In 2007 I wrote a blog post about swap space . The main point of that article was to debunk the claim that Linux needs a swap space twice as large as main memory (in summary such advice is based on BSD Unix systems and has never applied to Linux and that most storage devices aren’t fast enough for large swap). That post was picked up by Barrapunto (Spanish Slashdot) and became one of the most popular posts I’ve written .
In the past 7 years things have changed. Back then 2G of RAM was still a reasonable amount and 4G was a lot for a desktop system or laptop. Now there are even phones with 3G of RAM, 4G is about the minimum for any new desktop or laptop, and desktop/laptop systems with 16G aren’t that uncommon. Another significant development is the use of SSDs which dramatically improve speed for some operations (mainly seeks).
As SATA SSDs for desktop use start at about $110 I think it’s safe to assume that everyone who wants a fast desktop system has one. As a major limiting factor in swap use is the seek performance of the storage the use of SSDs should allow greater swap use. My main desktop system has 4G of RAM (it’s an older Intel 64bit system and doesn’t support more) and has 4G of swap space on an Intel SSD. My work flow involves having dozens of Chromium tabs open at the same time, usually performance starts to drop when I get to about 3.5G of swap in use.
While SSD generally has excellent random IO performance the contiguous IO performance often isn’t much better than hard drives. My Intel SSDSC2CT12 300i 128G can do over 5000 random seeks per second but for sustained contiguous filesystem IO can only do 225M/s for writes and 274M/s for reads. The contiguous IO performance is less than twice as good as a cheap 3TB SATA disk. It also seems that the performance of SSDs aren’t as consistent as that of hard drives, when a hard drive delivers a certain level of performance then it can generally do so 24*7 but a SSD will sometimes reduce performance to move blocks around (the erase block size is usually a lot larger than the filesystem block size).
It’s obvious that SSDs allow significantly better swap performance and therefore make it viable to run a system with more swap in use but that doesn’t allow unlimited swap. Even when using programs like Chromium (which seems to allocate huge amounts of RAM that aren’t used much) it doesn’t seem viable to have swap be much bigger than 4G on a system with 4G of RAM. Now I could buy another SSD and use two swap spaces for double the overall throughput (which would still be cheaper than buying a PC that supports 8G of RAM), but that still wouldn’t solve all problems.
One issue I have been having on occasion is BTRFS failing to allocate kernel memory when managing snapshots. I’m not sure if this would be solved by adding more RAM as it could be an issue of RAM fragmentation – I won’t file a bug report about this until some of the other BTRFS bugs are fixed. Another problem I have had is when running Minecraft the driver for my ATI video card fails to allocate contiguous kernel memory, this is one that almost certainly wouldn’t be solved by just adding more swap – but might be solved if I tweaked the kernel to be more aggressive about swapping out data.
In 2007 when using hard drives for swap I found that the maximum space that could be used with reasonable performance for typical desktop operations was something less than 2G. Now with a SSD the limit for usable swap seems to be something like 4G on a system with 4G of RAM. On a system with only 2G of RAM that might allow the system to be usable with swap being twice as large as RAM, but with the amounts of RAM in modern PCs it seems that even SSD doesn’t allow using a swap space larger than RAM for typical use unless it’s being used for hibernation.
It seems that nothing has significantly changed in the last 7 years. We have more RAM, faster storage, and applications that are more memory hungry. The end result is that swap still isn’t very usable for anything other than hibernation if it’s larger than RAM.
It would be nice if application developers could stop increasing the use of RAM. Currently it seems that the RAM requirements for Linux desktop use are about 3 years behind the RAM requirements for Windows. This is convenient as a PC is fully depreciated according to the tax office after 3 years. This makes it easy to get 3 year old PCs cheaply (or sometimes for free as rubbish) which work really well for Linux. But it would be nice if we could be 4 or 5 years behind Windows in terms of hardware requirements to reduce the hardware requirements for Linux users even further.