How To Add Swap on Ubuntu 14.04

How To Add Swap on Ubuntu 14.04
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Ubuntu 14.04


One of the easiest way of increasing the responsiveness of your server and guarding against out of memory errors in your applications is to add some swap space. Swap is an area on a hard drive that has been designated as a place where the operating system can temporarily store data that it can no longer hold in RAM.

Basically, this gives you the ability to increase the amount of information that your server can keep in its working “memory”, with some caveats. The space on the hard drive will be used mainly when space in RAM is no longer sufficient for data.

The information written to disk will be slower than information kept in RAM, but the operating system will prefer to keep running application data in memory and use swap for the older data. Overall, having swap space as a fall back for when your system’s RAM is depleted is a good safety net.

In this guide, we’ll cover how to create and enable a swap file on an Ubuntu 14.04 server.


Although swap is generally recommended for systems utilizing traditional spinning hard drives, using swap with SSDs can cause issues with hardware degradation over time. Due to this consideration, we do not recommend enabling swap on DigitalOcean or any other provider that utilizes SSD storage. Doing so can impact the reliability of the underlying hardware for you and your neighbors.

If you need to improve the performance of your server, we recommend upgrading your Droplet. This will lead to better results in general and will decrease the likelihood of contributing to hardware issues that can affect your service.

Check the System for Swap Information

Before we begin, we will take a look at our operating system to see if we already have some swap space available. We can have multiple swap files or swap partitions, but generally one should be enough.

We can see if the system has any configured swap by typing:

sudo swapon -s

Filename				Type		Size	Used	Priority

If you only get back the header of the table, as I’ve shown above, you do not currently have any swap space enabled.

Another, more familiar way of checking for swap space is with the free utility, which shows us system memory usage. We can see our current memory and swap usage in Megabytes by typing:

<pre> free -m </pre> <pre> total used free shared buffers cached Mem: 3953 154 3799 0 8 83 -/+ buffers/cache: 62 3890 <span class=“highlight”>Swap: 0</span> 0 0 </pre>

As you can see above, our total swap space in the system is “0”. This matches what we saw with the previous command.

Check Available Space on the Hard Drive Partition

The typical way of allocating space for swap is to use a separate partition devoted to the task. However, altering the partitioning scheme is not always possible. We can just as easily create a swap file that resides on an existing partition.

Before we do this, we should be aware of our current disk usage. We can get this information by typing:

<pre> df -h </pre> <pre> Filesystem Size Used Avail Use% Mounted on <span class=“highlight”>/dev/vda 59G 1.3G 55G 3% /</span> none 4.0K 0 4.0K 0% /sys/fs/cgroup udev 2.0G 12K 2.0G 1% /dev tmpfs 396M 312K 396M 1% /run none 5.0M 0 5.0M 0% /run/lock none 2.0G 0 2.0G 0% /run/shm none 100M 0 100M 0% /run/user </pre>

As you can see on the first line, our hard drive partition has 55 Gigabytes available, so we have a huge amount of space to work with. This is on a fresh, medium-sized VPS instance, however, so your actual usage might be very different.

Although there are many opinions about the appropriate size of a swap space, it really depends on your personal preferences and your application requirements. Generally, an amount equal to or double the amount of RAM on your system is a good starting point.

Since my system has 4 Gigabytes of RAM, and doubling that would take a significant chunk of my disk space that I’m not willing to part with, I will create a swap space of 4 Gigabytes to match my system’s RAM.

Create a Swap File

Now that we know our available hard drive space, we can go about creating a swap file within our filesystem.

We will create a file called swapfile in our root (/) directory. The file must allocate the amount of space we want for our swap file. There are two main ways of doing this:

The Traditional, Slow Way

Traditionally, we would create a file with preallocated space by using the dd command. This versatile disk utility writes from one location to another location.

We can use this to write zeros to the file from a special device in Linux systems located at /dev/zero that just spits out as many zeros as requested.

We specify the file size by using a combination of bs for block size and count for the number of blocks. What we assign to each parameter is almost entirely arbitrary. What matters is what the product of multiplying them turns out to be.

For instance, in our example, we’re looking to create a 4 Gigabyte file. We can do this by specifying a block size of 1 Gigabyte and a count of 4:

sudo dd if=/dev/zero of=/swapfile bs=1G count=4

4+0 records in
4+0 records out
4294967296 bytes (4.3 GB) copied, 18.6227 s, 231 MB/s

Check your command before pressing ENTER because this has the potential to destroy data if you point the of (which stands for output file) to the wrong location.

