zram

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zram (previously called compcache) is a Linux kernel feature and userspace tools for creating compressible RAM-based block devices. It has been included as a module of the mainline Linux kernel since version 3.14. Starting with kernel version 3.15, zram supports multiple compression streams and the ability to change the compression algorithms without a system restart.

The zram kernel module enables support for creating compressed block devices in RAM. These block devices can then be used for swap or general purpose RAM disks. Popular uses for it on Gentoo are to extend the available amount of RAM to processes (swap space), virtualize /tmp, and /var/tmp/portage - which is Portage's temporary directory used for software compilation.

The RAM used for the block device is dynamically obtained and released up to its predefined uncompressed maximum size. The way it extends the amount of available RAM to a system is by using a portion of the RAM as compressed swap. It can therefore hold more pages of memory in the compressed swap than the amount of actual memory used.

Typically it compresses to a 3:1 ratio. So, 1 GiB of swap uses only 333 MiB of RAM on average. The compression ratio including memory used for disk overhead varies depending on the percent of maximum space utilized. This may typically vary from 1.5:1 for a 1.5 GiB disk with only 5% space used, to over 3:1 when nearly full. It also is much faster at swapping pages than typical speeds for hard disk swap.

To be more memory efficient, zram offers the possibility to configure a backing store. The backing store would store blocks that are not compressible and blocks that are not accessed in a while.

Combining zram with a correctly tuned Portage configuration should keep a desktop system running in a responsive manner, even during intensive software compilation.

Caveats

Prior to kernel 3.15, each zram device contains its own compression buffer, memory pools, and other metadata as well as per-device locks. This can become a serious bottleneck for multi-core machines. To work around this problem, zram is capable of initializing multiple devices. For this reason, the recommended amount of devices for swap is 1 per CPU core for kernels prior to 3.15.

Another caveat for systems with limited memory, non swap use can reduce the amount of available memory to run applications.

When using this with a really fast SSD (e.g. Samsung 840 Pro), avoid setting rc_parallel=YES in /etc/rc.conf. Depending on the size of the zram partitions and the speed of the RAM, some swap partitions and filesystems might not be ready when the swap and localmount services are started.

In such case, if parallel must be used, consider removing these services from runlevel boot and adding them to default instead.

Enabling zram support in kernel

Enable the following options are needed in the kernel's configuration file:

KERNEL CONFIG_ZSMALLOC, CONFIG_ZSMALLOC_STAT, CONFIG_ZRAM, CONFIG_ZRAM_WRITEBACK, CONFIG_ZRAM_MEMORY_TRACKING
Device Drivers  --->
    [*] Block devices --->
        <M> Compressed RAM block device support
        [*]     Write back incompressible or idle page to backing device
        [*]     Track zRam block status

It is recommended that zram be built as a loadable module. This allows changing number of zram devices without rebooting, by deactivating zram devices and re-loading module with new parameters. If zram is built-in, then the number of devices can only be changed at boot time by using the kernel boot parameter zram.num_devices=#.

In order to use the LZ4 compression algorithm, enable it in kernel config:

KERNEL
Cryptographic API --->
    Compression --->
        <*> LZ4 compression algorithm

Initialization

Using zram-init service

By far the easiest method of utilizing zram disk(s) is by using Martin Väth's zram-init script.

Note, that version 2.7 is fully compatible with kernels < 3.15. If version >= 3.0 is used, the maxs (maximum concurrent streams) and algo (compression algorithm selection) is only functional for kernels >= 3.15.

root #emerge --ask sys-block/zram-init

OpenRC

Edit the /etc/conf.d/zram-init file and create/configure the desired zram devices. There are lots of comments/instructions in the file. So proceed with editing and be sure to save it when the appropriate modifications have been made.

Note
# For multicore systems, set maxs equal to the number of cores. When using old kernel (< 3.15), configure separate swap devices per core.
  1. Set priority of hard drive swap to low, e.g. via /etc/fstab.

An example configuration:

FILE /etc/conf.d/zram-init
load_on_start="yes"
unload_on_stop="yes"
num_devices="3"

type0="swap"
flag0=
size0="4096"
maxs0=2
algo0=lz4

type1="/tmp"
flag1="ext4"
opts1="noatime"
mode1=777
size1="1024"
labl1="zram-tmp"

type2=/var/tmp/portage
flag2=ext4
opts2="noatime"
size2=8192
algo2=zstd
owgr2="portage:portage"
mode2=775
labl2=zram-var-tmp-portage
back2=/dev/mapper/zram-nvme0n1p4
icmp2=y
idle2=600

This example creates three zram devices:

  • A 4GB swap device, using the lz4 compression algorithm. Do not forget to enable the new swap device with low priority in /etc/fstab.
  • A 1GB device mounted at /tmp. It is formatted with the ext4 filesystem with mount options noatime and data=writeback for optimal performance.
  • An 8GB device mounted at /var/tmp/portage with a backing store located at the /dev/mapper/zram-nvme0n1p4 partition for incompressible blocks and for blocks that have not been accessed for 10 minutes. It changes the ownership to user and group portage.


