Erik Rigtorp

Latency implications of virtual memory

This is a short guide describing the latency implications of the virtual memory abstraction. If you are building systems requiring low and predictable latency such as realtime audio processing, control and high frequency trading (HFT) / algorithmic trading systems this guide will be useful to you. It is written from the perspective Linux kernel running on AMD64 / x86-64 architecture, but the general concepts applies to most operating systems and CPU architectures.

In summary to minimize latency introduced by the virtual memory abstraction you should:

  • Minimize page faults by pre-faulting, locking and pre-allocating needed memory. Disable swap.
  • Reduce TLB misses by minimizing your working set memory and utilizing huge pages.
  • Prevent TLB shootdowns by not modifying your programs page tables after startup.
  • Prevent stalls due to page cache writeback by not creating file backed writable memory mappings.
  • Disable Linux transparent huge pages (THP).
  • Disable Linux kernel samepage merging (KSM).
  • Disable Linux automatic NUMA balancing.

Page faults

When reading or writing to file backed memory that is not in the page cache1 or to anonymous memory2 that has been swapped out, the kernel must first load the data from the underlying storage device. This is called a major page fault and incurs a similar overhead as issuing a read or write system call.

If the page is already in the page cache you will still incur a minor page fault on first access after calling mmap, during which the page table is updated to point to the correct page3. For anonymous memory there will also be a minor page fault on first write access, when a anonymous page is allocated, zeroed and the page table updated2. Basically memory mappings are lazily initialized on first use. Note also that access to the page table during a page fault is protected by locks leading to scalability issues in multi-threaded applications4. On systems with non-uniform memory access (NUMA) the automatic NUMA memory balancing will also cause page faults.

To avoid page faults you can pre-fault and disable page cache eviction of the needed memory using the mlock system call or the MAP_LOCKED and MAP_POPULATE flags to mmap. You can also disable swap system wide to prevent anonymous memory from being swapped to disk. Automatic NUMA memory balancing can be disabled using the following command:

echo 0 > /proc/sys/kernel/numa_balancing

You can monitor number of page faults using

ps -eo min_flt,maj_flt,cmd


perf stat -e faults,minor-faults,major-faults

TLB misses

The translation lookaside buffer (TLB) is a on CPU cache that maps virtual to physical addresses. These mappings are maintained for pages typically of size 4 KiB, 2/4 MiB or 1 GiB. Usually there are separate TLBs for data (DTLB) and instructions (ITLB) with a shared second level TLB (STLB)5. The TLB has a limited number of entries and if a address is not found in the TLB or STLB, the page table data in the CPU caches or main memory needs to be referenced, this is called a TLB miss6. The same as a CPU cache miss is more expensive than a cache hit, a TLB miss is more expensive than a TLB hit.

You can minimize TLB misses by reducing your working set size, making sure to pack your data into as few pages as possible. Additionally you can utilize larger page sizes than the default 4 KiB. These larger pages are called huge pages7 and allows you to reference more data using fewer pages.

TLB usage can be monitored using:

perf stat -e dTLB-loads,dTLB-load-misses,iTLB-loads,iTLB-load-misses

If the above command shows that your workload produces a large fraction of TLB misses huge pages will help reduce that.

TLB shootdowns

Most processors do not provide coherence guarantees for TLB mappings. Instead the kernel provides this guarantee using a mechanism called a TLB shootdown. It operates by sending inter-processor interrupts (IPIs) that runs kernel code to invalidate the stale TLB entries8. TLB shootdowns causes each affected core to context switch into the kernel and thus causes latency spikes for the process running on the affected cores. It will also cause TLB misses when a address with an invalidated page table entry is subsequently accessed.

Any operation that narrows a process’ access to memory like munmap and mprotect will cause a TLB shootdown. Calls to the C standard library allocator (malloc, free, etc) will call madvise(...MADV_FREE)/munmap internally, but not necessarily on each invocation. Other causes of TLB shootdowns are: transparent huge pages (THP), memory compaction, kernel samepage merging (KSM), automatic NUMA memory balancing, page migration and page cache writeback.

