Vista runs out of physical memory when working with files > 1GB - memory management issue?


Robert Janik

I regularly see issue where Vista runs out of physical memory and starts
swapping memory into the page file and as hard drive operations dramatically
increase explorer stops responding or is responding very slowly. One example
is a situation where I have opened Visual Studio , while editing 3D scene in
trueSpace. After opening and closing a 3D scene several times I experienced
very slow response from OS. Closing trueSpace and starting again helps to
solve the problem for a while. I didn't quite understand what was going on
until recently when I was burning ISO images stored on hard drive to a dvd
and started investigating deeper.

My configuration:
Machine: Asus R1E (tablet)
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4GHz
OS: Vista Ultimate 64-bit

I was burning images with size of around 4 GB using Nero Burning. When I
start the application for the first time and start burning an image,
physical memory usage goes up in about 50 - 100 MB increments until reaching
4 GB, then OS starts using page file extensively and hard disk operations
increase. Burning finishes and physical memory usage goes back down.
Verification of data written on DVD starts and memory usage goes up again
the same way. When verification finishes I select another ISO image and
continue burning without closing the application. However from now on things
get worse. When I start burning another image memory usage goes up again,
hard drive operations increase to the point where I cannot use the machine.
Explorer stops responding. I press Ctrl-Alt-Del and it takes about 15
minutes before I see black screen as OS is trying to open secure logon
screen, then after another 5 minutes I see an error "Failure to open secure
logon screen". I leave the machine running and it is able to finish burning.
Os starts responding, but very slowly, I still cannot open logon screen, but
I'm able to start task manager by right clicking on taskbar (very slow
again) and selecting menu item. Physical memory usage is high and doesn't go
down anymore. When verification of burned content starts the situation
repeats with high physical memory usage, high hard drive usage and slow
explorer response. At this point we are not burning data, just reading data
from dvd and comparing to data on hard drive. When the process finishes OS
starts responding. Free physical memory is 0 and memory used 4 GB. When I
add up virtual memory allocated by all processes, it adds up to 1.5 GB If I
add kernel memory usage I see in task manager it is all together no more
than 2 GB. Where the rest of physical memory has gone? The application's
Working set is only around 150 MB as reported by task manager and 100 MB
Commit size. I'm closing the application.
I rebooted the machine and tried again. There are no other applications
running, nothing on the background, no antivirus, only basic icons in tray
(sound, network etc). I started burning images again, first attempt goes
with physical memory of only around 1 GB and holding steady until it
finished, but on the second round everything repeats again, memory usage
going up OS slowing down. I tried a different application, but I see exactly
the same pattern.
I cannot believe that exactly the same pattern with memory usage and slow OS
response is caused by memory leaks. If I consider different scenarios
burning large files, working with 3D modeling software and visual studio and
other situations I cannot believe that all these applications have memory
leaks or suffer from bugs that would create this issue.
The issue seems to be related to files > 1 GB, but it is possible that I
would just need to work with 1 GB files longer without closing applications
to reproduce the problem (as it happened with trueSpace where files
certainly didn't even reach 1 GB level, but I always worked with it the
whole day).

When I start an application for the first time and start working with large
files, it needs to load content into a buffer which means it allocates space
on the heap. The application processes the buffer and releases it, allocates
space for another buffer and so on. As new allocations are made the the
request goes to backend allocator and since new buffer can be of bigger
size, a new allocation is made. As the application runs new allocations may
cause splitting large blocks and when a new request is made a new large
block is allocated.
This goes on until the whole segment is taken and a new segment of memory
allocated. As memory is getting more and more fragmented and new allocations
made, the system eventually runs out of physical memory. Even though blocks
of memory are de-committed, lots of memory stays reserved and this is the
reason that task manager gives information about 2 GB committed out of 4 GB
for all processes and for the application causing the issue 100 - 150 MB
committed size.

I know that Vista uses by default low fragmentation frontend allocator. Is
it possible that these applications switch explicitly to look aside list?
Could this cause the problem?
Is there a way to configure memory management and optimize it to solve the


When was the last time you did a Disk Cleanup to get rid of temporary
internet files and cookies?

Robert Janik

I cleanup temporary internet files and cookies every day - every time I'm
about to close IE. I do the disk clean up very often.

I have also seen this issue on Windows Server. On one of my work assignments
was investigating exactly the same pattern with physical memory usage going
up after which the server started responding very slowly and finally the
remote session was disconnected. Backend servers were processing 10 GB files
and services needed more time than what was theoretical time span and they
were sometimes failing and nobody could explain why. This issue resurfaced
in the form of database replication issues, network timing issue and other.
When running on test server I had to request server reboot. Once when test
server stopped responding while I was monitoring this memory usage issue I
left it running over the weekend and decided to request reboot on Monday
morning, however the system recovered on it's own as the service completed
or failed processing the data and exited. Memory was released, server
recovered and was responsive again.

I think this issue might be caused by cache management and heap
fragmentation. Heap fragmentation contributes to higher memory usage, but
the primary source of the problem seems to be cache management. I know exact
steps to reproduce this issue, so I can just avoid it. Now I can predict
when the system is about to stop responding and take corrective action -
stop and start again the application which is using 1 GB or bigger file.

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