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In computing, virtual memory is a memory management technique that is implemented using both hardware and software. It maps memory addresses used by a program, called virtual addresses, into physical addresses in computer memory. Main storage as seen by a process or task appears as a contiguous address space or collection of contiguous segments. The operating system manages virtual address spaces and the assignment of real memory to virtual memory. Address translation hardware in the CPU, often referred to as a memory management unit or MMU, automatically translates virtual addresses to physical addresses. Software within the operating system may extend these capabilities to provide a virtual address space that can exceed the capacity of real memory and thus reference more memory than is physically present in the computer.
The primary benefits of virtual memory include freeing applications from having to manage a shared memory space, increased security due to memory isolation, and being able to conceptually use more memory than might be physically available, using the technique of paging.
Virtual memory makes application programming easier by hiding fragmentation of physical memory; by delegating to the kernel the burden of managing the memory hierarchy (eliminating the need for the program to handle overlays explicitly); and, when each process is run in its own dedicated address space, by obviating the need to relocate program code or to access memory with relative addressing.
Memory virtualization can be considered a generalization of the concept of virtual memory.
Virtual memory is an integral part of a modern computer architecture; implementations require hardware support, typically in the form of a memory management unit built into the CPU. While not necessary, emulators and virtual machines can employ hardware support to increase performance of their virtual memory implementations. Consequently, older operating systems, such as those for the mainframes of the 1960s, and those for personal computers of the early to mid-1980s (e.g. DOS), generally have no virtual memory functionality,[dubious ] though notable exceptions for mainframes of the 1960s include:
The Apple Lisa is an example of a personal computer of the 1980s that features virtual memory.
Most modern operating systems that support virtual memory also run each process in its own dedicated address space. Each program thus appears to have sole access to the virtual memory. However, some older operating systems (such as OS/VS1 and OS/VS2 SVS) and even modern ones (such as IBM i) are single address space operating systems that run all processes in a single address space composed of virtualized memory.
Embedded systems and other special-purpose computer systems that require very fast and/or very consistent response times may opt not to use virtual memory due to decreased determinism; virtual memory systems trigger unpredictable traps that may produce unwanted "jitter" during I/O operations. This is because embedded hardware costs are often kept low by implementing all such operations with software (a technique called bit-banging) rather than with dedicated hardware.
In the 1940s and 1950s, all larger programs had to contain logic for managing primary and secondary storage, such as overlaying. Virtual memory was therefore introduced not only to extend primary memory, but to make such an extension as easy as possible for programmers to use. To allow for multiprogramming and multitasking, many early systems divided memory between multiple programs without virtual memory, such as early models of the PDP-10 via registers.
The concept of virtual memory was first developed by German physicist Fritz-Rudolf Güntsch at the Technische Universität Berlin in 1956 in his doctoral thesis, Logical Design of a Digital Computer with Multiple Asynchronous Rotating Drums and Automatic High Speed Memory Operation; it described a machine with 6 100-word blocks of primary core memory and an address space of 1,000 100-word blocks, with hardware automatically moving blocks between primary memory and secondary drum memory. Paging was first implemented at the University of Manchester as a way to extend the Atlas Computer's working memory by combining its 16 thousand words of primary core memory with an additional 96 thousand words of secondary drum memory. The first Atlas was commissioned in 1962 but working prototypes of paging had been developed by 1959.(p2) In 1961, the Burroughs Corporation independently released the first commercial computer with virtual memory, the B5000, with segmentation rather than paging.
Before virtual memory could be implemented in mainstream operating systems, many problems had to be addressed. Dynamic address translation required expensive and difficult to build specialized hardware; initial implementations slowed down access to memory slightly. There were worries that new system-wide algorithms utilizing secondary storage would be less effective than previously used application-specific algorithms. By 1969, the debate over virtual memory for commercial computers was over; an IBM research team led by David Sayre showed that their virtual memory overlay system consistently worked better than the best manually controlled systems. The first minicomputer to introduce virtual memory was the Norwegian NORD-1; during the 1970s, other minicomputers implemented virtual memory, notably VAX models running VMS.
Virtual memory was introduced to the x86 architecture with the protected mode of the Intel 80286 processor, but its segment swapping technique scaled poorly to larger segment sizes. The Intel 80386 introduced paging support underneath the existing segmentation layer, enabling the page fault exception to chain with other exceptions without double fault. However, loading segment descriptors was an expensive operation, causing operating system designers to rely strictly on paging rather than a combination of paging and segmentation.
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Nearly all implementations of virtual memory divide a virtual address space into pages, blocks of contiguous virtual memory addresses. Pages are usually at least 4 kilobytes in size; systems with large virtual address ranges or amounts of real memory generally use larger page sizes.
Page tables are used to translate the virtual addresses seen by the application into physical addresses used by the hardware to process instructions; such hardware that handles this specific translation is often known as the memory management unit. Each entry in the page table holds a flag indicating whether the corresponding page is in real memory or not. If it is in real memory, the page table entry will contain the real memory address at which the page is stored. When a reference is made to a page by the hardware, if the page table entry for the page indicates that it is not currently in real memory, the hardware raises a page fault exception, invoking the paging supervisor component of the operating system.