Then, add the init script to the desired runlevel, usually boot, and start the service:

root #rc-config add zram-init boot
root #/etc/init.d/zram-init start

In this case the boot runlevel is preferable to the default runlevel because zram is providing temporary storage filesystems at /tmp or /var/tmp which are prerequisites for other services which will start during the default runlevel.

Warning
Be sure to monitor closely for any issues on the computer(s) for a few days when starting in the boot runlevel whilst using /tmp in zram. Additional configuration of services (utilizing rc_need or rc_want in their respective conf.d files) using a path of zram may be required.

If you had changed the config, don't need reboot just restart zram-init:

root #/etc/init.d/zram-init restart

systemd

The sys-block/zram-init package provides systemd units with self explained names:

  • zram_btrfs.service
  • zram_swap.service
  • zram_tmp.service
  • zram_var_tmp.service

These units feature default zram device settings which need to be adjusted first.

Service drop in override example
The information in this section is probably outdated. You can help the Gentoo community by verifying and updating this section.

For example, to enable the /var/tmp directory (which includes Portage's temporary directory (/var/tmp/portage) used for compiling packages) in zram it is first required to override the defaults. This can be done using the systemctl edit utility:

root #systemctl edit zram_var_tmp.service
Note
The empty ExecStart= clears the list of ExecStart= commands obtained from the unit being overridden.
FILE /etc/systemd/system/zram_var_tmp.service.d/override.confEdited service drop-in
### Editing /etc/systemd/system/zram_var_tmp.service.d/override.conf
### Anything between here and the comment below will become the new contents of the file

[Service]
ExecStart=
ExecStart=/sbin/zram-init -d2 -s2 -alz4 -text4 -orelatime -m1777 -Lvar_tmp_dir 16384 /var/tmp
Important
The file size should be adjusted to a size large enough to hold the working directories for the packages that will be compiled. Consider adjusting the default value from 2048 to at least 16384 (16GiB). See the dedicated article for estimates of uncompressed space necessary for successful compilation.

After this configuration is finalized, the service can be enabled and activated via:

root #systemctl enable --now zram_var_tmp.service
Created symlink /etc/systemd/system/local-fs-pre.target.wants/zram_var_tmp.service → /etc/systemd/system/zram_var_tmp.service.
zram_var_tmp_portage.service example

It appears the .service file examples are no longer included with the zram-init package, therefore this example should aid in systems that would benefit from exclusively compressing the /var/tmp/portage directory.

FILE /etc/systemd/system/zram_var_tmp_portage.service64 GiB of zstd compressed space example
# SPDX-License-Identifier: GPL-2.0-only
[Unit]
Description=Mount /var/tmp/portage as zram
DefaultDependencies=no
Conflicts=umount.target
Before=local-fs.target umount.target

[Service]
Type=oneshot
RemainAfterExit=true

# Adapt the maximal size (in MB) and other options like maximal number of
# parallel streams (-s) as necessary.
# Make sure to avoid collision of devices (-d...) with
# zram_swap.service and zram_tmp.service and
# that num_devices in modprobe.d/zram.conf contains the maximal used number + 1

# 64GiB of zstd compressed space
ExecStart=/sbin/zram-init -d2 -s3 -azstd -text4 -orelatime -m1777 -Lvar_tmp_portage_dir 65536 /var/tmp/portage
ExecStop=/sbin/zram-init -d2 0 /var/tmp/portage

[Install]
WantedBy=local-fs-pre.target

After this configuration is finalized, the service can be enabled and activated via:

root #systemctl enable --now zram_var_tmp_portage.service
Created symlink /etc/systemd/system/local-fs-pre.target.wants/zram_var_tmp_portage.service → /etc/systemd/system/zram_var_tmp_portage.service.
Using systemd zramctl

Zramctl is a part of the systemd suit and can be used for creating zram. Below is an example of creating a 4G zram device using zramctl with lz4 compression. For making a directory the same methods apply.

root #modprobe zram
root #zramctl /dev/zram0 --size 4G --algorithm lz4
root #mkswap /dev/zram0
root #swapon /dev/zram0

Using OpenRC

For manual creation create two /etc/local.d files: zram.start and zram.stop. OpenRC will run these during the appropriate as part of service run process when booting or changing run levels.

