Skip to content

Instantly share code, notes, and snippets.

Last active May 4, 2023 08:27
Show Gist options
  • Save tdryer/7ef02a89169252552978b6773c731109 to your computer and use it in GitHub Desktop.
Save tdryer/7ef02a89169252552978b6773c731109 to your computer and use it in GitHub Desktop.
How Linux approximates memory metrics

How Linux approximates memory metrics


The program threads-memory.c (included below) starts 100 threads, allocates 1 MB of memory in each, and then pauses. How much memory is it using?

Let's find out by running it:

$ gcc -pthread threads-memory.c -o threads-memory
$ ./threads-memory
starting threads... done
press enter to exit

While it's still running, check the RSS (resident set size) using ps. On my Linux system, the result is:

$ ps -o rss -C threads-memory

It's only using 81 MB! How could it possibly be using less than 100 MB?


Starting in Linux 2.6.34, the value reported by ps is an approximation:

For making accounting scalable, RSS related information are handled in asynchronous manner and the vaule [sic] may not be very precise. To see a precise snapshot of a moment, you can see /proc/<pid>/smaps file and scan page table. It's slow but very precise.

Let's try to understand this change.

In Linux, threads are just processes that happen to share the same address space (memory). The struct task_struct represents a process, and the struct mm_struct represents an address space. mm_struct contains a counter tracking the RSS. This is the value used by ps.

Having every thread access the same mm_struct every time memory is allocated would be inefficient. The optimization adds a per-thread cache for the counter in task_struct. Each cache is flushed to the associated mm_struct once every 64 page faults in a thread. Assuming a 4 KB page size, this means that up to 252 KB (64 * 4 KB) may be unaccounted for. Probably not a big deal, unless you're running a lot of threads!

To get a precise RSS value, you can use the pmap command instead, which scans the page table instead of using the RSS counter:

$ pmap -x $(pidof threads-memory) | grep -E "Address|total"
Address           Kbytes     RSS   Dirty Mode  Mapping
total kB         2960712  105424  103888
#include <pthread.h>
#include <stdatomic.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#define NUM_THREADS 100
#define BYTES_PER_THREAD 1024 * 1024 // 1 MB
void *child_main(void *num_threads_ready) {
char *data = malloc(BYTES_PER_THREAD);
if (data == NULL) {
fputs("failed to allocate memory", stderr);
for (int i = 0; i < BYTES_PER_THREAD; i++) {
data[i] = 0;
atomic_fetch_add((atomic_uint *)num_threads_ready, 1);
return 0;
int main() {
atomic_uint num_threads_ready;
atomic_init(&num_threads_ready, 0);
pthread_t threads[NUM_THREADS];
fputs("starting threads... ", stderr);
for (int i = 0; i < NUM_THREADS; i++) {
if (pthread_create(&threads[i], NULL, child_main, &num_threads_ready)) {
fputs("failed to create thread\n", stderr);
while (atomic_load(&num_threads_ready) < NUM_THREADS) {
fputs("done\npress enter to exit", stderr);
return 0;
Sign up for free to join this conversation on GitHub. Already have an account? Sign in to comment