Production postmortem: The memory leak that only happened on Linux

Est. reading time: 6 min
RavenDB News

Our monitoring system pinged us about a problem with a RavenDB cluster running in production. The problem was simple, we saw quite a bit of server restarts for that particular cluster. Looking deeper, it was obvious that the RavenDB instances for the cluster would occasionally run out of memory and crash. The customer, by the way, was unaware of this issue. From their perspective, the RavenDB cluster would switch the primary node for the database in question on a regular basis. On our end, we could see that each node would start using higher and higher memory and end up dying because of that. They would be restarted, of course, and the primacy of the cluster would switch automatically, but that is not a proper way to run.

The problem was figuring out what was going on. It took some time to figure out what exactly was going on. We didn’t see any such behavior on any other customer, but this customer had two factors that affected the outcome. The first is that the database in question is encrypted, which means that RavenDB will need some place to put the decrypted values. The second is that the user is issuing streaming queries that have a lot of results. We were able to reproduce the high memory usage when issuing the same queries, however, we were utterly unable to reproduce the problem when trying to run it on our own machines.

That was… strange, and it took a while to figure out that we need to run on Linux to get the issue. We subjected the system to a very high load on Windows, with no issue. On Linux, it would be quickly apparent that we are consuming more and more memory. We were able to narrow things down to this call:

posix_memalign(&ptr, 4096, 8192);

What we are asking here is an 8KB buffer aligned on 4KB boundary. And we were leaking those like crazy but we couldn’t figure out how. We are pretty careful with manual memory management and we have the tools around to detect leaks. Each and every call to allocate was also freed. The problem is that we aren’t the only ones using the system. Basically, posix_memalign will use the same memory pool as malloc(). The problem is memory fragmentation, basically. The way posix_memalign() works is to issue:


Where nb is 8192 bytes, alignment is 4096 bytes and MINSIZE is 32 bytes. We then release the end of the buffer, which ends up being ~4KB or so in most cases. Along with other allocations, that created severe fragmentation in our memory.

We need the memory to be page aligned, because we use that for direct memory access. The memory is typically pooled, so we won’t be allocating and freeing it all the time, but when you use streaming queries, you may be running through a lot of data, so we exceeded the size of the pool. At that point, we would allocate (and free), but we’ll also fragment the memory.

We fixed the issue by using mmap() directly, which will give us page aligned memory and won’t cause us to use more memory than needed. Given that we get page aligned memory with is a multiple of page size, we can be sure that we’ll get reuse of the memory, instead of having to deal with internal fragmentation inside the malloc implementation. With this change, there are no issues, and we are actually slightly faster than before.

The reason we didn’t run into the same problem on Windows, by the way? There we called VirtualAlloc() from the get-go, which will ensure that we have page aligned memory, so no need to deal with fragmentation.

Woah, already finished? 🤯

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