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2009-08-03 15:19:43

High Memory In The Linux Kernel

 Overview of Linux memory management

32-bit architectures can reference 4 GB of physical memory (2^32). Processors that have an MMU (Memory Management Unit) support the concept of virtual memory: page tables are set up by the kernel which map "virtual addresses" to "physical addresses"; this basically means that each process can access 4 GB of memory, thinking it's the only process running on the machine (much like multi-tasking, in which each process is made to think that it's the only process executing on a CPU).

The virtual address to physical address mappings are done by the kernel. When a new process is "fork()"ed, the kernel creates a new set of page tables for the process. The addresses referenced within a process in user-space are virtual addresses. They do not necessarily map directly to the same physical address. The virtual address is passed to the MMU (Memory Management Unit of the processor) which converts it to the proper physical address based on the tables set up by the kernel. Hence, two processes can refer to memory address 0x08329, but they would refer to two different locations in memory.

The Linux kernel splits the 4 GB virtual address space of a process in two parts: 3 GB and 1 GB. The lower 3 GB of the process virtual address space is accessible as the user-space virtual addresses and the upper 1 GB space is reserved for the kernel virtual addresses. This is true for all processes.

+----------+ 4 GB
| |
| |
| |
| Kernel |
| | +----------+
| Virtual | | |
| | | |
| Space | | High |
| | | |
| (1 GB) | | Memory |
| | | |
| | | (unused) |
+----------+ 3 GB +----------+ 1 GB
| | | |
| | | |
| | | |
| | | Kernel |
| | | |
| | | Physical |
| | | |
|User-space| | Space |
| | | |
| Virtual | | |
| | | |
| Space | | |
| | | |
| (3 GB) | +----------+ 0 GB
| |
| | Physical
| | Memory
| |
| |
| |
| |
| |
+----------+ 0 GB


The kernel virtual area (3 - 4 GB address space) maps to the first 1 GB of physical RAM. The 3 GB addressable RAM available to each process is mapped to the available physical RAM.

The Problem

So, the basic problem here is, the kernel can just address 1 GB of virtual addresses, which can translate to a maximum of 1 GB of physical memory. This is because the kernel directly maps all available kernel virtual space addresses to the available physical memory.


There are some solutions which address this problem:

  1. 2G / 2G, 1G / 3G split
  2. HIGHMEM solution for using up to 4 GB of memory
  3. HIGHMEM solution for using up to 64 GB of memory

1. 2G / 2G, 1G / 3G split

Instead of splitting the virtual address space the traditional way of 3G / 1G (3 GB for user-space, 1 GB for kernel space), third-party patches exist to split the virtual address space 2G / 2G or 1G / 3G. The 1G / 3G split is a bit extreme in that you can map up to 3 GB of physical memory, but user-space applications cannot grow beyond 1 GB. It could work for simple applications; but if one has more than 3 GB of physical RAM, he / she won't run simple applications on it, right?

The 2G / 2G split seems to be a balanced approach to using RAM more than 1 GB without using the HIGHMEM patches. However, server applications like databases always want as much virtual addressing space as possible; so this approach may not work in those scenarios.

There's a patch for 2.4.23 that includes a config-time option of selecting the user / kernel split values by Andrea Arcangeli. It is available at . It's a simple patch and making it work on 2.6 should not be too difficult.

Before looking at solutions 2 & 3, let's take a look at some more Linux Memory Management issues.


In Linux, the memory available from all banks is classified into "nodes". These nodes indicate how much memory each bank has. This classification is mainly useful for NUMA architectures, but it's also used for UMA architectures, where the number of nodes is just 1.

Memory in each node is divided into "zones". The zones currently defined are ZONE_DMA, ZONE_NORMAL and ZONE_HIGHMEM.

ZONE_DMA is used by some devices for data transfer and is mapped in the lower physical memory range (up to 16 MB).

Memory in the ZONE_NORMAL region is mapped by the kernel in the upper region of the linear address space. Most operations can only take place in ZONE_NORMAL; so this is the most performance critical zone. ZONE_NORMAL goes from 16 MB to 896 MB.

To address memory from 1 GB onwards, the kernel has to map pages from high memory into ZONE_NORMAL.

Some area of memory is reserved for storing several kernel data structures that store information about the memory map and page tables. This on x86 is 128 MB. Hence, of the 1 GB physical memory the kernel can access, 128MB is reserved. This means that the kernel virtual address in this 128 MB is not mapped to physical memory. This leaves a maximum of 896 MB for ZONE_NORMAL. So, even if one has 1 GB of physical RAM, just 896 MB will be actually available.

Back to the solutions:

2. HIGHMEM solution for using up to 4 GB of memory

Since Linux can't access memory which hasn't been directly mapped into its address space, to use memory > 1 GB, the physical pages have to be mapped in the kernel virtual address space first. This means that the pages in ZONE_HIGHMEM have to be mapped in ZONE_NORMAL before they can be accessed.

The reserved space which we talked about earlier (in case of x86, 128 MB) has an area in which pages from high memory are mapped into the kernel address space.

To create a permanent mapping, the "kmap" function is used. Since this function may sleep, it may not be used in interrupt context. Since the number of permanent mappings is limited (if not, we could've directly mapped all the high memory in the address space), pages mapped this way should be "kunmap"ped when no longer needed.

Temporary mappings can be created via "kmap_atomic". This function doesn't block, so it can be used in interrupt context. "kunmap_atomic" un-maps the mapped high memory page. A temporary mapping is only available as long as the next temporary mapping. However, since the mapping and un-mapping functions also disable / enable preemption, it's a bug to not kunmap_atomic a page mapped via kmap_atomic.

3. HIGHMEM solution for using 64 GB of memory

This is enabled via the PAE (Physical Address Extension) extension of the PentiumPro processors. PAE addresses the 4 GB physical memory limitation and is seen as Intel's answer to AMD 64-bit and AMD x86-64. PAE allows processors to access physical memory up to 64 GB (36 bits of address bus). However, since the virtual address space is just 32 bits wide, each process can't grow beyond 4 GB. The mechanism used to access memory from 4 GB to 64 GB is essentially the same as that of accessing the 1 GB - 4 GB RAM via the HIGHMEM solution discussed above.

Should I enable CONFIG_HIGHMEM for my 1 GB RAM system?

It is advised to not enable CONFIG_HIGHMEM in the kernel to utilize the extra 128 MB you get for your 1 GB RAM system. I/O Devices cannot directly address high memory from PCI space, so bounce buffers have to be used. Plus the virtual memory management and paging costs come with extra mappings. For details on bounce buffers, refer to Mel Gorman's documentation (link below).

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