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13.1: Memory Paging

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    Although memory paging is NOT specific to virtual memory, paging is discussed a lot in the discussion of virtual memory. So, we will spend a moment making sure we are up on the concepts we need to properly study virtual memory.

    Memory Paging

    In computer operating systems, memory paging is a memory management scheme by which a computer stores and retrieves data from secondary storage for use in main memory. In this scheme, the operating system retrieves data from secondary storage in same-size blocks called pages. Paging is an important part of virtual memory implementations in modern operating systems, using secondary storage to let programs exceed the size of available physical memory.

    For simplicity, main memory is called "RAM" (an acronym of "random-access memory") and secondary storage is called "disk" (a shorthand for "hard disk drive, drum memory or solid-state drive"), but the concepts do not depend on whether these terms apply literally to a specific computer system.

    Page faults

    When a process tries to reference a page not currently present in RAM, the processor treats this invalid memory reference as a page fault and transfers control from the program to the operating system. The operating system must:

    • Determine the location of the data on disk.
    • Obtain an empty page frame in RAM to use as a container for the data.
    • Load the requested data into the available page frame.
    • Update the page table to refer to the new page frame.
    • Return control to the program, transparently retrying the instruction that caused the page fault.

    When all page frames are in use, the operating system must select a page frame to reuse for the page the program now needs. If the evicted page frame was dynamically allocated by a program to hold data, or if a program modified it since it was read into RAM (in other words, if it has become "dirty"), it must be written out to disk before being freed. If a program later references the evicted page, another page fault occurs and the page must be read back into RAM.

    The method the operating system uses to select the page frame to reuse, which is its page replacement algorithm, is important to efficiency. The operating system predicts the page frame least likely to be needed soon, often through the least recently used (LRU) algorithm or an algorithm based on the program's working set. To further increase responsiveness, paging systems may predict which pages will be needed soon, preemptively loading them into RAM before a program references them.


    After completing initialization, most programs operate on a small number of code and data pages compared to the total memory the program requires. The pages most frequently accessed are called the working set.

    When the working set is a small percentage of the system's total number of pages, virtual memory systems work most efficiently and an insignificant amount of computing is spent resolving page faults. As the working set grows, resolving page faults remains manageable until the growth reaches a critical point. Then faults go up dramatically and the time spent resolving them overwhelms time spent on the computing the program was written to do. This condition is referred to as thrashing. Thrashing occurs on a program that works with huge data structures, as its large working set causes continual page faults that drastically slow down the system. Satisfying page faults may require freeing pages that will soon have to be re-read from disk. "Thrashing" is also used in contexts other than virtual memory systems; for example, to describe cache issues in computing or silly window syndrome in networking.

    A worst case might occur on VAX processors. A single MOVL crossing a page boundary could have a source operand using a displacement deferred addressing mode, where the longword containing the operand address crosses a page boundary, and a destination operand using a displacement deferred addressing mode, where the longword containing the operand address crosses a page boundary, and the source and destination could both cross page boundaries. This single instruction references ten pages; if not all are in RAM, each will cause a page fault. As each fault occurs the operating system needs to go through the extensive memory management routines perhaps causing multiple I/Os which might including writing other process pages to disk and reading pages of the active process from disk. If the operating system could not allocate ten pages to this program, then remedying the page fault would discard another page the instruction needs, and any restart of the instruction would fault again.

    To decrease excessive paging and resolve thrashing problems, a user can increase the number of pages available per program, either by running fewer programs concurrently or increasing the amount of RAM in the computer.


    In multi-programming or in a multi-user environment, many users may execute the same program, written so that its code and data are in separate pages. To minimize RAM use, all users share a single copy of the program. Each process's page table is set up so that the pages that address code point to the single shared copy, while the pages that address data point to different physical pages for each process.

    Different programs might also use the same libraries. To save space, only one copy of the shared library is loaded into physical memory. Programs which use the same library have virtual addresses that map to the same pages (which contain the library's code and data). When programs want to modify the library's code, they use copy-on-write, so memory is only allocated when needed.

    Shared memory is an efficient way of communication between programs. Programs can share pages in memory, and then write and read to exchange data.

    Adapted from:
    "Virtual memory" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
    "Demand paging" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
    "Memory paging" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
    "Page replacement algorithm" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

    This page titled 13.1: Memory Paging is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Patrick McClanahan.

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