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RFC-0012 - Zircon Discardable Memory

RFC-0012 - Zircon Discardable Memory
  • Zircon

Describes a mechanism for userspace applications to indicate to the kernel that certain memory buffers are eligible for reclamation.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2020-10-27
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2020-12-02


This RFC describes a mechanism for userspace applications to indicate to the kernel that certain memory buffers are eligible for reclamation. The kernel is then free to discard these buffers when the system is running low on available memory.


Managing free memory is a complex problem in an overcommit system like Zircon, where user applications are allowed to allocate more memory than might currently be available on the system. This is accomplished by using Virtual Memory Objects (VMOs) that are lazily backed by physical pages as portions within them are committed.

Overestimating the amount of physical memory that will be in use at any point in time, and failing further memory allocation requests based on that, can leave free memory on the table. This can affect performance, as a lot of this memory is used by applications for caching purposes. On the other hand, underestimating the amount of free memory in use, can cause us to quickly use up all of the available memory on the system, leading to an out-of-memory (OOM) scenario. Furthermore, the definition of "free" memory itself is complex.

The Zircon kernel monitors the amount of free physical memory and generates memory pressure signals at various levels. The purpose of these signals is to allow userspace applications to scale back (or grow) their memory footprint based on system-wide free memory levels. While this helps keep the system from running out of memory, the decoupling of the initiator of these signals (the kernel) from the responder (user applications) is not ideal. Processes that respond to memory pressure do not have enough context around how much memory they should be freeing; the kernel has a better picture of global memory usage on the system, and it can also take into consideration other forms of reclaimable memory, e.g. user pager backed memory that can be evicted.

This RFC proposes a mechanism by which the kernel will directly be able to reclaim userspace memory buffers under memory pressure. There are a few advantages to this approach:

  • It allows for greater control over how much memory is evicted; the kernel can look at free memory levels and evict only as much memory as required.
  • The kernel can use an LRU scheme to discard memory, which might work better at accommodating the current working set in memory.
  • Userspace can sometimes be slow to drop memory in response to memory pressure signals. In some cases, it might be too late for the system to recover.
  • Userspace clients waking up to respond to memory pressure can sometimes require more memory.



The discardable memory protocol would roughly work as follows:

  1. A userspace process creates a VMO and marks it as discardable.
  2. Before accessing the VMO either directly (zx_vmo_read/zx_vmo_write), or through a mapping in its address space (zx_vmar_map), the process locks the VMO indicating that it is in use.
  3. The process unlocks the VMO when done, indicating that it is no longer needed. The kernel will consider all unlocked discardable VMOs as eligible for reclamation, and will be free to discard them under memory pressure.
  4. When the process needs to access the VMO again, it will try to lock it. This lock can now succeed in one of two ways.
    • The lock can succeed with the pages of the VMO still intact, i.e. the kernel has not discarded it yet.
    • If the kernel has discarded the VMO, the lock will succeed whilst also indicating to the client that its pages have been discarded, so that they can reinitialize it or take other necessary actions.
  5. The process will unlock the VMO again when done. Locking and unlocking can repeat in this fashion as often as required.

Note that discardable memory is not meant as a direct replacement for memory pressure signals. Watching for memory pressure changes is still valuable for other component-level decisions, like choosing when to launch memory intensive activities or threads. In the future, we could also use these signals to kill idle processes within a component. Memory pressure signals also provide components greater control over exactly what memory to free and when.

Discardable Memory API

We can extend the existing zx_vmo_create() and zx_vmo_op_range() syscalls to support this feature.

  • zx_vmo_create() will be extended to support a new options flag - ZX_VMO_DISCARDABLE. This flag can be used in combination with ZX_VMO_RESIZABLE. However, the general advice about resizable VMOs also applies to discardable VMOs - sharing resizable VMOs between processes can be dangerous and should be avoided.

  • zx_vmo_op_range() will be extended to support new operations to provide locking and unlocking - ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK, ZX_VMO_OP_TRY_LOCK, and ZX_VMO_OP_UNLOCK.

  • Locking and unlocking will apply to the entire VMO, so offset and size should span the whole range of the VMO. It is an error to lock and unlock a smaller range within the VMO. While the current implementation does not strictly require an offset and size, ensuring that only the entire range of the VMO is considered valid allows for adding sub-range support in the future without changing the behavior for clients.

