Linux Performance – Swap partition vs Swap files

Yup. This is a tough one.
When you start getting questions about server virtual memory, you know it’s not good.

But let’s start by the basics. Swapping vs. Paging.


Swapping is a technique where the whole memory allocated to a process gets moved from main memory (RAM) to a secondary memory type (usually hard disk).


Paging is a different memory management technique where physical memory is divided into frames and logical memory of each process is divided into pages. Pages and Frames are usually 4KB, but can be otherwise defined, although always the same size. Pages then are moved in and out of main memory depending on current needs and frame availability, rather than moving the whole address space of a process.

With the fundamental concepts out of the way, let’s get to the more juicy stuff.

Swap partition

Linux is a modern operating system and used paging for it’s memory management. This confuses people since Linux still uses the Swap partition and you’ve probably been told that you need to get it just right. No second changes. Bullsh… Well get to that soon.

I just said Linux is a MODERN operating system and there are many ways around it.
Regardless, as a rule of thumb, you should always assign double the physical memory to a swap partition. This will allow processes to use the extra “memory” if needed. You should also evaluate how your application will use memory to understand if it is worth while having a bigger or smaller swap size.
In a virtualization world, like today’s, I actually prefer to create a separate disk altogether. This will allow me to place that disk in a fast SSD LUN if I need the extra performance for the server virtual memory. That said, this is, and should be, a corner case.

Especially in virtual environments you can change the size of this partition and even add multiple partitions. This is also true for physical environments, although more laborious. (Who wants to replace physical disks these days!)

Swap files

Now, how about those swap files?
Swap files are, just like swap partitions, with the advantage of not having to create a separate partition. In fact, you can not have a swap partition altogether. Their functionality is the same as a swap partition, but they will be files in your file system. Like a swap partition, you can keep them in a separate disk for the same purpose.

And by the way, could you possibly use swap files and a swap partition simultaneously?
Of course you can, it’s Linux, you can do whatever you want … or close enough!
You could possibly use swap files to replace your swap partition entirely while you re-dimension it.
Did I mention you can have multiple swap partitions?


When creating a new Linux machine, although not necessary, it’s always preferable to reserve some space for Swap/Virtual memory, Regardless of being in the form of a partition or swap file.
Reserve at least the same amount as physical memory.
If you are running software that allocates large chunks of memory, swap is a must
If your applications are using swap and you can’t add physical memory, try adding more partitions and setting them with the same priority, this will make swap act “like a RAID 0”, as long as they are running on similar performance disks.

This is a long post, but one I think necessary.
I will be adding another blog post with the howto’s to use all techniques mentioned here.

Let’s get swapping!