Production postmortem: ENOMEM when trying to free memory

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RavenDB News

We got a support call from a client, in the early hours of the morning, they were getting out-of-memory errors from their database and were understandably perturbed by that. They are running on a cloud system, so the first inclination of the admin when seeing the problem was deploying the server on a bigger instance, to at least get things running while they investigate. Doubling and then quadrupling the amount of memory that the system has had no impact. A few minutes after the system booted, it would raise an error about running out of memory.

Except that it wasn’t actually running out of memory. A scenario like that, when we give more memory to the system and still have out-of-memory errors can indicate a leak or unbounded process of some kind. That wasn’t the case here. In all system configurations (including the original one), there was plenty of additional memory in the system. Something else was going on.

When our support engineer looked at the actual details of the problem, it was quite puzzling. It looked something like this:

System.OutOfMemoryException: ENOMEM on Failed to munmap at Sparrow.Server.Platform.Posix.Syscall.munmap(IntPtr start, UIntPtr length);

That error made absolutely no sense, as you can imagine. We are trying to release memory, not allocate it. Common sense says that you can’t really fail when you are freeing memory. After all, how can you run out of memory? I’m trying to give you some, damn it!

It turns out that this model is too simplistic. You can actually run out of memory when trying to release it. The issue is that it isn’t you that is running out of memory, but the kernel. Here we are talking specifically about the Linux kernel, and how it works.

Obviously a very important aspect of the job of the kernel is managing the system memory, and to do that, the kernel itself needs memory. For managing the system memory, the kernel uses something called VMA (virtual memory area). Each VMA has its own permissions and attributes. In general, you never need to be aware of this detail.

However, there are certain pathological cases, where you need to set up different permissions and behaviors on a lot of memory areas. In the case we ran into, RavenDB was using an encrypted database. When running on an encrypted database, RavenDB ensures that all plain text data is written to memory that is locked (cannot be stored on disk / swapped out).

A side effect of that is that this means that for every piece of memory that we lock, the kernel needs to create its own VMA. Since each of them is operated on independently of the others. The kernel is using VMAs to manage its own map of the memory. and eventually, the number of the items in the map exceeds the configured value.

In this case, the munmap call released a portion of the memory back, which means that the kernel needs to split the VMA to separate pieces. But the number of items is limited, this is controlled by the vm.max_map_count value.

The default is typically 65530, but database systems often require a lot more of those. The default value is conservative, mind.

Adjusting the configuration would alleviate this problem, since that will give us sufficient space to operate normally.

Woah, already finished? 🤯

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