Ludwig Huang

mmap internals & why it sucks in DBMS

DBMS always knows more than the OS.

In this article, I will show you how mmap works in the OS (Operating System) and why it is 💩 in DBMS (Database Management System). I will not teach you how to use mmap or how is the virtual memory organized, so it is for people who know the OS.

Let's go to the business.

mmap internals

mmap is somehow easy to implement. Take a look at xv6: mmap, and you can even do it yourself (although a toy version). Anyway, let's start it.

Memory-mapped (mmap) file I/O is an OS-provided feature that maps the contents of a file on secondary storage into a program’s address space. We programmers can use mmap to do many things: garbage collection, shared memory, persistent storage, etc.

Behind all of those, it is the most important that mmap allows us to read/write files via a direct pointer to memory [in user space] (of course, illusion). There is only one data copy from disk to memory. But while using file I/O read/write, we need two times: disk to file system block cache [in kernel space] & block cache to memory [in user space]. Furthermore, mmap circumvents the cost of explicit read/write system calls.

Hence, you can regard mmap as a "bridge" between OS kernel and user space, while read/write as the "boat" transporting the data back and forth. The metaphor is not subtle, so I will tell you how it works in a real OS.

Assume we have a file "cidr.db", we will use mmap to read/write the file:

  1. A user program calls mmap and gets a pointer to the VMA (Virtual Memory Area).
    For the user program, the pointer is in its virtual memory and is the same as any other pointer.
  2. In this segment, mmap only finds big enough virtual memory space and declares that VMA belongs to it.
    is a system call, so the work is done in kernel space. OS initializes VMA struct for user process instead of allocating physical memory, or copying any data.
  3. The user program attempts to write data to the file using the pointer.
  4. CPU attempts to retrieve the page and write to physical memory.
    CPU tells MMU (Memory Management Unit) to find the physical address in the page table using a virtual address. But there is no such physical address, so it causes a page fault trap for OS.
  5. OS knows it is a page fault and calls the page fault handler to deal with it.
    The handler copies the disk block to memory.
  6. The handler also adds a mapping to the user page table.
  7. CPU adds an entry in its TLB (Translation Lookaside Buffer) to accelerate future accesses.
  8. Redo 4 to write the data to memory
  9. The user program finally calls munmap to write the dirty page for persistence or just throw everything.
how mmap accesses a file

I have not covered many details, because it is very complex in real engineering.

In summary, mmap is almost the "best" tool to read/write files. But there are many shortcomings of mmap, which make it 💩 in DBMS.

Why mmap sucks in DBMS?

mmap and DBMS are like coffee and spicy food: an unfortunate combination that becomes obvious after the fact.

On the surface, mmap seems efficient and easy to handle. It reduces data copy, after all. On the other hand, the DBMS no longer needs to manage its own buffer pool. Therefore, DBMS developers are free to focus on other aspects of the system. Is this really the case?

After we dive into the water, the dark side of mmap is exposed. There are four problems with mmap: Transactional Safety, I/O Stalls, Error Handling, and Performance Issues. I will briefly introduce them.

  • Transactional Safety: OS dominates when to flush a dirty page.
    When a flush occurs, OS never notifies anyone. It is a devastating blow to the DBMS transaction control. DBMSs who use mmap employ some complex protocols for this issue. (For further information, read the reference)
  • I/O Stalls: OS dominates when to evict a page from memory.
    If OS evicts an upcoming page, the SQL query will encounter a blocking page fault. Furthermore, mmap does not support asynchronous reads, which also raises the I/O stall. mmap DBMS developers can use mlock or madvise partially mitigate its impact.
  • Error Handling: OS would not validate the page.
    DBMS is responsible to ensure data integrity. When reading a page, buffer pool DBMS validates the page content with whatever approach. But mmap cannot do this.
  • Performance Issues: Better performance, less money.
    has serious bottlenecks that cannot be avoided without an OS-level redesign. Among the three issues below, TLB shootdowns can have a significant performance impact.
    (1) page table contention
    (2) single-threaded page eviction
    (3) TLB shootdowns: If OS evicts a page, it must also remove the page's mapping in all cores' TLBs. Whereas flushing the local TLB is inexpensive, issuing inter-processor interrupts to synchronize remote TLBs can take thousands of cycles.

Some of the problems can be overcome through careful implementation, but some cannot be solved without an OS-level redesign, especially TLB shootdowns.

Using mmap to manage database file I/O is a bad idea: it not only introduces much complexity but also has unsolvable performance limitations.

How to build a DBMS? Use lightweight buffer management techniques for file I/O.


[1] xv6 book: Chapter 4 by MIT PDOS group

[2] xv6 lab: mmap by MIT PDOS group

[3] Virtual Memory Primitives for User Programs by Andrew W. Appel, Kai Li

[4] mmap is 💩 by Andrew Crotty, Viktor Leis, Andy Pavlo

[5] Buffer Pool by CMU 15-445

Published by Tech Blog - Huang Blog.

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