Memory Use in SQL Server
People often post questions in the SQL Server newsgroups about physical memory and how SQL Server uses it. This is a commonly misunderstood subject. The two main questions that users ask are along the lines of 1) "Does SQL Server have a memory leak? It consumes more and more memory until we run out of it and have to reboot." and 2) "If we have x GB of RAM, what's the best way to configure SQL Server?" These are actually simple questions but the answers are not normally obvious, hence the frequent confusion.
I'll tackle the first question first, as Lewis Carol suggested, in the guise of the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland (or was it Through the Looking Glass?), when he said start at the beginning, go on to the end, and then stop. SQL Server's caching behaviour is the reason for the substantial memory use. This is by design and is not a bug, memory leak nor incorrect configuration. Every time SQL Server needs to read a page from disk it caches the page in memory so that the slow disk operation will be unnecessary should SQL Server need that page again. As such, the memory allocated to SQL Server fills up, primarily, with recently read data pages. This section of memory is known as the buffer cache (in SQL Server 2000 Books Online) or sometimes the buffer pool (particularly in SQL Server 2005 Books Online).
The other main section of memory that SQL Server uses is the procedure cache. This contains all the query execution plans that SQL Server creates in order to manipulate the data, as requested by the user, in the most efficient way possible. Actually, that is not entire accurate, but it is close. When compiling execution plans, SQL Server usually comes up with several logically equivalent plans. The most efficient plan is added to the procedure cache, paired with that query string, and the remaining plans are discarded. The next time the same query string is submitted to SQL Server, it does not need to waste valuable CPU cycles recompiling execution plans because it already knows the most efficient one (compiling execution plans is computationally expensive).
Of course, there is only a finite amount of memory in a SQL box, both physical and virtual, so SQL Server cannot continue to cache data pages and query plans indefinitely. Therefore, it has a mechanism to age query plans and data pages so that, if memory runs low, the least recently used plans and data pages are removed from memory. This mechanism ensures that there is always enough memory for other applications should they request it. The ratio of memory allocated to the buffer cache versus the procedure cache is managed internally, according to an algorithm known only to Microsoft. However, if very few different queries are executed compared to the number of data pages manipulated then the buffer cache will be considerably larger than the procedure cache (and usually is). Conversely, if a large number of different statements manipulate very little data then the procedure cache will be comparatively larger.
SQL Server uses memory for other purposes too, such as the environment associated with each user connection, locks and index creation; however, the buffer cache and procedure cache comprise the majority of memory used by SQL Server. This is why memory is so important in a high-performance SQL server.
It is time to address the second question of how to configure the SQL Server memory settings given a certain amount of physical RAM in the box. In order to do this, however, we quickly need to cover a few basics of 32-bit addressing. (These 32-bit addressing issues go away with 64-bit architecture.) Every 32-bit application, be it SQL Server or something else, has a 4GB virtual address space (2^32 = 4GB). Windows assigns half of that 4GB to user code and the other half is reserved for kernel code. Note well that this is virtual address space we are talking about, and may be backed by either physical memory or the system paging file. A given page in the buffer cache (or procedure cache for that matter) may not necessarily reside in physical RAM; it may be on disk just like the database file(s). Since Windows 2000, the operating system has provided a feature to reduce the kernel mode memory to just 1GB, thereby allowing the user mode portion 3 of the 4GB in the virtual address space. Microsoft achieves this by the system-wide boot.ini /3GB switch and it applies to all 32-bit applications running on the box (not just SQL Server). Windows 2003 has introduced a new boot.ini switch, /USERVA (see http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=316739), which essentially does the same thing as /3GB but allows finer tuning of exactly how much memory is allocated to the kernel code (between 1GB and 2GB).
Now, SQL Server is written to take advantage of physical address extensions (PAE). PAE is essentially a kludge that allows 32-bit applications to address memory above the 4GB address space. (64-bit addressing allows a theoretical memory space of 16 exabytes; 16,384 petabytes; 16,777,216 terabytes; since the current 64-bit operating systems limit physical memory much more than this, it does not look like we will reach this limit in the near future; for example, Windows 2003 R2 Datacentre x64 Edition supports up to 1TB of memory.)