We can see that 4 Gigabytes have been allocated by typing:

<pre> ls -lh /swapfile </pre> <pre> -rw-r–r-- 1 root root <span class=“highlight”>4.0G</span> Apr 28 17:15 /swapfile </pre>

If you’ve completed the command above, you may notice that it took quite a while. In fact, you can see in the output that it took my system 18 seconds to create the file. That is because it has to write 4 Gigabytes of zeros to the disk.

If you want to learn how to create the file faster, remove the file and follow along below:

sudo rm /swapfile

The Faster Way

The quicker way of getting the same file is by using the fallocate program. This command creates a file of a preallocated size instantly, without actually having to write dummy contents.

We can create a 4 Gigabyte file by typing:

sudo fallocate -l 4G /swapfile

The prompt will be returned to you almost immediately. We can verify that the correct amount of space was reserved by typing:

<pre> ls -lh /swapfile </pre> <pre> -rw-r–r-- 1 root root <span class=“highlight”>4.0G</span> Apr 28 17:19 /swapfile </pre>

As you can see, our file is created with the correct amount of space set aside.

Enabling the Swap File

Right now, our file is created, but our system does not know that this is supposed to be used for swap. We need to tell our system to format this file as swap and then enable it.

Before we do that though, we need to adjust the permissions on our file so that it isn’t readable by anyone besides root. Allowing other users to read or write to this file would be a huge security risk. We can lock down the permissions by typing:

sudo chmod 600 /swapfile

Verify that the file has the correct permissions by typing:

<pre> ls -lh /swapfile </pre> <pre> <span class=“highlight”>-rw-------</span> 1 root root 4.0G Apr 28 17:19 /swapfile </pre>

As you can see, only the columns for the root user have the read and write flags enabled.

Now that our file is more secure, we can tell our system to set up the swap space by typing:

sudo mkswap /swapfile

Setting up swapspace version 1, size = 4194300 KiB
no label, UUID=e2f1e9cf-c0a9-4ed4-b8ab-714b8a7d6944

Our file is now ready to be used as a swap space. We can enable this by typing:

sudo swapon /swapfile

We can verify that the procedure was successful by checking whether our system reports swap space now:

<pre> sudo swapon -s </pre> <pre> Filename Type Size Used Priority <span class=“highlight”>/swapfile file 4194300 0 -1</span> </pre>

We have a new swap file here. We can use the free utility again to corroborate our findings:

<pre> free -m </pre> <pre> total used free shared buffers cached Mem: 3953 101 3851 0 5 30 -/+ buffers/cache: 66 3887 <span class=“highlight”>Swap: 4095</span> 0 4095 </pre>

Our swap has been set up successfully and our operating system will begin to use it as necessary.

Make the Swap File Permanent

We have our swap file enabled, but when we reboot, the server will not automatically enable the file. We can change that though by modifying the fstab file.

Edit the file with root privileges in your text editor:

sudo nano /etc/fstab

At the bottom of the file, you need to add a line that will tell the operating system to automatically use the file you created:

/swapfile   none    swap    sw    0   0

Save and close the file when you are finished.

Tweak your Swap Settings

There are a few options that you can configure that will have an impact on your system’s performance when dealing with swap.

The swappiness parameter configures how often your system swaps data out of RAM to the swap space. This is a value between 0 and 100 that represents a percentage.

With values close to zero, the kernel will not swap data to the disk unless absolutely necessary. Remember, interactions with the swap file are “expensive” in that they take a lot longer than interactions with RAM and they can cause a significant reduction in performance. Telling the system not to rely on the swap much will generally make your system faster.

Values that are closer to 100 will try to put more data into swap in an effort to keep more RAM space free. Depending on your applications’ memory profile or what you are using your server for, this might be better in some cases.

We can see the current swappiness value by typing:

cat /proc/sys/vm/swappiness


For a Desktop, a swappiness setting of 60 is not a bad value. For a VPS system, we’d probably want to move it closer to 0.

We can set the swappiness to a different value by using the sysctl command.

For instance, to set the swappiness to 10, we could type:

sudo sysctl vm.swappiness=10

vm.swappiness = 10

This setting will persist until the next reboot. We can set this value automatically at restart by adding the line to our /etc/sysctl.conf file:

sudo nano /etc/sysctl.conf

At the bottom, you can add:


Save and close the file when you are finished.

