Post: OS memory management

3 minute read

In this post I will briefly describe how does an operating system handle memory management.


On a high level, an operating system has a main memory that will store data. Depending on the hardware, the main memory will have multiple 32/64 bit addresses that will allow the OS/process to write value into these addresses. These addresses are known as physical address.


When assigning an address space to a process, we would ideally like to keep these address in a contiguous array to allow for cache by locality. However, the problem of Fragmentation would arise if we naively assign contiguous address for each process.


External Fragmentation: Occurs when we allocate a small address space to a small process that gets killed eventually. Other processes require a larger address space and cannot be assigned to that small address space. This result in small address being under utilized.

Internal Fragmentation: Occurs when the OS allocate a process an address space that is slightly bigger than what the process require. The extra address space is too small to be assigned to any process and the OS will just assign that extra address space to the process.


The general idea to solving this problem is to allow the process handle memory using a logical/virtual address. The logical address does not coincide with an address in main memory but instead the OS will use some mechanism to map the virtual address to a physical address in memory.

  • Solve external fragmentation: As each address space is split into multiple identical frames, there will no longer be a chunk of address space that is too small to be used by other process.


Paging is the idea of splitting the main address into multiple frames of a certain size (usually a multiple of a word). On the process side, it will see each frame as a page. Thus for a purely paging mechanism the virtual address is made up of page_id|offset the page_id is for getting the correct frame in physical memory and the offset (d) is to get the address of the correct word in the frame.

Page table implementation: most system (linux) uses N-level paging table (N tables of tables).

  • A single layer page table will require the table to have a size of the total number of pages.
  • N layer page tables allows for a more compact incomplete tree structure
  • Trade off: getting the address of a frame from and address will require traversing all N layers. The OS counters this by using a TLB

Translate page to frame

To map the page_id to frame, the OS has a paging table that maps the page number to the frame address in the physical memory. To further speed this up, the OS has a translation look-aside buffer (hardware optimization) that will cache these results to allow for fast querying of the frame id.


  • When context switch nee to flush TLB


For idle processes, the OS will swap the frames that belongs to the process into the disk until the process is back to running state. This will free up the number of frames.


Problem: To a process it would like to be able to change the address space of the different components of memory (heap/stack/data).

Solution: To solve this each process will have k number of disjoint segment for heap/stack/… . Address with have a seg_id that maps to the base address of the segment in the main memory. The mapping will be stored in a segment table.

  • A problem to this is that it could cause external fragmentation.

Paging + Segmentation

The best solution is to use both paging and segmentation techniques. Where each segment points to a page table that points to a frame in physical memory and would be accessed using the offset.

A virtual address will look like seg_id|page_id|offset. This will allow each memory segment to grow/shrink dynamically without having to suffer from external fragmentation as the memory for each segment is disjoint into frames

Virtual Memory

Problem: An issue arise when the number of pages that process wants exceeds the number of frames.


  • To solve this OS will utilize the secondary storage (disk) to store frames that are LFU/LRU.
  • Each entry on the page table will have a is memory resident bit. If 1 the corresponding frame is in main memory (RAM) else it is in secondary memory (disk).


  1. Check is memory resident bit.
    • If true just fetch the frame from memory
  2. Else Trap to OS (Page fault)
  3. OS will locate the frame in disk
  4. Load the frame in disk into main memory
  5. Update the page table (set bit to 1)
  6. Continue step 1