In order to access the memory above the 2^32 boundary, an application must use a memory extension API such as Address Windowing Extensions (AWE), as SQL Server does. AWE memory is always backed by physical memory and cannot be swapped out to disk, so every memory page that is allocated to SQL Server remains allocated to SQL Server in physical memory; SQL Server will not release that page once it has been allocated. It may reuse that memory for a different data page, but SQL Server will not release it for use by another application. This is why the account under which the SQL Server service runs must be granted the 'Lock Pages In Memory' privilege. This behaviour has changed slightly with SQL Server 2005 when running on a Windows Server 2003 operating system. SQL Server 2005 Books Online says that SQL Server 2005 can manage AWE memory dynamically. However, it also says a few sentences later that this memory is non-paged memory implying it cannot be paged out once committed, which begs the question how this memory is dynamically managed.
Another thing to note about SQL Server and AWE memory is that SQL Server uses AWE memory, ie the memory above 4GB, only for the buffer cache. This allows a huge amount of data to be cached in memory, but does not affect the size of the procedure cache or other sections of memory that SQL Server uses. With AWE, SQL Server's buffer cache can access up to 64GB of physical memory, depending on the edition of 32-bit SQL Server. AWE is not relevant with 64-bit SQL since it is not bound by the same 2^32 byte limit; however, Microsoft still recommends granting the 'Lock Pages in Memory' privilege to the service account in order to avoid excessive paging.
The important settings to note when dealing with memory, with regard to SQL Server are:
- /3GB or /USERVA (boot.ini)
- /PAE (boot.ini)
- 'AWE enabled' (sp_configure)
- 'max server memory' (sp_configure)
- 'min server memory' (sp_configure)
/3GB and /USERVA, as already mentioned, limit the amount of the standard 4GB space that the kernel code can use to 1GB (or between 1GB and 2GB in the case of /USERVA in Windows 2003). This allows the user mode portion of applications to access up to 3GB of that first 4GB of memory.
/PAE enables the operating system to use physical address extensions thereby allowing access to physical memory in excess of 4GB.
'AWE enabled' turns on the AWE API code in SQL Server in order to access the memory above 4GB. If there is 4GB or less of physical memory in the box then SQL Server ignores the 'AWE enabled' setting.
'max server memory' defines the largest virtual address space that SQL Server is permitted to use. This is typically only used in conjunction with the 'AWE enabled' setting. SQL Server 2005 Books Online says this specifically relates to the buffer cache but SQL Server 2000 Books Online does not differentiate between the buffer cache and other memory sections with regard to the 'max server memory' setting and so the implication is that this limits overall memory use with SQL Server 2000.
'min server memory' defines the limit at which SQL Server will stop releasing memory dynamically. This setting is rarely used and usually unnecessary. It does not guarantee that SQL Server will be allocated at least this much memory. When SQL Server starts, it commits only as much memory as necessary, even if that is less than the 'min server memory' limit. As more data pages and query plans are cached, the memory that SQL Server commits increases. When this committed memory increases above the 'min server memory' limit SQL Server can free pages (down to that limit), as necessary, to keep the minimum free physical memory between 4MB and 10MB.
If 'min server memory' and 'max server memory' are configured to be equal then SQL Server does not manage memory dynamically. Memory is simply acquired gradually (as SQL Server's workload increases) up to that figure and then neither released nor further acquired. However, if 'min server memory' and/or 'max server memory' are assigned different values, such as the defaults of 0 and 2,147,483,647 respectively, then SQL Server will dynamically manage its memory allocation between those two figures. Memory allocation may grow up to the 'max server memory' limit and be reduced down to the 'min server memory' limit. This dynamic memory management is the more common scenario with SQL Server.
The easiest way to think about how these settings interact is with a matrix as follows:
|RAM||/3GB||/PAE||'awe enabled'||'max server memory'|
|>4-12||*||*||*||(Physical RAM) - (RAM needed for other applications & OS)|
|>12||*||*||(Physical RAM) - (RAM needed for other applications & OS)|
(The RAM figures above are all GB; also, I apologise for the table formatting but it is very hard to do with this blogger template.)
These combinations are not the only ones possible but they represent the common scenarios. Did you notice that the /3GB boot.ini switch is not recommended over a certain memory size? This is because the kernel mode portion of that first 4GB of RAM is used to hold various system structures including the table that the operating system uses to map physical addresses over 4GB. By limiting the kernel mode space to 1GB you are also limiting the amount of physical memory that can be mapped over 4GB (since you are limiting the size of this memory-mapping table). Different experts define this threshold at different figures between 12GB and 16GB. To err on the side of caution I tend to use the lower figure as the boundary about which to remove the /3GB switch from boot.ini.
Well, I think that is more than enough information to answer the majority of memory related questions that new SQL Server administrators post on the SQL Server newsgroups. Perhaps I should have split it up into two separate blog entries to make it more readable... A job for another day perhaps.