OOM relation to vm.swappiness=0 in new kernel

I have recently been involved in diagnosing the reasons behind OOM invocation that would kill the MySQL server process. Of course these servers were primarily running MySQL. As such the MySQL server process was the one with the largest amount of memory allocated.

But the strange thing was that in all the cases, there was no swapping activity seen and there were enough pages in the page cache. Ironically all of these servers were CentOS 6.4 running kernel version 2.6.32-358. Another commonality was the fact that vm.swappiness was set to 0. This is a pretty much standard practice and one that is applied on nearly every server that runs MySQL.

Looking into this further I realized that there was a change introduced in kernel 3.5-rc1 that altered the swapping behavior when “vm.swappiness=0”.

Below is the description of the commit that changed “vm.swappiness=0” behavior, together with the diff:

This change was merged into the RHEL kernel 2.6.32-303:

This obviously changed the way we think about “vm.swappiness=0”. Previously, setting this to 0 was thought to reduce the tendency to swap userland processes but not disable that completely. As such it was expected to see little swapping instead of OOM.

This applies to all RHEL/CentOS kernels > 2.6.32-303 and to other distributions that provide newer kernels such as Debian and Ubuntu. Or any other distribution where this change has been backported as in RHEL.

Let me share with you memory zones related statistics that were logged to the system log from one of the OOM event.