  • The ZX_VMO_OP_TRY_LOCK operation will attempt to lock the VMO and can fail. It will succeed if the kernel has not discarded the VMO, and fail with ZX_ERR_NOT_AVAILABLE if the kernel has discarded it. In case of failure, the client is expected to try again with ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK, which is guaranteed to succeed as long as the arguments passed in are valid. The ZX_VMO_OP_TRY_LOCK operation is provided as a lightweight option to try locking the VMO without having to set up the buffer argument. Clients can also choose to not take any action following failure to lock the VMO.

  • The ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK operation will also require the buffer argument, an out pointer to a zx_vmo_lock_state struct. This struct is meant for the kernel to pass back information that the client might find useful, and consists of:

    • offset and size tracking the locked range: These are the size and offset arguments that were passed in by the client. These are returned purely for convenience, so that the client does not need to keep track of ranges separately, and instead can directly use the returned struct. If the call succeeds, they will always be the same as the size and offset values passed into the zx_vmo_op_range() call.
    • discarded_offset and discarded_size tracking the discarded range: This is the maximal range within the locked range that contains discarded pages. Not all pages within this range might have been discarded - it is simply a union of all the discarded sub-ranges within this range, and can contain pages that have not been discarded as well. With the current API, the discarded range will span the entire VMO if the kernel has discarded it. If undiscarded, both discarded_offset and discarded_size will be set to zero.
  • Locking itself does not commit any pages in the VMO. It just marks the state of the VMO as "undiscardable" by the kernel. The client can commit pages in the VMO using any of the existing methods that apply to regular VMOs, e.g. zx_vmo_write(), ZX_VMO_OP_COMMIT, mapping the VMO and directly writing to mapped addresses.

// |options| supports a new flag - ZX_VMO_DISCARDABLE.
zx_status_t zx_vmo_create(uint64_t size, uint32_t options, zx_handle_t* out);

// respectively lock, try lock and unlock a discardable VMO.
// |offset| must be 0 and |size| must the size of the VMO.
// ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK requires |buffer| to point to a |zx_vmo_lock_state| struct,
// and |buffer_size| to be the size of the struct.
// Returns ZX_ERR_NOT_SUPPORTED if the vmo has not been created with the
zx_status_t zx_vmo_op_range(zx_handle_t handle,
                            uint32_t op,
                            uint64_t offset,
                            uint64_t size,
                            void* buffer,
                            size_t buffer_size);

// |buffer| for ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK is a pointer to struct |zx_vmo_lock_state|.
typedef struct zx_vmo_lock_state {
  // The |offset| that was passed in.
  uint64_t offset;
  // The |size| that was passed in.
  uint64_t size;
  // Start of the discarded range. Will be 0 if undiscarded.
  uint64_t discarded_offset;
  // The size of discarded range. Will be 0 if undiscarded.
  uint64_t discarded_size;
} zx_vmo_lock_state_t;

The zx::vmo interface will be extended to support the ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK, ZX_VMO_OP_TRY_LOCK and ZX_VMO_OP_UNLOCK ops with op_range(). Rust, Go and Dart bindings will be updated as well.

This API provides clients with the flexibility to share the discardable VMO across multiple processes. Each process that needs to access the VMO can do so independently, locking and unlocking the VMO as required. There is no careful coordination required amongst processes based on assumptions about the locked state. The kernel will only consider a VMO eligible for reclamation when no one has it locked.

Restrictions on VMOs

  • The discardable memory API is supported only for VmObjectPaged types, as VmObjectPhysical cannot be discarded by definition.

  • The API is not compatible with VMO clones (both snapshots and COW clones) and slices, since discarding VMOs in a clone hierarchy can lead to surprising behaviors. The zx_vmo_create_child() syscall will fail on discardable VMOs.

  • The ZX_VMO_DISCARDABLE flag cannot be used in the options argument for zx_pager_create_vmo(). A major reason for this is that pager-backed VMOs can be cloned, and discardable VMOs cannot. Moreover, discardability is implied for pager-backed VMOs, so an additional flag is not required.

Interaction with existing VMO operations

The semantics of existing VMO operations will remain the same as before. For example, zx_vmo_read() will not verify that a discardable VMO is locked before permitting the operation. It is the client's responsibility to ensure that they have the VMO locked when they are accessing it, to ensure that the kernel does not discard it from under them. This limits the surface area of this change. The only guarantee the kernel provides is that it won't discard a VMO's pages while it is locked.

