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Linux ate my memory!

Linux uses free memory for disk caching and buffering but this memory can be allocated to applications immediately if needed.

$ free -m
             total       used       free     shared    buffers     cached
Mem:          3965       2821       1144          0         96       1038
-/+ buffers/cache:       1686       2279
Swap:         1903        454       1449

So the machine above has 1144 MB of memory free from the kernel point of view since Linux considers memory used for caching/buffering as used. However it has 2279 MB of memory free from the applications point of view because programs don’t consider memory used by caches and buffers.

To show this, let’s run this memory eating application (munch.c):

#include <stdlib.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
    int max = -1;
    int mb = 0;
    char* buffer;

    if(argc > 1)
        max = atoi(argv[1]);

    while((buffer=malloc(100*1024*1024)) != NULL && mb != max) {
        memset(buffer, 0, 100*1024*1024);
        printf("Allocated %d MB\n", 100*mb);

    return 0;

To see it in action:

sudo swapoff -a                 # turn off swapping; can take a while
watch free -m                   # in a different shell
dd if=/dev/urandom of=/tmp/bla  # cache some data
./munch                         # run until SIGINT or killed by kernel

# Don't forget to cleanup ... :-)
rm /tmp/bla
sudo swapon -a

See mem-muncher for a dockerized version of the munch program.