I have a physical machine with 24 GB RAM hosting a few VMs using libvirt-qemu.

When creating VMs, I assign a lot of memory and no swap, so that the total of assigned memory can be greater than the physical memory on the host, and the swap is managed globally at host level. I found this advice on the Internet and it makes sense to me.

I recently found out we have memory issues and before adding physical memory to the machine, I launched htop in the host and the guests, and there's something I don't quite understand.


  • Guest 1

    • Total: 16G
    • Used: 2.5G
    • Used + Cache: 13G
  • Guest 2

    • Total: 16G
    • Used: 1.8G
    • Used + Cache: 3.6G
  • Guest 3

    • Total: 10G
    • Used: 0.5G
    • Used + Cache: 1G
  • ... (ignoring a few smaller guests)


  • Total: 23.5G
  • Used: 23.2G
  • Used + Cache: 23.5G
  • Swap total: 18.6G
  • Used: 12.5G

List of processes on host (I only copied guest 1, 2 and 3 in numerical order):

  PID USER      PRI  NI  VIRT   RES   SHR S CPU% MEM%   TIME+  Command
 2212 libvirt-q  20   0 21.3G  9.6G  3476 S 118. 41.0    1867h qemu-system-x86_64 -enable-kvm -name guest=guest_1 ...
 2391 libvirt-q  20   0 21.2G 2455M  1020 S  4.0 10.2 56h49:10 qemu-system-x86_64 -enable-kvm -name guest=guest_2 ...
40694 libvirt-q  20   0 14.7G 7545M  1668 S  1.3 31.4 94h35:35 qemu-system-x86_64 -enable-kvm -name guest=guest_3 ...

What I'm trying to understand is how come Guest 1 currently uses 2.5G but corresponding qemu processes uses 9.6G physical RAM on the host.

All machines are Debian, if that matters. Host is debian Stratch and guests are Stretch and Jessie.


What I'm trying to understand is how come Guest 1 currently uses 2.5G but corresponding qemu processes uses 9.6G physical RAM on the host.

According the data you posted higher up, your guest 1 is using 13G of the memory allocated to it by the host (split between allocations for processes & allocations for cache). Your host only shows 9.6 G resident so some of that 13GB has been pushed out to swap I presume.

  • You're right. I overlooked the cache issue. I guess the RAM over-allocation policy I use when creating the VMs is flawed as the host only sees memory usage without used/cache discrimination. – Jérôme Feb 19 '19 at 13:38
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    When QEMU gives a guest 10 GB of RAM, this is not allocated from the host immediately in a default configuration, it is merely mapped into the address space, so host side resident RAM is initially quite small. As the guest OS touches memory pages, they get faulted in on the host and QEMU's resident memory allocation thus grows. This is a one-way process though - when the guest OS stops using a memory page, nothing will "un-fault" the memory page in the host. IOW, QEMU is using 7.5 GB for guest 3, because at some point in the past the guest OS has really used 7.5 GB. – DanielB Feb 19 '19 at 14:07
  • 1
    The host will get the RAM back after a peak in so much as it is free to push that pages of RAM out to swap when untouched. The host cannot simply discard the pages because it does not know that they are not used - the guest might have data in them. All the host can tell is that a page hasn't been accessed for N length of time. – DanielB Feb 19 '19 at 17:12
  • 1
    If overcommitting you must have sufficient RAM+swap space combined for the worst case usage pattern. Bear in mind QEMU uses RAM beyond that which is allocated for the guest memory. eg for VNC/SPICE framebuffers, for BIOS regions, for general I/O handling and more. So you should account for at least another 300-500 MB per guest on top to be safe against OOM. If swapping is not acceptable for your performance requirements then it is advisable to not overcommit RAM at all. – DanielB Feb 19 '19 at 17:14
  • 1
    Fundamentally the problem you're facing is that the guest RAM usage is a blackbox from the host OS pov. There have been proposals to define mechanisms for cooperation between guests & hosts wrt to page cache in particular, but nothing has really come to fruition. – DanielB Feb 19 '19 at 17:37

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