To avoid TLB shootdowns you can map all needed memory at program startup and avoid calling any functions that modifies the page table after that. The mimalloc allocator can be tuned to allocate huge pages at program startup (MIMALLOC_RESERVE_HUGE_OS_PAGES=N) and never return memory to the OS (MIMALLOC_PAGE_RESET=0).

You can view the number of TLB shootdowns per CPU core in /proc/interrupts:

$ egrep 'TLB|CPU' /proc/interrupts
            CPU0       CPU1       CPU2       CPU3
 TLB:   16642971   16737647   16870842   16350398   TLB shootdowns

I wrote a test program tlbshootdown.c to demonstrate how munmap triggers TLB shootdowns:

perf stat -e tlb:tlb_flush  ./tlbshootdown 100000

 Performance counter stats for './tlbshootdown 100000':

           100,016      tlb:tlb_flush

       0.260283596 seconds time elapsed

       0.017426000 seconds user
       0.232625000 seconds sys

In a multi-threaded program this would have triggered 100000 TLB shootdowns.

Page cache writeback

When a page in the page cache1 has been modified it is marked as dirty and needs to be eventually written back to disk. This process is called writeback and is triggered automatically on a timer or when specifically requested using the system calls fsync, fdatasync, sync, syncfs, msync, and others. If any of the dirty pages are part of a writable memory mapping, the writeback process must first update the page table to mark the page as read-only before writing it to disk. Any subsequent memory write to the page will cause a page fault, letting the kernel update the page cache state to dirty and mark the page writable again. In practice this means that writeback causes TLB shootdowns and that writes to pages that are currently being written to disk must stall until the disk write is complete. This leads to latency spikes for any process that is using file backed writable memory mappings.

To avoid latency spikes due to page cache writeback you cannot create any file backed (or more precisely page cache backed) writable memory mappings. Creating anonymous writable memory mappings using mmap(...MAP_ANONYMOUS) or by mapping files on Linux tmpfs or hugetlbfs filesystem is fine.

I wrote a small program writeback.cpp to demonstrate this effect. On my Ryzen 3900X with Samsung 970 EVO NVME SSD running Linux 5.7 I get latency spikes of hundreds of microseconds due to writeback activity:

# ./writeback 9 $HOME/junkfile.bin
threshold: 17792 ns
pid: 382129
jitter     900985 ns
jitter      19036 ns
jitter      33283 ns
jitter      18515 ns
jitter     777301 ns
jitter     715154 ns
jitter     118063 ns
jitter     661983 ns
jitter      18676 ns

You can inspect /proc/[pid]/maps to see if there are any writable memory mappings. To print shared writable memory mappings backed by the page cache:

$ cat /proc/*/maps | grep '.w.s' | grep -v -E "/dev/|/mem:|/run/|/tmp/"

Note that the above command can have false positives and false negatives depending on if tmpfs is used for /run/ and /tmp/.

Transparent huge pages

Linux transparent huge page (THP) support allows the kernel to automatically promote regular memory pages into huge pages. Huge pages reduces TLB pressure, but THP support can introduce latency spikes.

THP will try to automatically promote pages into huge pages at the time of allocation during minor page faults. Additionally the khugepaged daemon runs in the background and will try to promote continuos ranges of virtual memory into huge pages. If no huge pages are available when requested, the kernel will try to compact memory to make huge pages available.

Both the background promotion of pages by khugepaged and on-demand compaction of pages by kcompactd causes latency spikes since they need to move data around and update the page tables. There is also ongoing work to enable proactive memory compaction which would become another source of latency spikes.

