Home » Need explanation on Resident Set Size/Virtual Size

Need explanation on Resident Set Size/Virtual Size


RSS is how much memory this process currently has in main memory (RAM). VSZ is how much virtual memory the process has in total. This includes all types of memory, both in RAM and swapped out. These numbers can get skewed because they also include shared libraries and other types of memory. You can have five hundred instances of bash running, and the total size of their memory footprint won’t be the sum of their RSS or VSZ values.

If you need to get a more detailed idea about the memory footprint of a process, you have some options. You can go through /proc/$PID/map and weed out the stuff you don’t like. If it’s shared libraries, the calculation could get complex depending on your needs (which I think I remember).

If you only care about the heap size of the process, you can always just parse the [heap] entry in the map file. The size the kernel has allocated for the process heap may or may not reflect the exact number of bytes the process has asked to be allocated. There are minute details, kernel internals and optimisations which can throw this off. In an ideal world, it’ll be as much as your process needs, rounded up to the nearest multiple of the system page size (getconf PAGESIZE will tell you what it is — on PCs, it’s probably 4,096 bytes).

If you want to see how much memory a process has allocated, one of the best ways is to forgo the kernel-side metrics. Instead, you instrument the C library’s heap memory (de)allocation functions with the LD_PRELOAD mechanism. Personally, I slightly abuse valgrind to get information about this sort of thing. (Note that applying the instrumentation will require restarting the process.)

Please note, since you may also be benchmarking runtimes, that valgrind will make your programs very slightly slower (but probably within your tolerances).

Minimal runnable example

For this to make sense, you have to understand the basics of paging: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/18431261/how-does-x86-paging-work and in particular that the OS can allocate virtual memory via page tables / its internal memory book keeping (VSZ virtual memory) before it actually has a backing storage on RAM or disk (RSS resident memory).

Now to observe this in action, let’s create a program that:

  • allocates more RAM than our physical memory with mmap
  • writes one byte on each page to ensure that each of those pages goes from virtual only memory (VSZ) to actually used memory (RSS)
  • checks the memory usage of the process with one of the methods mentioned at: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/1558402/memory-usage-of-current-process-in-c


#define _GNU_SOURCE
#include <assert.h>
#include <inttypes.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <sys/mman.h>
#include <unistd.h>

typedef struct {
    unsigned long size,resident,share,text,lib,data,dt;
} ProcStatm;

/* https://stackoverflow.com/questions/1558402/memory-usage-of-current-process-in-c/7212248#7212248 */
void ProcStat_init(ProcStatm *result) {
    const char* statm_path = "/proc/self/statm";
    FILE *f = fopen(statm_path, "r");
    if(!f) {
    if(7 != fscanf(
        "%lu %lu %lu %lu %lu %lu %lu",
    )) {

int main(int argc, char **argv) {
    ProcStatm proc_statm;
    char *base, *p;
    char system_cmd[1024];
    long page_size;
    size_t i, nbytes, print_interval, bytes_since_last_print;
    int snprintf_return;

    /* Decide how many ints to allocate. */
    if (argc < 2) {
        nbytes = 0x10000;
    } else {
        nbytes = strtoull(argv[1], NULL, 0);
    if (argc < 3) {
        print_interval = 0x1000;
    } else {
        print_interval = strtoull(argv[2], NULL, 0);
    page_size = sysconf(_SC_PAGESIZE);

    /* Allocate the memory. */
    base = mmap(
    if (base == MAP_FAILED) {

    /* Write to all the allocated pages. */
    i = 0;
    p = base;
    bytes_since_last_print = 0;
    /* Produce the ps command that lists only our VSZ and RSS. */
    snprintf_return = snprintf(
        "ps -o pid,vsz,rss | awk '{if (NR == 1 || $1 == "%ju") print}'",
    assert(snprintf_return >= 0);
    assert((size_t)snprintf_return < sizeof(system_cmd));
    bytes_since_last_print = print_interval;
    do {
        /* Modify a byte in the page. */
        *p = i;
        p += page_size;
        bytes_since_last_print += page_size;
        /* Print process memory usage every print_interval bytes.
         * We count memory using a few techniques from:
         * https://stackoverflow.com/questions/1558402/memory-usage-of-current-process-in-c */
        if (bytes_since_last_print > print_interval) {
            bytes_since_last_print -= print_interval;
            printf("extra_memory_committed %lu KiBn", (i * page_size) / 1024);
            /* Check /proc/self/statm */
                "/proc/self/statm size resident %lu %lu KiBn",
                (proc_statm.size * page_size) / 1024,
                (proc_statm.resident * page_size) / 1024
            /* Check ps. */
    } while (p < base + nbytes);

    /* Cleanup. */
    munmap(base, nbytes);
    return EXIT_SUCCESS;

GitHub upstream.

