The Linux Virtual Memory System: Large Page Support

This lesson evaluates the support of huge pages in Linux by specifying both advantages and disadvantages.

We'll cover the following

Intel x86 allows for the use of multiple page sizes, not just the standard 4-KB page. Specifically, recent designs support 2-MB and even 1-GB pages in hardware. Thus, over time, Linux has evolved to allow applications to utilize these huge pages (as they are called in the world of Linux).

Benefits of huge pages

Using huge pages, as hinted at earlier, leads to numerous benefits. As seen in VAX/VMS, doing so reduces the number of mappings that are needed in the page table; the larger the pages, the fewer the mappings. However, fewer page-table entries is not the driving force behind huge pages; rather, it’s better TLB behavior and related performance gains.

When a process actively uses a large amount of memory, it quickly fills up the TLB with translations. If those translations are for 4-KB pages, only a small amount of total memory can be accessed without inducing TLB misses. The result, for modern “big memory” workloads running on machines with many GBs of memory, is a noticeable performance cost; recent research shows that some applications spend 10% of their cycles servicing TLB misses“Efficient Virtual Memory for Big Memory Servers” by A. Basu, J. Gandhi, J. Chang, M. D. Hill, M. M. Swift. ISCA ’13, June 2013, Tel-Aviv, Israel. A recent work showing that TLBs matter, consuming 10% of cycles for large-memory workloads. The solution: one massive segment to hold large data sets. We go backward, so that we can go forward!.

Huge pages allow a process to access a large tract of memory without TLB misses, by using fewer slots in the TLB, and thus is the main advantage. However, there are other benefits to huge pages: there is a shorter TLB-miss path, meaning that when a TLB miss does occur, it is serviced more quickly. In addition, allocation can be quite fast (in certain scenarios), a small but sometimes important benefit.


Many times in life, you are encouraged to be a revolutionary. “Think big!”, they say. “Change the world!”, they scream. And you can see why it is appealing; in some cases, big changes are needed, and thus pushing hard for them makes a lot of sense. And, if you try it this way, at least they might stop yelling at you.

However, in many cases, a slower, more incremental approach might be the right thing to do. The Linux huge page example in this chapter is an example of engineering incrementalism; instead of taking the stance of a fundamentalist and insisting large pages were the way of the future, developers took the measured approach of first introducing specialized support for it, learning more about its upsides and downsides, and, only when there was real reason for it, adding more generic support for all applications.

Incrementalism, while sometimes scorned, often leads to slow, thoughtful, and sensible progress. When building systems, such an approach might just be the thing you need. Indeed, this may be true in life as well.

One interesting aspect of Linux support for huge pages is how it was done incrementally. At first, Linux developers knew such support was only important for a few applications, such as large databases with stringent performance demands. Thus, the decision was made to allow applications to explicitly request memory allocations with large pages (either through the mmap() or shmget() calls). In this way, most applications would be unaffected (and continue to use only 4-KB pages; a few demanding applications would have to be changed to use these interfaces, but for them it would be worth the pain.

More recently, as the need for better TLB behavior is more common among many applications, Linux developers have added transparent huge page support. When this feature is enabled, the operating system automatically looks for opportunities to allocate huge pages (usually 2 MB, but on some systems, 1 GB) without requiring application modification.

Cost of huge pages

Huge pages are not without their costs. The biggest potential cost is internal fragmentation, i.e., a page that is large but sparsely used. This form of waste can fill memory with large but little used pages. Swapping, if enabled, also does not work well with huge pages, sometimes greatly amplifying the amount of I/O a system does. Overhead of allocation can also be bad (in some other cases). Overall, one thing is clear: the 4-KB page size which served systems so well for so many years is not the universal solution it once was; growing memory sizes demand that we consider large pages and other solutions as part of a necessary evolution of VM systems. Linux’s slow adoption of this hardware-based technology is evidence of the coming change.

Get hands-on with 1200+ tech skills courses.