Any mappings for the VMO will continue to be valid even if the VMO is discarded, as long as the client locks the VMO before accessing the mappings. Clients do not need to recreate mappings if the VMO has been discarded.

After the kernel has discarded a VMO, any further operations on it without first locking it, will fail as if the VMO had no committed pages, and there exists no mechanism to commit pages on demand. For example, a zx_vmo_read() will fail with ZX_ERR_OUT_OF_RANGE. If the VMO was mapped in a process' address space, unlocked accesses to mapped addresses will result in fatal page fault exceptions.

Kernel Implementation

Tracking metadata

  • The options_ bitmask in VmObjectPaged will be extended to support a kDiscardable flag; we're currently only using 4 bits out of 32.
  • A new lock_count field will be added to VmObjectPaged, which will track the number of outstanding lock operations on the VMO.
  • The kernel will maintain a global list of reclaimable VMOs, i.e. all unlocked discardable VMOs on the system. The list will be updated as follows:
    • A ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK will increment the VMO's lock_count. If lock_count goes from 0->1, the VMO will be removed from the global reclaimable list.
    • A ZX_VMO_OP_UNLOCK will decrement the VMO's lock_count. If lock_count drops to 0, the VMO will be added to the global reclaimable list.

Reclamation logic

Discardable VMOs are added to the global reclaimable list when their lock_count drops to zero, and are removed when locked again. This maintains an LRU order of all unlocked discardable VMOs on the system. When under memory pressure, the kernel can dequeue VMOs from this list in order and discard them, checking the free memory level after each. This is a very simplistic version of what the reclamation logic might look like in practice. A few more things to consider are mentioned later.

Discard operation

A "discard" is implemented on the kernel side by decommitting all the pages of the VMO, and setting the internal state of the VMO as discarded. VmObjectPaged::GetPageLocked() will fail with ZX_ERR_NOT_FOUND if the VMO's state is discarded. The discarded state is cleared on a subsequent ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK operation. GetPageLocked() is the function all accesses to a VMO's pages funnel down to, both through zx_vmo_read/write syscalls and page access via VM mappings. This gives us the ability to fail syscalls on a discarded unlocked VMO, and also to generate exceptions when a discarded unlocked VMO is accessed through a mapping.


This is a new API so there are no dependencies at this stage. The kernel-side implementation can be done in isolation. Once the API has been implemented, userspace clients can start adopting it.


The performance implications will vary based on the client side use cases. There a few things clients can keep in mind when using the API.

  • The zx_vmo_op_range() syscalls to lock and unlock discardable VMOs before access can add noticeable latency on performance critical paths. So the syscalls should be used on code paths where an increased latency can be tolerated or hidden.
  • Clients could also see a boost in performance, due to caches being held in memory for longer periods. Buffers that were necessarily dropped by clients under memory pressure, can now be held for longer as the kernel will only discard as much memory as required. Clients can track this change with cache hit rates, number of times buffers need to be re-initialized etc.

Security considerations


Privacy considerations



  • Core tests / unit tests that exercise the new API from multiple threads.
  • Unit tests that verify the reclamation behavior on the kernel side, i.e. only unlocked VMOs can be discarded.


The Zircon syscall documentation will need to be updated to include the new API.

Drawbacks, alternatives, and unknowns

Locking ranges within a VMO

The granularity of reclamation is chosen as the entire VMO, instead of supporting finer-grained discard operations of ranges within a VMO. There are a few reasons behind this.

  • Reconstructing a VMO which has some pages discarded can be tricky. Considering the generic use case, where a VMO is used to represent an anonymous memory buffer, repopulating discarded pages would likely be zero fills, which might not always make sense w.r.t. the remaining pages that were left undiscarded. It might also not be valuable to hold on to only a subset of the VMO's pages, i.e. the VMO is meaningful only when it is fully populated.
  • VMO granularity keeps the VmObjectPaged implementation simple, requiring minimal tracking metadata. We don't need to track locked ranges to later match with unlocks. There is no complicated range merging involved either.
  • It also keeps the reclamation logic fairly lightweight, allowing for large chunks of memory to be freed at once. Supporting page granularity instead would likely require maintaining page queues, and aging discardable pages, similar to the mechanism we use to evict user pager backed pages.

