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7.6: Paging

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  • Memory Paging

    A page, memory page, or virtual page is a fixed-length contiguous block of virtual memory, described by a single entry in the page table. It is the smallest unit of data for memory management in a virtual memory operating system. Similarly, a page frame is the smallest fixed-length contiguous block of physical memory into which memory pages are mapped by the operating system

    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 (usually the swap space on the disk) 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.

    Page Table

    Part of the concept of paging is the page table, which is a data structure used by the virtual memory system to store the mapping between virtual addresses and physical addresses. Virtual addresses are used by the executed program, while physical addresses are used by the hardware, or more specifically, by the RAM subsystem. The page table is a key component of virtual address translation which is necessary to access data in memory.

    Role of the page table

    In operating systems that use virtual memory, every process is given the impression that it is working with large, contiguous sections of memory. Physically, the memory of each process may be dispersed across different areas of physical memory, or may have been moved (paged out) to another storage, typically to a hard disk drive or solid state drive.

    When a process requests access to data in its memory, it is the responsibility of the operating system to map the virtual address provided by the process to the physical address of the actual memory where that data is stored. The page table is where the operating system stores its mappings of virtual addresses to physical addresses, with each mapping also known as a page table entry (PTE).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Mapping Virtual Memory to Physical Memory. 
    ("Mapping Virtual Addresses to Physical Addresses" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The above image shows the relationship between pages addressed by virtual addresses and the pages in physical memory, within a simple address space scheme. Physical memory can contain pages belonging to many processes. If a page is not used for a period of time, the operating system can, if deemed necessary, move that page to secondary storage. The purple indicates where in physical memory the pieces of the executing processes reside - BUT - in the virtual environments, the memory is contiguous.

    The translation process

    The CPU's memory management unit (MMU) stores a cache of recently used mappings from the operating system's page table. This is called the translation lookaside buffer (TLB), which is an associative cache.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Actions taken upon a virtual to physical address translation request. 
    ("Actions taken upon a virtual to physical address translation request" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

    When a virtual address needs to be translated into a physical address, the TLB is searched first. If a match is found (a TLB hit), the physical address is returned and memory access can continue. However, if there is no match (called a TLB miss), the memory management unit, or the operating system TLB miss handler, will typically look up the address mapping in the page table to see whether a mapping exists (a page walk). If one exists, it is written back to the TLB (this must be done, as the hardware accesses memory through the TLB in a virtual memory system), and the faulting instruction is restarted (this may happen in parallel as well). The subsequent translation will find a TLB hit, and the memory access will continue.

    Translation failures

    The page table lookup may fail, triggering a page fault, for two reasons:

    • The lookup may fail if there is no translation available for the virtual address, meaning that virtual address is invalid. This will typically occur because of a programming error, and the operating system must take some action to deal with the problem. On modern operating systems, it will cause a segmentation fault signal being sent to the offending program.
    • The lookup may also fail if the page is currently not resident in physical memory. This will occur if the requested page has been moved out of physical memory to make room for another page. In this case the page is paged out to a secondary store located on a medium such as a hard disk drive (this secondary store, or "backing store", is often called a "swap partition" if it is a disk partition, or a swap file, "swapfile" or "page file" if it is a file). When this happens the page needs to be taken from disk and put back into physical memory. A similar mechanism is used for memory-mapped files, which are mapped to virtual memory and loaded to physical memory on demand.

    When physical memory is not full this is a simple operation; the page is written back into physical memory, the page table and TLB are updated, and the instruction is restarted. However, when physical memory is full, one or more pages in physical memory will need to be paged out to make room for the requested page. The page table needs to be updated to mark that the pages that were previously in physical memory are no longer there, and to mark that the page that was on disk is now in physical memory. The TLB also needs to be updated, including removal of the paged-out page from it, and the instruction restarted. Which page to page out is the subject of page replacement algorithms.

    Some MMUs trigger a page fault for other reasons, whether or not the page is currently resident in physical memory and mapped into the virtual address space of a process:

    • Attempting to write when the page table has the read-only bit set causes a page fault. This is a normal part of many operating system's implementation of copy-on-write; it may also occur when a write is done to a location from which the process is allowed to read but to which it is not allowed to write, in which case a signal is delivered to the process.
    • Attempting to execute code when the page table has the NX bit (no-execute bit) set in the page table causes a page fault. This can be used by an operating system, in combination with the read-only bit, to provide a Write XOR Execute feature that stops some kinds of exploits

    Adapted from:
    "Memory paging" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
    "Page (computer memory)" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
    "Page table" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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