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RFC-0068 - Page Eviction Hints

RFC-0068 - Page Eviction Hints
  • Zircon

Mechanism for userspace applications to hint to the kernel a relative order of eviction for user pager backed memory.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2021-01-08
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2021-02-10


This RFC describes a mechanism for userspace applications to hint to the kernel the relative importance of user pager backed memory, so that the kernel can take those hints into consideration when deciding which pages to evict under memory pressure.


Most executables in Fuchsia are served out of blobfs, an immutable file system, which employs a user pager to read in pages from the disk on demand. Having blobs populated in memory by a user pager enables us to evict pages when the system comes under memory pressure; when those pages are accessed again, the user pager will simply read them back in.

Repaging comes at a performance cost however - threads that require the pages have to block until the page fault is serviced by the user pager, which involves context switches and disk IO. To try to reduce the performance impact of repaging, the kernel uses a least-recently-used scheme to find pages to evict.

This eviction scheme is not always optimal, and can sometimes cause us to evict pages that haven’t been accessed in a while but are required on performance critical paths, e.g. the audio stack. On the other end of the spectrum, we have pages that are not required by applications anymore and could be safely evicted, e.g. “inactive” blobs that do not have any clients. These inactive pages get mixed in with pages from active blobs that currently do have clients but have simply not been accessed in a while. We could benefit from moving these inactive pages to the front of the line for eviction.



Userspace applications that access blobs, and blobfs which serves these blobs, have more context than the kernel around the relative importance of pages. They could pass along this additional information to the kernel as eviction hints.

This RFC proposes an API which can be used to hint in two directions - “consider these pages for eviction first” and “protect these pages from being evicted”. Using the previous examples, inactive blobs fall under the former category, while pages required for performance critical tasks fall under the latter.

The Hinting API

  • The zx_vmo_op_range() syscall will be extended to support two new ops. ZX_VMO_OP_DONT_NEED hints that the specified range is not needed anymore and should be considered for eviction first. ZX_VMO_OP_ALWAYS_NEED hints that the specified range is important and should be protected from eviction for as long as possible. The kernel will only consider evicting pages tagged with the ZX_VMO_OP_ALWAYS_NEED hint when the system is about to reboot due to an OOM. (Motivation behind the op names is covered in more detail in the Alternatives section.)

  • Similarly the zx_vmar_op_range() syscall will be extended to support the ops ZX_VMAR_OP_DONT_NEED and ZX_VMAR_OP_ALWAYS_NEED.

  • These hints will only apply to VMOs and mappings where the kernel can reclaim pages under memory pressure, currently only user pager backed VMOs. As more reclaimable VMO types are added in the future, e.g. discardable memory, the hinting API can be extended to cover them as well. The somewhat generic op names allow for future expansion to cases where pages are not strictly evicted from memory. For example, we might consider using the hinting API for compressible anonymous memory in the future, where reclamation is simply in-memory compression.

  • Eviction hints will be a no-op for VMOs and mappings that do not support kernel reclamation. Hinting on a generic anonymous VMO or a physical VMO will not alter how its pages are committed or decommitted. This allows for ease of use on the client side, where the VMO type does not need to be determined beforehand. Since this API is only being used to pass along hints, without any requirement for concrete guarantees from the kernel, the kernel can choose to ignore the hints where not applicable.

Current eviction strategy

The kernel tracks pages committed in user pager backed VMOs with a set of 4 LRU page queues. When pages are first committed, they start off in queue 1. Every 10 seconds, the page scanner rotates the queues, moving pages from the i-th queue to the i+1-th queue. When the system comes under memory pressure, the kernel evicts pages from the 4th queue. Any time a page in any of the queues is accessed, it is moved to the head of queue 1 - queue 1 tracks the most recently used pages.


  • An additional inactive pager queue will be introduced to track inactive pages in LRU order. This queue is not a part of the existing LRU page queues, and so the page scanner will not rotate pages into or out from it. It only tracks inactive pages in LRU order but does not fit within the larger LRU scheme across all user pager backed pages.

  • OP_DONT_NEED will move any committed pages in the specified range to the inactive queue. When memory pressure kicks in, the kernel will first consider evicting pages from the inactive queue before moving on to the oldest LRU page queue.

