Bert's blog

Memory logging

One of the big issues I have as a code developer is keeping track of memory usage. While it is relatively straightforward to track performance using appropriately placed timers, there is no clear-cut solution to tell you how much memory you are using at any given moment during program execution. Which is annoying in cases where memory usage is a limiting factor, e.g. when running a very large simulation.

In this post, I will give an overview of things I have already attempted in order to make this problem more tractable. None of the solutions I provide are really elegant, but some of them are sufficiently flexible to be useful, which is all that matters.

Different types of memory

First of all, it is important to note that there is no such a thing as just memory. RAM memory comes in two flavours: physical memory (which is the hardware equivalent of RAM memory) and virtual memory, which is the amount of memory allocated to your program by the operating system. Whenever you allocate a block of memory within your software, you ask the operating system to provide an address in the virtual memory which you can use to read and write to. It is the operating system’s job to make sure this memory is actually available, either as a real piece of memory in the physical memory, or in some other way.

Note that this means that not every memory allocation in your program will necessarily use physical memory. If you are very greedy and allocate more memory than you need without ever using it, the operating system might decide not to allocate all of this memory in the physical RAM and your program might fit in less memory than you expect. But it also means that the operating system usually allows for quite a lot more virtual memory than it has available in RAM, in which case your program might very well force the operating system to use space on your hard drive (SWAP) in an attempt to free up enough physical RAM. And that usually leads to a situation in which your program deadlocks your whole system for a considerable amount of time.

This last issue is not at all unlikely, and has happened to me way more often than I would like to admit (in fact, it has happened at least three times in the past two weeks). I therefore strongly recommend you to manually limit the amount of virtual memory that is available to your experimental software by using


within the terminal window in which you plan to run your software. If your program tries to allocate more virtual memory than the set limit, it will simply crash instead of rendering your system useless for the next half hour (or until you manage to kill your program).

Keeping track of memory

Once you know that there is not just one type of memory, it is important to define what you actually mean with tracking memory. You might be interested in knowing exactly how much memory every memory allocation in your program actually allocates, in which case you want to track virtual memory. But if all you care about is making sure that your software will fit in the available memory on some machine, then you probably care about the amount of actual physical memory used by your software.

Keeping track of virtual memory

If you want to track virtual memory, then you simply need to log every allocation that is made, i.e. you make a little note of how much memory is requested for every call that is made to the relevant allocation routines. In a low-level language like C where every allocation is done using malloc or an equivalent routine, it is straightforward to create your own wrapper function for malloc that achieves exactly this.

In somewhat higher level languages like C++, things are a bit more complicated, as many objects are allocated indirectly through class constructors and standard library functions. It is possible to overload the new operator globally, but I cannot think of an elegant way to wrap this into a modular structure that is compatible with C++ thinking or that allows for a good way of labelling allocations. As a result, most solutions I have come up with so far do not attempt to accurately count every allocated bit, but instead focus on a select number of objects (let’s call them the usual suspects: the objects of which you know that they require a lot of memory) or keep track of the total amount of allocated virtual memory.

My first attempt at manually logging object memory made extensive use of the sizeof operator in conjunction with some hard-coded functions to compute the memory size of std::vectors and manually allocated memory. I would basically provide every suspect class with a get_memory_size member function and then manually track the allocated memory whenever an object of that class was created. This worked very well, but was obviously a lot of work. Too much work in fact to make it worth the effort and use it as a sustainable solution.

A second way I only recently (read: this week) stumbled upon makes use of the pseudo file system that Linux distributions provide under /proc. This is a Linux only feature that is provided by the Linux kernel and provides a very powerful way for the kernel to communicate with other parts of the system. The way it works is as follows: your program (which runs within a unique process on your system) requests a file (or set of files) located under the /proc directory. The kernel catches this request and generates the corresponding file, tailored to the needs of the requesting process. No actual file is ever generated, but since the output of the request still takes the form of a simple text file, the requesting process can parse it as it likes and get all the relevant information.

