I'm trying to set up a web server on a VPS. My problem is that memory usage of php-cgi processes increases over time even though the website is not receiving any traffic at all. (it is behind a firewall for the time being)

The VPS has 360MB RAM. I'm using Debian Lenny 32bit and its lighttpd and php5-cgi packages. Apart from some config changes (listed below), I'm using the stock setup by Debian.

The website is based on Drupal. Using Drupal's devel module, I can tell that memory usage of PHP scripts is less than 20KB on average, and it never exceeds 8MB.

Here are the relevant parts from the output of ps aux:

www-data 29871  0.0  1.7  54552  6368 ?        Ss   Aug12   0:00 /usr/bin/php-cgi
www-data 29873  0.0  7.4  65808 27468 ?        S    Aug12   0:00 /usr/bin/php-cgi
www-data 29874  0.0  3.7  55808 13736 ?        S    Aug12   0:00 /usr/bin/php-cgi
www-data 29875  0.0  4.3  58040 16204 ?        S    Aug12   0:00 /usr/bin/php-cgi
www-data 29876  0.0  4.4  57444 16288 ?        S    Aug12   0:00 /usr/bin/php-cgi
www-data 29877  0.0  1.7  54552  6368 ?        Ss   Aug12   0:00 /usr/bin/php-cgi
www-data 29879  0.0  9.6  67140 35684 ?        S    Aug12   0:26 /usr/bin/php-cgi
www-data 29880  0.0  6.6  59172 24492 ?        S    Aug12   0:23 /usr/bin/php-cgi
www-data 29881  0.0  7.1  59784 26388 ?        S    Aug12   0:22 /usr/bin/php-cgi
www-data 29882  0.0  7.4  60880 27440 ?        S    Aug12   0:23 /usr/bin/php-cgi
  • Is it normal to have php-cgi this large?
  • Is it possible to estimate php-cgi memory usage based on settings?
  • Any tips for reducing memory consumption of php-cgi processes?

Searching for known memory leaking bugs didn't yield anything relevant. And I'd be surprised if the default Debian packages/config had such an obvious memory leak. Other users on the same host do not have this problem.

What I've done so far is set PHP_FCGI_MAX_REQUESTS to a low value so that php-cgi processes are recycled quickly. When I use ab to simulate high load, this works very well. Processes die quickly before they grow higher than 10MB. However, under low-to-medium load, all processes grow steadily (because of load balancing) and most of them consume 28MB+ simultaneously, putting my VPS at risk of swapping. Please note than even without any sort of traffic, the processes grow steadily.

I can reduce the number of php-cgi processes, but this feels like a workaround more than a fix. I'd be surprised if php-cgi normally grew like this.

Also, summing the total RSS numbers for php-cgi processes gives:

$ ps -C php-cgi -o rss= | awk '{s+=$1}END{print s/1024}'

Yet, free -m gives the following output:

             total       used       free     shared    buffers     cached
Mem:           360        351          8          0         33        190
-/+ buffers/cache:        127        232
Swap:          255          0        255
  • Am I missing something? How come the used memory (without buffers) is lower than the total resident memory of php-cgi processes on the host?

I have the following PHP extensions:

php5-cgi php5-common php5-curl php5-gd php5-mysql php5-xcache

xcache.size is set to 24M. It used to be 32M but reducing it didn't help. xcache.var_size is set to 0. The remaining plugins are using the stock configuration. The xcache admin pages shows that xcache is using less than 1MB.

PHP's memory_limit is set to 32M.

Here is my FastCGI config:

fastcgi.server    = ( ".php" =>
    "bin-path" => "/usr/bin/php-cgi",
    "socket" => "/tmp/php.socket",
    "max-procs" => 2,
    "idle-timeout" => 20,
    "bin-environment" => (
      "PHP_FCGI_CHILDREN" => "4",
      "PHP_FCGI_MAX_REQUESTS" => "1000"
    "bin-copy-environment" => (
      "PATH", "SHELL", "USER"
    "broken-scriptfilename" => "enable" 

I'm using more-or-less the stock lighttpd.conf that ships with Debian.

Please let me know if there is any other data that I can provide.

Any help is appreciated. I've been trying to troubleshoot this for days. I've run out of ideas.

4 Answers 4


Try to lower down var_size. If we had value at 64MB, after a few hours it started to swap a lot, and after next few hours it was completely down. Try to keep original settings at 32M, maybe this should help you a lot - we had the same problem at our travel site Xcache is still a lot of buggy software :(


Setting the max requests is the right idea. That is the way to keep your system RAM from filling up when there is a memory leak.

One thing I suggest you try is switching to apache + mod_php. If that works without leaking memory, then that means your problem was CGI related. If it continues to leak with mod_php, then there is probably a memory leak in the code somewhere.

You said you are using Drupal. Do you have any sort of Drupal modules installed? I doubt that a stable version of Drupal has memory leaks in the core, so problems are most likely to occur in modules and other 3rd party add-ons and customizations.

  • Thanks for your answer. All of the Drupal modules are well-known, and the devel module does not report any memory leaks in Drupal. Furthermore, the memory leak happens even if there are no hits at all. As for trying Apache, I'd leave this as a last resort when I'm out of ideas. Thanks again.
    – John
    Aug 14, 2009 at 8:30
  • I'm having the same issues... How do ya kill the PHP-CGI process when you're done with it? I'm just using the same setup with Wordpress, and it's almost killing my 256mib slice.
    – Kyle
    Apr 9, 2010 at 2:07
  • Use Nginx as it is smaller than both servers and has no memory leaks from PHP. Wordpress and other large sites use it.
    – Xeoncross
    Dec 13, 2010 at 2:53

Many times these kind of troubles are due some op-code cache such as XCache or due memcached PHP extension.


Remove unused libraries from /etc/php5/apache2/conf.d. Probably you don't need pdo.ini and pdo_mysq.ini or mysqli.ini This will save few Mega of Ram

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