To avoid these latency spikes I recommend disabling THP and instead relying on manually requesting huge pages. THP can be disabled by supplying the kernel command line parameter transparent_hugepage=never or running the following command:

echo never > /sys/kernel/mm/transparent_hugepage/enabled

Kernel samepage merging

Linux kernel samepage merging (KSM) is a feature that de-duplicates memory pages that contains identical data. The merging process needs to lock the page tables and issue TLB shootdowns, leading to unpredictable memory access latencies. KSM only operates on memory pages that has been opted in to samepage merging using madvise(...MADV_MERGEABLE). If needed KSM can be disabled system wide by running the following command:

echo 0 > /sys/kernel/mm/ksm/run

NUMA and page migration

Non-uniform memory access (NUMA) occurs when the memory access time varies with memory location and processor core. You need to take this into account when designing your system.

On Linux you can use cpusets, numactl, set_mempolicy and mbind to control the NUMA node memory placement policy.

Additionally Linux supports automatic page fault based NUMA memory balancing and manual page migration of memory between NUMA nodes. Migration of memory pages between NUMA nodes will cause TLB shootdowns and page faults for applications using the affected memory.

Automatic NUMA memory balancing can be disabled with the following command:

echo 0 > /proc/sys/kernel/numa_balancing

Also make sure to disable the numad user space NUMA memory balancing service.


  1. “The physical memory is volatile and the common case for getting data into the memory is to read it from files. Whenever a file is read, the data is put into the page cache to avoid expensive disk access on the subsequent reads. Similarly, when one writes to a file, the data is placed in the page cache and eventually gets into the backing storage device. The written pages are marked as dirty and when Linux decides to reuse them for other purposes, it makes sure to synchronize the file contents on the device with the updated data.” ↩︎

  2. “The anonymous memory or anonymous mappings represent memory that is not backed by a filesystem. Such mappings are implicitly created for program’s stack and heap or by explicit calls to mmap(2) system call. Usually, the anonymous mappings only define virtual memory areas that the program is allowed to access. The read accesses will result in creation of a page table entry that references a special physical page filled with zeroes. When the program performs a write, a regular physical page will be allocated to hold the written data. The page will be marked dirty and if the kernel decides to repurpose it, the dirty page will be swapped out.” ↩︎

  3. Travis Downs provided an interesting observation on anonymous vs file backed memory: “One note, although it might be a bit obscure for the article, is that there is a quite a difference in minor fault behavior when mapping in pages depending on whether they are file backed or not. If a page is backed by a file, it is subject to “fault around” which means that the kernel will map in nearby pages if they are also present in the page cache (i.e., it was a soft fault). You can tune how many pages are faulted in with /sys/kernel/debug/fault_around_bytes, which by default is 64k (16 pages).

    The upshot of all this is reading a mapped file (for the first time) can be faster than reading from anonymous memory, since you get 1/16th of the minor faults when you are reading the file.”

    You can find even more details on fault-around here: ↩︎

  4. ↩︎

  5. The TLB hierarchy for Intel microarchitectures are documented in the “Intel® 64 and IA-32 Architectures Optimization Reference Manual”

    You can find information on the TLB configuration for many different CPU microarchitectures at ↩︎

  6. “What happens after a L2 TLB miss?”. ↩︎

  7. “The address translation requires several memory accesses and memory accesses are slow relatively to CPU speed. To avoid spending precious processor cycles on the address translation, CPUs maintain a cache of such translations called Translation Lookaside Buffer (or TLB). Usually TLB is pretty scarce resource and applications with large memory working set will experience performance hit because of TLB misses.

    Many modern CPU architectures allow mapping of the memory pages directly by the higher levels in the page table. For instance, on x86, it is possible to map 2M and even 1G pages using entries in the second and the third level page tables. In Linux such pages are called huge. Usage of huge pages significantly reduces pressure on TLB, improves TLB hit-rate and thus improves overall system performance.” ↩︎

  8. On the AMD64 / x86-64 architecture TLB entries are invalidated using the INVLPG or `INVPCID instructions.

    On the ARM architecture TLB entries are invalidated using the TLBI instruction.

    More information on TLB invalidation can be found in The Linux Kernel documentation. ↩︎