You can easily generate a list of all available /proc files by querying the /proc file system:

ls /proc

This will generate a list of all currently running processes, and a list of global information files, like /proc/cpuinfo which contains information about the available CPUs on the system. To get information for the currently running process, you can simply query /proc/self, in which case the operating system will automatically display the contents of the /proc sub directory for the requesting process, without you having to bother to figure out the ID of this process.

/proc/self contains a lot of useful files, but for our purposes we are only interested in /proc/self/status and /proc/self/statm. The former contains a human readable description of the resources used by the requesting process, including the current virtual memory usage (VmSize) and the maximum virtual memory usage since the start of the process (VmPeak). The latter is a stripped down version of this information that focuses on virtual memory usage only and that is not meant for human consumption. It is however ideal for our purposes.

Using /proc/self/statm, we can get the current virtual memory usage of the program using the following code:

#include <fstream>

std::ifstream statm("/proc/self/statm");
unsigned int vmem_size;
statm >> vmem_size;

The value present in statm is expressed in page sizes, where one page size corresponds to the size of a single block of memory on the system. These blocks are the way the operating system uses to organise the memory; it will always allocate memory in multiples of the page size. The actual page size is system dependent, although a typical value for it is 4096 bytes (4 KB). You can get the system page size as follows:

#include <unistd.h>

unsigned int pagesize = getpagesize();

Note that while the page size will probably fit in a 32-bit integer variable, the total virtual memory size might not. So it is probably a good idea to use 64-bit integers or size_t variables to manipulate these values.

Now that we have a way to get the total virtual memory size for the program at any given time, it is reasonably straightforward to set up a memory tracking routine: we simply determine the memory size before and after a certain object is created, and assume that the difference is due to the size of the object in memory. We still need to explicitly call the memory tracking routine in our code, but the overhead has been significantly reduced (and this immediately provides us with a good way of attaching labels to the memory logs).

Alternatively, we can also simply take snapshots of the total memory at various points during the program, and use these to assess which operations have the most significant impact on the program. The MemoryLogger class I wrote for CMacIonize this week can be used for both and works well enough for my purposes.

Keeping track of actual memory usage

As already mentioned, the actual memory that is used is not equal to the allocated virtual memory, as this depends on the inner workings of the kernel (and additional factors, e.g. how busy the system is at the time). If your program is written efficiently (in terms of memory allocations), then the actual memory usage and the virtual memory usage should be similar. If you don’t know whether your program is memory efficient or not, then you will need to do something else to figure out how much memory was actually used.

Again, /proc/self/statm provides the solution, and this time it is the only good solution I know. Other methods I know are only able to tell you what the maximum used physical memory was since the start of the program, and while useful, this does not allow accurate tracking of the real time physical memory usage. The only advantage is that these methods are a bit more portable and work on other Unix systems than Linux.

So let’s just start with the old method that I have been using for a few years now:

#include <sys/resource.h>

struct rusage resource_usage;
getrusage(RUSAGE_SELF, &resource_usage);
size_t memory_use = resource_usage.ru_maxrss;

This gives you the peak memory usage in KB. The name rss stands for resident set size. While writing this post, I realised that exactly the same name is given in /proc/self/status for a real time value, and according to man proc (the Linux manual for the proc pseudo file system) this is also the second value present in /proc/self/statm. So the following code returns both the current virtual memory size and current physical memory size:

#include <fstream>

std::ifstream statm("/proc/self/statm");
unsigned int vmem_size, phys_size;
statm >> vmem_size >> phys_size;

Both are expressed in page sizes.

From my explanation above, it might be obvious that it does not really make sense to track physical memory usage while objects are being allocated, as allocation only creates the virtual memory and not necessarily physical memory. Tracking the physical memory usage over time can however be very useful. I plan to implement this feature in CMacIonize’s MemoryLogger as soon as I get a chance.

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