  • If a page in the inactive queue is accessed, it will be moved out of that queue into the first LRU page queue, losing the OP_DONT_NEED hint that was previously indicated. From that point on, it will move down the other LRU queues as any other "active" page. This ensures that the OP_DONT_NEED hint does not erroneously override the actual access patterns of a page.


  • Pages in the specified range will be committed and a new always_need flag will be set in the corresponding vm_page_t.

    • The always_need flag does not have any effect on how the page scanner rotates queues. This helps retain information about how active an always_need tagged page is, so that if it is required to be evicted to prevent an OOM, we only evict the oldest pages, preventing the memory reclamation from being too disruptive.

    • The always_need flag only affects removal of the page by eviction under non-OOM conditions - when the kernel is evicting pages under memory pressure, it will simply skip over pages with this flag set. The always_need flag does not prevent a page from being freed by means other than eviction (e.g. a decommit, VMO resize, or VMO destruction).

  • OP_ALWAYS_NEED will move all pages in the specified range to the first LRU page queue. Newly committed pages start off in the first LRU queue anyway. For pages that were already committed, this op is counted as a new access, to keep the behavior consistent with newly committed pages.

  • Pages with always_need set will only be considered for eviction when the kernel is trying to prevent an OOM. This approach helps us achieve a good balance, ensuring that page eviction does not hamper performance during the normal working of the system, and at the same time does not lock down memory, thereby increasing OOM rates.

Interaction with VMO clones

The hinting ops will only apply to pages in the root VMO in a pager backed hierarchy, since the root VMO is the only one that is directly backed by a pager source. Clones get their initial content from the root VMO. Any pages that are committed in clones are forked copies that are owned by the clone, and cannot be evicted. So when the hinting ops are used on a VMO clone (or a mapping that maps a VMO clone), the hints will apply to pages in the root VMO that the clone can see within the specified range, i.e. pages that have not been forked in the clone.

Interaction between the two hinting ops

An OP_ALWAYS_NEED hint will have precedence over OP_DONT_NEED. The always_need flag is sticky and cannot be unset once it has been set. This prevents an OP_DONT_NEED coming from a clone from overriding an OP_ALWAYS_NEED by a different clone.

  • Per the description of the ops above, an OP_DONT_NEED that follows an OP_ALWAYS_NEED will move the page to the inactive queue, but since the always_need flag is set, it won’t be evicted.

  • An OP_ALWAYS_NEED following an OP_DONT_NEED will move the page from the inactive page queue to the first LRU queue, and set the always_need flag.

Handle rights for the op_range syscalls

The hinting operations do not require any specific rights on the VMO / VMAR handle; the syscalls will succeed with any or no rights. However, the kernel has the freedom to ignore the hints where they are not meaningful, based on a combination of the handle rights, the underlying VMO type, the backing page source, the mapping permissions etc. In other words, the syscall will always succeed, but the hints can effectively be a no-op in some cases.

This approach gives us flexibility with the implementation and would be easier to extend in the future to more VMO types. It also aligns with the larger intent behind having hints implemented as no-ops for unsupported cases, rather than failing the syscall. A client can always hint - the kernel will decide how to interpret that hint and may even choose to ignore it.

Relation with discardable memory

Discardable memory is another means for userspace to influence the kernel's memory reclamation strategy. It allows clients to create anonymous VMOs that are marked "discardable", and are locked and unlocked to indicate when they are in use or are eligible for reclamation respectively. While eviction hints serve a similar goal as discardable memory, i.e. providing the kernel with more information around memory reclamation, there are some key differences.

  • Discardable memory only pertains to anonymous VMOs. Eviction hints as proposed in this RFC apply to pager-backed VMOs.

  • The lock / unlock operations (zx_vmo_op_range with ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK/UNLOCK) used with discardable VMOs have stricter semantics. If a VMO is locked, the kernel cannot discard its pages. On the other hand, even if a VMO's pages are indicated as OP_ALWAYS_NEED, the kernel can choose to evict them regardless, if the memory pressure conditions are dire. This is because the VMO is pager-backed and discarded pages can be repopulated on demand.

