We can see if the system has any configured swap by using swapon, a general-purpose swap utility. With the -s flag, swapon will display a summary of swap usage and availability on our storage device:

swapon -s

If nothing is returned by the command, then the summary was empty and no swap file exists.

Another way of checking for swap space is with the free utility, which shows us the system’s overall memory usage. We can see our current memory and swap usage (in megabytes) by typing:

free -m
total used free shared buffers cached Mem: 3953 315 3637 8 11 107 -/+ buffers/cache: 196 3756 Swap: 0 0 4095

As you can see, our total swap space in the system is 0. This matches what we saw with swapon.

Create a Swap File

Now that we know our available storage space, we can go about creating a swap file within our filesystem. We will create a file called swapfile in our root (/) directory, though you can name the file something else if you prefer. The file must allocate the amount of space that we want for our swap file, and it should be created in one contiguous block.

The best way to do this is to use the dd utility. This command will create a 4 gigabyte file:

sudo dd if=/dev/zero of=/swapfile count=4096 bs=1MiB

After entering your password to authorize sudo privileges, the swap file will be created. This can take a few moments, then the prompt will be returned to you. We can verify that the correct amount of space was reserved for swap by using ls:

ls -lh /swapfile
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 4.0G Oct 30 11:00 /swapfile

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

Enable a 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, we should adjust the permissions on our swap file so that it isn’t readable by anyone besides the root account. Allowing other users to read or write to this file would be a huge security risk. We can lock down the permissions with chmod:

sudo chmod 600 /swapfile

This will restrict both read and write permissions to the root account only. We can verify that the swap file has the correct permissions by using ls -lh again:

ls -lh /swapfile
-rw------- 1 root root 4.0G Oct 30 11:00 /swapfile

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

sudo mkswap /swapfile
Setting up swapspace version 1, size = 4194300 KiB no label, UUID=b99230bb-21af-47bc-8c37-de41129c39bf

Our swap file is now ready to be used as a swap space. We can begin using it by typing:

sudo swapon /swapfile

To verify that the procedure was successful, we can check whether our system reports swap space now:

swapon -s
Filename Type Size Used Priority /swapfile file 4194300 0 -1

This output confirms that we have a new swap file. We can use the free utility again to corroborate our findings:

free -m
total used free shared buffers cached Mem: 3953 315 3637 8 11 107 -/+ buffers/cache: 196 3756 Swap: 4095 0 4095

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

Make the Swap File Permanent

Our swap file is enabled at the moment, but when we reboot, the server will not automatically enable the file for use. We can change that by modifying the fstab file, which is a table that manages filesystems and partitions.

Edit the file with sudo 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 swap file that you created:

/swapfile swap swap sw 0 0

When you are finished adding the line, you can save and close the file. The server will check this file on each bootup, so the swap file will be ready for use from now on.

Tweak Your Swap Settings (Optional)

There are a few options that you can configure that will have an impact on your system’s performance when dealing with swap. These configurations are optional in most cases, and the changes that you make will depend on your application needs and your personal preference.

Swappiness

The swappiness parameter determines how often your system swaps data out of memory to the swap space. This is a value between 0 and 100 that represents the percentage of memory usage that will trigger the use of swap.

With values close to zero, the system will not swap data to the drive unless absolutely necessary. Remember, interactions with the swap file are “expensive” in that they are a lot slower than interactions with memory, and this difference in read and write speed can cause a significant reduction in an application’s performance. Telling the system not to rely on the swap as 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 memory free. Depending on your applications’ memory profile, or what you are using your server for, this might be the better choice in some cases.

We can see the current swappiness value by reading the swappiness configuration file:

cat /proc/sys/vm/swappiness
30

CentOS 7 defaults to a swappiness setting of 30, which is a fair middle ground for most desktops and local servers. 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. To make the setting persist between reboots, we can add the outputted line to our sysctl configuration file:

sudo nano /etc/sysctl.conf

Add your swappiness setting to the bottom of the file:

vm.swappiness = 10

When you are finished adding the line, you can save and close the file. The server will now automatically set the swappiness to the value you declared on each bootup.

Cache Pressure

Another related value that you might want to modify is the vfs_cache_pressure. This setting affects the storage of special filesystem metadata entries. Constantly reading and refreshing this information is generally very costly, so storing it on the cache for longer is excellent for your system’s performance.

You can see the current value of this cache pressure by querying the proc filesystem again:

cat /proc/sys/vm/vfs_cache_pressure
100

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

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

When you are finished adding the line, you can save and close the file. The server will now automatically set the cache pressure to the value you declared on each bootup.

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