Applications like multimedia, windowing systems, scientific computations, engineering simulations, etc. running on workstation clusters (or networks of PCs) require an ever increasing amount of memory, usually more than any single workstation has available. To alleviate the memory shortage problem, an application could use the virtual memory paging provided by the operating system, and have some of its data in main memory and the rest on the disk. Unfortunately, as the disparity between processor and disk speeds becomes ever increasing, the cost of paging to a magnetic disk becomes unacceptable. Faster swap disks would only temporarily remedy the situation, because processor speeds are improving at a much higher rate than disk speeds . Clearly, if paging is going to have reasonable overhead, a new paging device is needed. This device should provide high bandwidth and low latency. Fortunately, a device with these characteristics exists in most distributed systems and it is not used most of the time. It is the collective memory of all computers in the distributed system, hereafter called remote memory.
Remote memory provides high transfer rates which are mainly dictated by the interconnection network. Fortunately, most of the time remote main memory is unused and thus can be exploited by remote memory paging systems. To verify this claim, we profiled the unused memory of the workstations in our lab for the duration of one week: 16 workstations with a total of 800 MBytes of main memory. Figure 1 plots the free memory as a function of the day of the week. We see that for significant periods of time more than 700 Mbytes are unused, especially during the nights, and the weekend. Although during business hours the amount of free memory falls, it is rarely lower than 400 Mbytes!
Architecture and software developments suggest that the use of remote memory for paging purposes is desirable, possible and efficient:
Figure 1: Unused memory in a workstation cluster. The figure plots the idle memory during a typical week in the workstations of our lab: a total of 16 workstations with about 800 Mbytes of total memory. We see that memory usage was at each peak (and thus free memory was scarce) at noon and afternoon of working days. In all times though, more than 300 Mbytes of main memory were unused.
In this paper we show that it is both possible and beneficial to use remote memory as a reliable paging device by building the systems software that transparently transfers operating system pages across workstation memories within a workstation cluster. We describe a pager built as a device driver of the DEC OSF/1 operating system. Our pager is completely portable to any system that runs DEC OSF/1, because we didn't modify the operating system kernel. More important, by running real applications on top of our memory manager, we show that even on top of low bandwidth interconnection networks (like Ethernet), it is efficient to use remote memory as backing store. Our performance results suggest that paging to remote memory over Ethernet, rather than paging to a local disk of comparable bandwidth, results in up to 96% faster execution times for real applications. Moreover, we show that reliability and redundancy comes at no significant extra cost. We describe the implementation and evaluation of several reliability policies that keep some form of redundant information, which enables the application to recover its data in case a workstation in the distributed system crashes. Finally, we use extrapolation to find the performance of paging to remote memory over faster than Ethernet networks like FDDI and ATM. Our extrapolated results suggest that paging over a 100 Mbits/sec interconnection network, reduces paging overhead to less than 17% of the execution time of the application running over such a network. Faster networks will reduce this overhead even more.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows: Section 2 presents the design of a remote memory pager and the issues involved. Section 3 presents the implementation of the pager as a device driver. Section 4 presents our performance results which are very encouraging. Section 5 presents some aspects that we plan to explore as part of our future work. Section 6 presents related work. Finally, section 7 presents our conclusions.