Another related value that you might want to modify is the vfs_cache_pressure. This setting configures how much the system will choose to cache inode and dentry information over other data.

Basically, this is access data about the filesystem. This is generally very costly to look up and very frequently requested, so it’s an excellent thing for your system to cache. You can see the current value by querying the proc filesystem again:

cat /proc/sys/vm/vfs_cache_pressure


As it is currently configured, our system removes inode information from the cache too quickly. We can set this to a more conservative setting like 50 by typing:

sudo sysctl vm.vfs_cache_pressure=50

vm.vfs_cache_pressure = 50

Again, this is only valid for our current session. We can change that by adding it to our configuration file like we did with our swappiness setting:

sudo nano /etc/sysctl.conf

At the bottom, add the line that specifies your new value:

vm.vfs_cache_pressure = 50

Save and close the file when you are finished.


Following the steps in this guide will give you some breathing room in terms of your RAM usage. Swap space is incredibly useful in avoiding some common problems.

If you are running into OOM (out of memory) errors, or if you find that your system is unable to use the applications you need, the best solution is to optimize your application configurations or upgrade your server. Configuring swap space, however, can give you more flexibility and can help buy you time on a less powerful server.

<div class=“author”>By Justin Ellingwood</div>

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I’ve made a small script over at https://github.com/CraftThatBlock/SwapUbuntu to make this easier and faster to set all of this up

You’re missing a ‘p’ in this line:

sudo sysctl vm.swapiness=10

should be:

sudo sysctl vm.swappiness=10

You’ve still got an error in the command:

sudo sysctl vm.swapiness=10

Should have another ‘p’:

sudo sysctl vm.swappiness=10

Helpful article. Thanks.

I also noticed your fstab has ‘defaults’ under options, it should be ‘sw’ instead. It is the default debian/ubuntu option for swap. ‘defaults’ is a great option for your userspace filesystem, but not ideal for swap.

/swapfile none swap sw 0 0

I have a suggestion for a neater way (IMO) of configuring the VM subsystem variables to persist after rebooting.

In addition to the /etc/sysctl.conf configuration file mentioned in the tutorial, all files in the directory /etc/sysctl.d are parsed in sequence. The files in this directory can be used to set system, package and user-defined variables; each typically covers a quite specific subsystem, containing only one or two parameters (have a look at the existing files in the directory and you’ll see what I mean). [1]

My suggestion is to place the new VM settings in this directory, with the benefits being that, as well as the original configuration file remaining intact, the new settings are less likely to be affected by system upgrades. Also, reverting to the default settings should simply a matter of deleting the files.

More information is available in /etc/sysctl.d/README, which I’ve quoted here because it succinctly explains the expected file naming scheme:

This directory contains settings similar to those found in /etc/sysctl.conf.
In general, files in the 10-*.conf range come from the procps package and
serve as system defaults.  Other packages install their files in the
30-*.conf range, to override system defaults.  End-users can use 60-*.conf
and above, or use /etc/sysctl.conf directly, which overrides anything in
this directory.

Based on this scheme, the file for configuring swappiness could be called /etc/sysctl.d/60-vm-swappiness.conf. Its contents should simply be the single configuration line described in the tutorial (comments explaining the new setting are always a good idea though):

# Custom swappiness setting as recommended in DO tutorial:
# https://www.digitalocean.com/community/tutorials/how-to-add-swap-on-ubuntu-14-04

Hopefully you get the idea and can extend this to the vfs_cache_pressure setting.

As hinted in the README, it is not necessary to use this technique—editing the main config file will work perfectly well for end-user settings—however, some may agree with me that this is a cleaner approach.

Cheers, John

[1] This mechanism reminds me of some used by other Debian/Ubuntu packages, such as the apache2 package, where config files in /etc/apache2/mods-enabled and /etc/apache2/sites-enabled are parsed as part of the processing of the overall Apache config.

Just in case someone wonders… I needed to finish the tutorial even though when I ran sudo swapon -s it did not show a swapfile being used. I made the swap file permanent then shutdown/rebooted the vps. Only then did sudo swapon -s work. Just in case.

MySQL was crashing on my 512MB droplet so I followed this guide hoping for a fix. Now my droplet is very slow, and my site won’t even load? :(

Hey, that was great documentation and helpful, but this doc has some raw HTML code <pre>, etc. Can you please edit the docs correctly and update them? So it will be easy to look into the expected outputs.

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Awesome, thanks so much!

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