The proposed API does leave the door open to indicate reclaimable ranges in the future if required, with the offset and size arguments in zx_vmo_op_range() that are currently unused. Adding range support to the locking API (page granularity locking) seems like a natural extension to the current proposal. This will benefit clients where the cost of backing small discardable regions with individual VMOs can be prohibitive.

Kernel implementation of discard

When the kernel reclaims a discardable VMO, it decommits its pages and tracks its state as discarded. Future unlocked requests for pages will fail in the discarded state; once the VMO is locked again, the discarded state is cleared. The other alternative here would be to simply decommit pages without explicitly tracking a state. However tracking the discarded state allows for a stricter failure model. For example, consider the case where a client had a discardable VMO mapped in its address space, which the kernel discarded at some point. If the client now tries to access the VMO via the mapping without first locking the VMO, it will incur a fatal page fault. Whereas if the kernel were to only decommit pages, a subsequent unlocked access would simply result in a zero page being silently handed to the client. This could either go undetected, or result in more subtle errors due to unexpected zero pages.

Another alternative here would be to internally resize the VMO to zero. This gives us the failure model we want by default, without having to do any explicit state tracking. However, this requires tracking an internal implementation-defined size of a VMO, in addition to an external size which is what the user sees. While having an internal implementation-defined size is a useful trick which could potentially also benefit other use cases in the future, having two separate notions of size is confusing and prone to bugs. So until we have other concrete use cases that would clearly benefit from having an internal size in addition to an external size, we choose to avoid taking that approach.

Faster locking API with atomics

This locking optimization provides an alternate low-latency option to lock and unlock discardable VMOs, and is meant to be used by clients that expect to lock and unlock fairly frequently. It is purely a performance optimization, and as such can be a feature we add in the future if required.

The API uses a locking primitive called a Metex, which is similar to a Zircon futex, in that it allows fast locking via userspace atomics, thereby saving on the cost of a syscall.

A discardable VMO can be associated with a metex, which will be used to lock and unlock it, instead of the zx_vmo_op_range() syscall. A metex can have three states: locked (in use by the userspace client), discardable (eligible for reclamation by the kernel), and "needs syscall" (might have been reclaimed by the kernel, a syscall is required to check the state). Locking and unlocking the VMO can be performed without entering the kernel by atomically flipping the state of the metex between locked and discardable. When the kernel discards the VMO, it will atomically flip its state to "needs syscall", indicating that the client needs to synchronize with the kernel to check on the discarded state. More details of this proposal are out of the scope of this RFC, and will be provided in a separate one.

Pager based creation API

Any VMO that is backed by a pager is essentially a discardable VMO, because the pager provides a mechanism to repopulate discarded pages on demand. The type of discardable memory being proposed in this RFC is anonymous discardable memory; the other type is file-backed discardable memory, an example of which is the in-memory representation of blobs populated by the blobfs user pager. Keeping this in mind, we can consider an alternate creation API where discardable VMOs are associated with a pager. The VMO creation call might look something like this:

zx_pager_create(0, &pager_handle);

zx_pager_create_vmo(pager_handle, 0, pager_port_handle, vmo_key, vmo_size,

Locking and unlocking would work as proposed earlier with zx_vmo_op_range(). The kernel would be free to discard pages from a VMO only when unlocked.

The advantage here is that it provides us with a unified creation API applicable to all kinds of discardable memory - irrespective of whether it is file-backed or anonymous.

However, the pager in this case does not really serve a special purpose. Since it deals with generic anonymous memory, it is likely only going to provide zero pages on demand. A pager is more suited for cases where pages need to be populated in a specialized manner with certain specific content. Introducing an additional layer of indirection, both in terms of technical complexity and performance overhead, just for the purpose of creating zero pages on demand seems unnecessary; this functionality already exists in the kernel for regular (non pager-backed) VMOs.

Locking with a retainer object

The locking API proposed here leaves room for bugs where a discardable VMO can be unintentionally (or maliciously) unlocked. We could have situations where a process thinks that a VMO is locked, but another process has unlocked it, i.e. the second process issues an extra unlock. This would cause the first process to error out or crash when it accesses the VMO, even though it did correctly lock it before access.

