memory of the Dom0 on all Xen servers. If you use the model of having no services running on the Dom0 there is no benefit in having much ram assigned to it.
(*) Hiding problems from a client is a bad idea and is not something I recommend. But being able to fix a problem and then tell the client that it’s already fixed is much better than having them call you when you don’t know how long the fix will take.