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Linux's OOM killer

Some days ago I was wondering how Linux decides which process to kill when free memory is running low. (Spoiler: heuristics!)

I was a bit scared to peek into the Kernel’s source code, but as it turns out, this particular code is not extremely difficult to grasp :). The code is well documented and clean.

The code that we are most interested in is located in linux/mm/oom_kill.c.

It all starts with the pagefault_out_of_memory function, which is called when the pagefault handler is out of memory, as described in the comments.

In case no other OOM task is being run, out_of_memory is called, and it does a bunch of stuff. It checks some conditions, such as if the OOM killer is disabled, and if some memory has been recently freed. In the case that the current process has a pending SIGKILL or it’s on its way to exit, this process is killed. After some more checks related to NUMA, it calls select_bad_process, and kills the process that it selects. If no process is selected, an OOM panic is called.

select_bad_process iterates over all processes and for each of them, calls oom_evaluate_task. The most interesting cases IMO, are:

  • In case the task is marked as ‘unkillable’[1], it is skipped.
  • If the task is grabbing lots of memory and has been marked to be killed first, it is selected.

After a couple of other test conditions, the heuristics are computed in the oom_badness function. The process that will be killed would be the one with the biggest score. In case that this process’ score is lower than the maximum one, it is skipped.

Finally, we arrive at the heuristics! A score of 0 is given in the following conditions:

  • again, if the task is unkillable[1].
  • if the memory management struct field of the process or any of its threads is nonexistent
  • if the process is in the middle of a vfork

Then, the base points are computed with this formula, which renders a score that is proportional to the RAM and swap usage, among other things.

If the process is a privileged one, its score is decreased.

Then, the amount of points is added with oom_score_adj (which is normalised), which is a user defined variable used to tune the score the process will have.

Lastly, the points are returned.

In conclusion

In low memory situations, Linux tries to kill processes that are consuming lots of memory, were not started as a superuser, are not kernel threads, and are not in the middle of some operations such as vfork, among others.


As usually, I’m not an expert at all in the subject. I was just really curious how this works in reality :). Shall you find some error, feel free to let me know!

EDIT: oom_score_adj comment and link to the proc manpages added.