An example:

  • Specs: 4 cpu cores, 4G RAM total
  • Configure 6G zram swap and activate.
  • Estimated maximum ram used 2G @ 3:1 compression ratio.
FILE /etc/local.d/zram.start
#!/bin/bash

modprobe zram

SIZE=6144
echo $(($SIZE*1024*1024)) > /sys/block/zram0/disksize

mkswap /dev/zram0

swapon /dev/zram0 -p 10
FILE /etc/local.d/zram.stop
#!/bin/bash

swapoff /dev/zram0

echo 1 > /sys/block/zram0/reset

modprobe -r zram
Note
Disksize may also be specified using mem suffixes (K, M, G): echo 6144M > /sys/block/zram0/disksize

For manual installation of zram mounted in /var/tmp/portage, the following script can be used to create 4G of zram with lzo compression:

CODE
#!/bin/bash

modprobe zram

echo 4G > /sys/block/zram0/disksize
echo lzo > /sys/block/zram0/comp_algorithm
mkfs.ext4 /dev/zram0
mount /dev/zram0 /var/temp/portage
chown -R portage:portage /var/temp/portage

Using systemd zram-generator

systemd provides an external package for configuring zram devices. To install it, run:

root #emerge --ask sys-apps/zram-generator

For the simplest zram swap configuration, simply define an empty zram device section in the config:

root #echo '[zram0]' > /etc/systemd/zram-generator.conf

This will configure a zram swap device 4GB in size or half the RAM, whichever is smaller, to start on early boot. To start it immediately, run:

root #systemctl daemon-reload
root #systemctl start dev-zram0.swap

For more complex or non-swap configurations, see zram-generator's README.

Using udev

Other possibility is to use existing configuration files - this option works on vanilla Gentoo without need to install additional software, also useful if using systemd instead of OpenRC. The first example can be implemented using:

FILE /etc/udev/rules.d/10-zram.rules
KERNEL=="zram0", SUBSYSTEM=="block", DRIVER=="", ACTION=="add", ATTR{disksize}=="0", ATTR{disksize}="512M", RUN+="/sbin/mkswap $env{DEVNAME}"
KERNEL=="zram1", SUBSYSTEM=="block", DRIVER=="", ACTION=="add", ATTR{disksize}=="0", ATTR{disksize}="512M", RUN+="/sbin/mkswap $env{DEVNAME}"
KERNEL=="zram2", SUBSYSTEM=="block", DRIVER=="", ACTION=="add", ATTR{disksize}=="0", ATTR{disksize}="512M", RUN+="/sbin/mkfs.ext4 $env{DEVNAME}"
# if you want lz4 support (since kernel 3.15) and without ext4 journaling 
# KERNEL=="zram2", SUBSYSTEM=="block", DRIVER=="", ACTION=="add", ATTR{initstate}=="0", ATTR{comp_algorithm}="lz4", ATTR{disksize}="512M", RUN+="/sbin/mkfs.ext4 -O ^has_journal -L $name $env{DEVNAME}"
FILE /etc/fstab
/dev/zram0              swap                    swap            pri=16383                                                       0 0
/dev/zram1              swap                    swap            pri=16383                                                       0 0
/dev/zram2              /tmp                    ext4            defaults                                                        0 0
FILE /etc/modprobe.d/zram.conf
options zram num_devices=3

Additionally, the zramctl utility is part of sys-apps/util-linux and can be used to configure zram devices. See man zramctl for examples of usage.

systemd

If using systemd with this method, ensure that the zram module is loaded by systemd. The simplest way to achieve that is to include a file in /etc/modules-load.d/ like this one:

FILE /etc/modules-load.d/zram.conf
zram

Checking that zram is used

Check if zram is mounted as swap:

user $grep zram /proc/swaps
/dev/zram0                              partition       2097148 2816    16383

Check if zram is mounted as directories:

user $grep zram /proc/mounts
/dev/zram1 /var/tmp/portage ext4 rw,nosuid,nodev,block_validity,discard,delalloc,barrier,user_xattr,acl 0 0

Troubleshooting

OpenRC: zram already mounted or mount point busy

Problem: "* Mounting local filesystems ... " doesn't wait for mkfs.ext4 to finish, thus zram will fail to mount at boot time.

Solution: Set rc_need="udev-settle" in /etc/conf.d/localmount.

This situation occurs when using mkfs.ext4 in /etc/udev/rules.d/10-zram.rules. It is caused by mkfs.ext4 being not finished running when /etc/init.d/localmount runs (even with rc_parallel="NO" in /etc/rc.conf) and thus causes mount with fail with mount: /tmp: /dev/zram1 already mounted or mount point busy.

See also

  • Portage TMPDIR on tmpfs — Building packages in tmpfs both speeds up emerge times and reduces HDD/SSD wear.
  • Zswap — a lightweight compressed cache for swap pages.

External resources

  • zram in official kernel documentation.