Compile and run:

gcc -ggdb3 -O0 -std=c99 -Wall -Wextra -pedantic -o main.out main.c
echo 1 | sudo tee /proc/sys/vm/overcommit_memory
sudo dmesg -c
./main.out 0x1000000000 0x200000000
echo $?
sudo dmesg


  • 0x1000000000 == 64GiB: 2x my computer’s physical RAM of 32GiB
  • 0x200000000 == 8GiB: print the memory every 8GiB, so we should get 4 prints before the crash at around 32GiB
  • echo 1 | sudo tee /proc/sys/vm/overcommit_memory: required for Linux to allow us to make a mmap call larger than physical RAM: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/2798330/maximum-memory-which-malloc-can-allocate/57687432#57687432

Program output:

extra_memory_committed 0 KiB
/proc/self/statm size resident 67111332 768 KiB
ps -o pid,vsz,rss | awk '{if (NR == 1 || $1 == "29827") print}'
  PID    VSZ   RSS
29827 67111332 1648

extra_memory_committed 8388608 KiB
/proc/self/statm size resident 67111332 8390244 KiB
ps -o pid,vsz,rss | awk '{if (NR == 1 || $1 == "29827") print}'
  PID    VSZ   RSS
29827 67111332 8390256

extra_memory_committed 16777216 KiB
/proc/self/statm size resident 67111332 16778852 KiB
ps -o pid,vsz,rss | awk '{if (NR == 1 || $1 == "29827") print}'
  PID    VSZ   RSS
29827 67111332 16778864

extra_memory_committed 25165824 KiB
/proc/self/statm size resident 67111332 25167460 KiB
ps -o pid,vsz,rss | awk '{if (NR == 1 || $1 == "29827") print}'
  PID    VSZ   RSS
29827 67111332 25167472


Exit status:


which by the 128 + signal number rule means we got signal number 9, which man 7 signal says is SIGKILL, which is sent by the Linux out-of-memory killer.

Output interpretation:

  • VSZ virtual memory remains constant at printf '0x%Xn' 0x40009A4 KiB ~= 64GiB (ps values are in KiB) after the mmap.
  • RSS “real memory usage” increases lazily only as we touch the pages. For example:
    • on the first print, we have extra_memory_committed 0, which means we haven’t yet touched any pages. RSS is a small 1648 KiB which has been allocated for normal program startup like text area, globals, etc.
    • on the second print, we have written to 8388608 KiB == 8GiB worth of pages. As a result, RSS increased by exactly 8GIB to 8390256 KiB == 8388608 KiB + 1648 KiB
    • RSS continues to increase in 8GiB increments. The last print shows about 24 GiB of memory, and before 32 GiB could be printed, the OOM killer killed the process

See also: Need explanation on Resident Set Size/Virtual Size

OOM killer logs

Our dmesg commands have shown the OOM killer logs.

An exact interpretation of those has been asked at:

  • https://stackoverflow.com/questions/9199731/understanding-the-linux-oom-killers-logs but let’s have a quick look here.
  • https://serverfault.com/questions/548736/how-to-read-oom-killer-syslog-messages

The very first line of the log was:

[ 7283.479087] mongod invoked oom-killer: gfp_mask=0x6200ca(GFP_HIGHUSER_MOVABLE), order=0, oom_score_adj=0

So we see that interestingly it was the MongoDB daemon that always runs in my laptop on the background that first triggered the OOM killer, presumably when the poor thing was trying to allocate some memory.

However, the OOM killer does not necessarily kill the one who awoke it.

After the invocation, the kernel prints a table or processes including the oom_score:

[ 7283.479292] [  pid  ]   uid  tgid total_vm      rss pgtables_bytes swapents oom_score_adj name
[ 7283.479303] [    496]     0   496    16126        6   172032      484             0 systemd-journal
[ 7283.479306] [    505]     0   505     1309        0    45056       52             0 blkmapd
[ 7283.479309] [    513]     0   513    19757        0    57344       55             0 lvmetad
[ 7283.479312] [    516]     0   516     4681        1    61440      444         -1000 systemd-udevd

and further ahead we see that our own little main.out actually got killed on the previous invocation:

[ 7283.479871] Out of memory: Kill process 15665 (main.out) score 865 or sacrifice child
[ 7283.479879] Killed process 15665 (main.out) total-vm:67111332kB, anon-rss:92kB, file-rss:4kB, shmem-rss:30080832kB
[ 7283.479951] oom_reaper: reaped process 15665 (main.out), now anon-rss:0kB, file-rss:0kB, shmem-rss:30080832kB

This log mentions the score 865 which that process had, presumably the highest (worst) OOM killer score as mentioned at: How does the OOM killer decide which process to kill first?

Also interestingly, everything apparently happened so fast that before the freed memory was accounted, the oom was awoken again by the DeadlineMonitor process:

[ 7283.481043] DeadlineMonitor invoked oom-killer: gfp_mask=0x6200ca(GFP_HIGHUSER_MOVABLE), order=0, oom_score_adj=0

and this time that killed some Chromium process, which is usually my computers normal memory hog:

[ 7283.481773] Out of memory: Kill process 11786 (chromium-browse) score 306 or sacrifice child
[ 7283.481833] Killed process 11786 (chromium-browse) total-vm:1813576kB, anon-rss:208804kB, file-rss:0kB, shmem-rss:8380kB
[ 7283.497847] oom_reaper: reaped process 11786 (chromium-browse), now anon-rss:0kB, file-rss:0kB, shmem-rss:8044kB

Tested in Ubuntu 19.04, Linux kernel 5.0.0.

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