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Byte.com: Linux Kernel Pillow Talk

Oct 29, 2001, 23:46 (28 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Moshe Bar)

[ Thanks to Moshe Bar for this link. ]

"And you thought the netherworlds of dry kernel engineering were free of politics, egos, and prima-donnas? Guess again. The events of the last four to six weeks and the e-mails flying to and from the Linux kernel mailing list show how Byzantine and complex the dynamics of decision finding, features design, and implementations can be. Go to http://www.tux.org/lkml/ to subscribe to the kernel mailing list, but be careful: This is a very high-traffic list. Subscribe only if you really want to follow every single detail of the Linux kernel, or instead read the weekly digest at Linux Kernel Cousin at http://kt.zork.net/kernel-traffic.

Sure, the lively debates have always existed. In the past there have been disputes about the Linux firewalling code, networking code, scheduler, installer, driver model, and many more. One recurrent theme has always been the Virtual Memory (VM) manager. Nothing determines the peculiar behavior, the feel ? even the ultimate success or failure of an operating system ? like its virtual memory design. Sometime during the development cycle leading up to the Linux 2.4.0 kernel, in other words in 2.3.xx times, Rik Van Riel (http://www.surriel.com ), a Dutch kernel hacker working for Brazil-based Conectiva (one of the smaller Linux distributions), introduced a radically new VM code. It was based on what seemed to be new and advanced algorithms for efficient finding, allocation, and disposal of virtual memory pages requested by programs. Rik later introduced an interesting new kernel feature called the "OOM killer." OOM stands for Out Of Memory. The OOM killer attempts to locate a killable process when memory runs out in the system. Without such a feature the whole machine can go nuts or enter a vicious cycle of swapping out a few pages, realizing immediately after that those pages are needed, and searching again for swappable page candidates, keeping the kernel busy doing only this instead of letting user processes run.

Rik is a gifted hacker, and among other things he has been trying to improve the efficiency and speed of maintenance of those lists in the kernel responsible for managing all the virtual memory pages in the system. One of the main questions to address in every operating system VM code is: 'How do you choose which page to steal next when there is a RAM shortage?'"

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