Systems can have one page table for the whole system, separate page tables for each application and segment, a tree of page tables for large segments or some combination of these. If there is only one page table, different applications running at the same time use different parts of a single range of virtual addresses. If there are multiple page or segment tables, there are multiple virtual address spaces and concurrent applications with separate page tables redirect to different real addresses.
This part of the operating system creates and manages page tables. If the hardware raises a page fault exception, the paging supervisor accesses secondary storage, returns the page that has the virtual address that resulted in the page fault, updates the page tables to reflect the physical location of the virtual address and tells the translation mechanism to restart the request.
When all physical memory is already in use, the paging supervisor must free a page in primary storage to hold the swapped-in page. The supervisor uses one of a variety of page replacement algorithms such as least recently used to determine which page to free.
Operating systems have memory areas that are pinned (never swapped to secondary storage). Other terms used are locked, fixed, or wired pages. For example, interrupt mechanisms rely on an array of pointers to their handlers, such as I/O completion and page fault. If the pages containing these pointers or the code that they invoke were pageable, interrupt-handling would become far more complex and time-consuming, particularly in the case of page fault interruptions. Hence, some part of the page table structures is not pageable.
Some pages may be pinned for short periods of time, others may be pinned for long periods of time, and still others may need to be permanently pinned. For example:
In IBM's operating systems for System/370 and successor systems, the term is "fixed", and pages may be long-term fixed, or may be short-term fixed. Control structures are often long-term fixed (measured in wall-clock time, i.e., time measured in seconds, rather than time measured in less than one second intervals) whereas I/O buffers are usually short-term fixed (usually measured in significantly less than wall-clock time, possibly for a few milliseconds). Indeed, the OS has a special facility for "fast fixing" these short-term fixed data buffers (fixing which is performed without resorting to a time-consuming Supervisor Call instruction). Additionally, the OS has yet another facility for converting an application from being long-term fixed to being fixed for an indefinite period, possibly for days, months or even years (however, this facility implicitly requires that the application firstly be swapped-out, possibly from preferred-memory, or a mixture of preferred- and non-preferred memory, and secondly be swapped-in to non-preferred memory where it resides for the duration, however long that might be; this facility utilizes a documented Supervisor Call instruction).
In OS/VS1 and similar OSes, some parts of systems memory are managed in virtual-real mode, where every virtual address corresponds to the same real address, specifically interrupt mechanisms, paging supervisor and tables in older systems, and application programs using non-standard I/O management. For example, IBM's z/OS has 3 modes (virtual-virtual, virtual-real and virtual-fixed).[page needed]
When paging and page stealing are used, a problem called "thrashing" can occur, in which the computer spends an unsuitably large amount of time transfering pages to and from a backing store, hence slowing down useful work. The phenomena is associated with the concept of a working set which is the minimum set of pages that should be in memory in order for useful progress to be made in a task. Thrashing occurs when there is insufficient memory available to store the working sets of all active programs. Adding real memory is the simplest response, but improving application design, scheduling, and memory usage can help. Another solution is to reduce the number of active tasks on the system. This reduces demand on real memory by swapping out the entire working set of one or more processes.
Some systems, such as the Burroughs B5500, use segmentation instead of paging, dividing virtual address spaces into variable-length segments. A virtual address here consists of a segment number and an offset within the segment. The Intel 80286 supports a similar segmentation scheme as an option, but it is rarely used. Segmentation and paging can be used together by dividing each segment into pages; systems with this memory structure, such as Multics and IBM System/38, are usually paging-predominant, segmentation providing memory protection.
In the Intel 80386 and later IA-32 processors, the segments reside in a 32-bit linear, paged address space. Segments can be moved in and out of that space; pages there can "page" in and out of main memory, providing two levels of virtual memory; few if any operating systems do so, instead using only paging. Early non-hardware-assisted x86 virtualization solutions combined paging and segmentation because x86 paging offers only two protection domains whereas a VMM / guest OS / guest applications stack needs three.:22 The difference between paging and segmentation systems is not only about memory division; segmentation is visible to user processes, as part of memory model semantics. Hence, instead of memory that looks like a single large space, it is structured into multiple spaces.
This difference has important consequences; a segment is not a page with variable length or a simple way to lengthen the address space. Segmentation that can provide a single-level memory model in which there is no differentiation between process memory and file system consists of only a list of segments (files) mapped into the process's potential address space.
This is not the same as the mechanisms provided by calls such as mmap and Win32's MapViewOfFile, because inter-file pointers do not work when mapping files into semi-arbitrary places. In Multics, a file (or a segment from a multi-segment file) is mapped into a segment in the address space, so files are always mapped at a segment boundary. A file's linkage section can contain pointers for which an attempt to load the pointer into a register or make an indirect reference through it causes a trap. The unresolved pointer contains an indication of the name of the segment to which the pointer refers and an offset within the segment; the handler for the trap maps the segment into the address space, puts the segment number into the pointer, changes the tag field in the pointer so that it no longer causes a trap, and returns to the code where the trap occurred, re-executing the instruction that caused the trap. This eliminates the need for a linker completely and works when different processes map the same file into different places in their private address spaces.
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