  • Locking can be viewed as a completely separate operation from hinting; the two are not interchangeable and can coexist. If eviction hints are extended in the future to support discardable memory, locking will still continue to remain the means for clients to indicate when a VMO is in use, prohibiting the kernel from discarding it. Eviction hints can then just layer on top to express a relative priority order for reclamation only when applicable - unlocked discardable VMOs tagged with OP_DONT_NEED can be discarded before those tagged with OP_ALWAYS_NEED.


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.


OP_ALWAYS_NEED will improve performance on paths where paging in evicted pages currently results in observable user impact. A known use case today is playing audio after eviction, which sometimes results in glitches because of paging activity.

OP_DONT_NEED will cause the specified pages to be evicted sooner, resulting in delays when they are paged in later. However, this is intended and the client is expected to be aware of this impact. Besides, these pages might already be getting evicted today as well. OP_DONT_NEED is meant to be used to explicitly indicate inactive pages, which will not be accessed anyway, making them eligible for eviction.

The hinting ops are meant to make the memory reclamation system more robust, where evicted pages are more likely to stay evicted for longer. The memory health of the system should improve as a result.

Security considerations


Privacy considerations



  • Core tests / unit tests that exercise the new API from multiple VMO clones.
  • Unit tests that verify the eviction behavior on the kernel side.


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

Drawbacks, alternatives, and unknowns

Locking instead of OP_ALWAYS_NEED

Using zx_vmo_op_range() with ZX_VMO_OP_LOCK could be an alternative to using ZX_VMO_OP_ALWAYS_NEED. However, the kernel is required to provide stronger guarantees with locking - the committed pages need to be pinned in memory, preventing the kernel from reclaiming them until they are unlocked. This can exert additional memory pressure on the system causing it to OOM at a faster rate.

Figuring out exactly what pages to lock can be quite challenging as well. In most cases clients will likely be more conservative and lock more pages than required. The memory cost of this can be prohibitive, and taken to the extreme can undermine much of the memory benefit of having demand paging in the first place.

Eviction specific op names

We could use more specific op names like ZX_VMO_OP_EVICT_FIRST/LAST and ZX_VMO_OP_RECLAIM_FIRST/LAST, which describe the associated eviction behavior more precisely. However, these cannot be extended to more generic future applications. RECLAIM_FIRST/LAST might be a little broader than EVICT_FIRST/LAST and could be applied to various definitions of “reclamation”, e.g. in-memory compression which does not strictly evict the pages, but it still ties the ops with a notion of memory reclamation.

OP_ALWAYS_NEED and OP_DONT_NEED allow us to better capture user intent, instead of defining the associated kernel action that is expected to occur. This affords greater flexibility of interpretation for these ops in the future. It also allows us to retain some similarity with madvise that developers might be familiar with.

Potential abuse of hints

It is possible for clients to abuse the API, accidentally or intentionally, to try and prevent a lot of pages from being evicted with unrestrained use of OP_ALWAYS_NEED. While this memory will still be reclaimed to prevent an OOM, it can exert additional memory pressure on the system at other times.

This risk however is along the same lines as clients creating a large VMO today and committing all its pages. Once we have some policy in the future around controlling memory usage in general (e.g. space banks), we can have the same policy feed into the hinting logic.

Modeling the API purely as hints also provides the kernel flexibility to simply ignore hints if needed. We could do something like ignore OP_ALWAYS_NEED hints beyond a certain limit on always_need tagged pages, or skip a page during eviction only a certain number of times. In the extreme case we could also deprecate the hinting ops altogether by turning them into no-ops.

Future work

As mentioned earlier, the hinting ops can be extended to apply to use cases beyond user pager backed VMOs. Other types of reclaimable memory like discardable memory seem like a natural extension. We could also extend it to generic anonymous memory, and use it to drive actions other than strict eviction.

The interaction between OP_DONT_NEED and OP_ALWAYS_NEED (and the always_need flag being sticky) might evolve in the future as the VM system becomes more mature. The current choice is an implementation simplification driven by current use cases, not a fundamental requirement of the hinting API itself.

OP_DONT_NEED and OP_ALWAYS_NEED leave room for a midpoint OP_WILL_NEED which can serve as a prefetch hint, indicating that a range is required in the future, but does not necessarily need to be protected from eviction beyond that point. A user pager could use this hint to read ahead pages.

Prior art and references

On Linux madvise supports MADV_WILLNEED and MADV_DONTNEED.