Instead of lock and unlock operations, we could implement locking with a retainer object, which would lock the VMO when created and unlock it when destroyed.

zx_vmo_create_retainer(vmo_handle, &retainer_handle);

The VMO would remain locked as long as the retainer handle is open. In the example above, each of the two processes would use their own retainers to lock the VMO, removing the possibility of an erroneous extra unlock. This locking model reduces the likelihood of such bugs, and makes them easy to diagnose when they occur.

The downside here is that the kernel will need to store more metadata to track the locked state of a VMO. We now have a list of retainer objects associated with a discardable VMO, instead of a single lock_count field. We might also want to cap the length of this list if we want to eliminate the possibility of a malicious user causing unbounded growth in the kernel.

Priorities for reclamation order

To keep things simple to begin with, the kernel will reclaim unlocked discardable VMOs in LRU order. We could explore having clients explicitly specify a priority order of reclamation in the future if required (VMOs in each priority band could still be reclaimed in LRU order). The proposed API leaves the door open to support this in the future, via the currently unused buffer parameter in zx_vmo_op_range() for ZX_VMO_OP_UNLOCK.

This level of control is something we might not require though; a global LRU order might be sufficient. If clients did want to exercise more control over when certain buffers are reclaimed, they could instead opt into memory pressure signals, and drop those buffers themselves.

Interaction with other reclamation strategies

Currently there are two other mechanisms by which we can reclaim memory:

  • Page eviction of user pager backed memory (in-memory blobs), which is done by the kernel at the CRITICAL memory pressure level (and near OOM).
  • Memory pressure signals, where userspace components themselves free memory at CRITICAL and WARNING memory pressure levels.

We will need to figure out where discardable memory sits in this scheme, ensuring that no single reclamation strategy takes the majority of the burden. For example, we might want to maintain some kind of eviction ratio of file-backed memory to discardable memory.

Locking pager-backed VMOs

We could extend the ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK and ZX_VMO_OP_UNLOCK operations to pager-backed VMOs in the future. There has been a desire to support locking of user pager backed VMOs in the past, which we might want to provide if a concrete use case arises. For example, blobfs could lock VMOs in memory for blobs that it deems important, or that do not fit the kernel LRU eviction scheme too well, thereby avoiding the performance cost of re-paging them.

Locking pager-backed VMOs would tie in nicely with the discardable memory API, since user pager backed VMOs can essentially be viewed as a type of discardable memory, where the user pager provides a specialized mechanism to repopulate pages. Locking and unlocking would then apply to both types of discardable memory, the major difference between the two types being the way they are created and populated.

Deciding when to repopulate discarded VMOs

Clients might need a way to figure out when it is safe to repopulate a discarded VMO. If the VMO is repopulated under memory pressure, the additional pages committed might worsen the memory pressure on the system, pushing it closer to OOM. Also, once the VMO is subsequently unlocked, there is a chance it might get discarded if the memory pressure persists. This can lead to thrashing, where the client repeatedly repopulates the VMO, only to see the kernel discard it soon after.

Currently the only mechanism to observe system memory pressure levels is by subscribing to the fuchsia.memorypressure service, which can be pretty expensive for this use case. We could consider extending this service to provide a way to perform one-off queries. We could also consider passing back an indicator of the pressure level through the zx_vmo_lock_state struct - either the current memory pressure level itself, or a boolean that coarsely captures whether the system is under memory pressure.

Debug aid to track unlocked VMO accesses

It might be useful to enable additional checks behind a build flag, that fail syscalls on unlocked discardable VMOs. This would help developers easily find bugs where a VMO access is not preceded by a lock, without having to rely on the VMO being discarded under memory pressure, and only then resulting in failures. Such checks on the locked state of a VMO can quickly become expensive as we add range support in the future, so they are not feasible to enable in production, but they might prove useful as a debug tool.

Catching unlocked VMO accesses through mappings might be more tricky to implement. A couple of approaches that we could explore to accomplish this:

  • Unmap a mapped discardable VMO when it is unlocked. With this approach, we would need to make sure that existing VMO / VMAR semantics remain unchanged.
  • Teach wrappers around lock / unlock calls to tell ASAN that an unlocked VMO's mapping should be considered poisoned until it is locked again, using the ASAN_POISON_MEMORY_REGION interface.

Prior art and references