VM Swap File location considerations

When a VM is powered on, a .vswp (Virtual Machine swap) file is created (note there is also a vmx swap file which gets created in the same location as the VM, this is seperate from this discussion, but is described here), its size is the memory allocation for the VM less any reservation configured. If there is not sufficient space in the configured swap file location to create this file then the VM will not power on. The use of this file for memory pages is a last resort, and will be considerably slower than using normal memory, even if this is compressed or shared. It will always be possible that you get in a situation where memory contention is occurring, and that the use of the swap file begins, to prepare for this a system design should consider the location of swap files for VMs. Below I discuss some of the considerations which should be made when placing a VM swap file:

  • Default location for swap file is to store it in the same datastore as the VM, this presents the following problems:
    • Performance – it is unlikely that the datastore the VM sits in is on top tier storage, or limited to a single VM. This means that the difference in speed between memory IO and the swapping IO once contention occurs will be great, and that the additional IO this swapping produces could well impact other workloads on the datastore. If there are multiple VMs sharing this datastore, and all running on the host with memory contention issues, then this will be further compounded and could see the datastore performance plummet
    • Capacity – inevitably, administrators will keep chucking workloads into a datastore, and unless Storage DRS with datastore clusters is being used, or the administrators are pro-active in balancing storage workloads, there will come a time when a VM will not power up due to insufficient space to create the .vswp file. This is particularly likely after a change to the VM configuration such as adding more disk or memory

VM swap file location can be changed either at the cluster, or host level. When choosing to move this from the default, the following should be considered:

  • Place swap files on the fastest storage possible – if you can place this on flash storage then fantastic, this will not be as quick as paging to/from memory, but it will be many magnitudes better than placing it on spinning disk
  • Place swap files as close to the host as possible – the latency incurred by traversing your SAN/IP network to get to shared storage will all impair guest performance when swapping occurs. Be aware that although the default location can be changed to host local storage (which will probably give the best performance of the host has internal flash storage), this will impair vMotion performance massively, as the entire .vswp file would need to be copied from the source host to the destination host’s disk during the vMotion activity
  • Do not place the .vswp on replicated storage – as with location selection for guest OS swap files, there is no point on placing the file on replicated storage; if the VM is reset or powered off then this file is deleted. If your VMs are on storage which is replicated as part of its standard capability then the .vswp files should definitely be located elsewhere

 

In terms of configuring the location, as stated above, this is set at either a VM, host or cluster level, if this is inconsistent across hosts in a cluster then again this may impact vMotion times as the VM migrates from a host with one configured location to another with a different location. As with most settings which can be made at the cluster level, consistency should be maintained across the cluster unless this is not possible. Bear in mind though, that having vswp consistent across the cluster, and defined to be a single datastore, could lead to high IOPS on this datastore should cluster wide memory contention occur., especially with large clusters.

As stated at the beginning of this article, swap files are sized based on VM memory allocation less reservations size. By right sizing VMs, and utilising reservations, swap file sizes, and usage, can be kept to a minimum, and these planning considerations should take precedence over all others. Hopefully memory contention will never be so bad that swap will be required, but when the day does come it is good to be prepared, by making informed, and reasoned decisions early on.

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