Tune Linux Kernel Parameters For PostgreSQL Optimization

For optimum performance, a PostgreSQL database depends on the operating system parameters being defined correctly. Poorly configured OS kernel parameters can cause degradation in database server performance. Therefore, it is imperative that these parameters are configured according to the database server and its workload. In this post, we will discuss some important Linux kernel parameters that can affect database server performance and how these should be tuned.


SHMMAX is a kernel parameter used to define the maximum size of a single shared memory segment a Linux process can allocate. Until version 9.2, PostgreSQL uses System V (SysV) that requires SHMMAX setting. After 9.2, PostgreSQL switched to POSIX shared memory. So now it requires fewer bytes of System V shared memory.

Prior to version 9.3 SHMMAX was the most important kernel parameter. The value of SHMMAX is in bytes.

Similarly, SHMALL is another kernel parameter used to define system-wide total amount of shared memory pages. To view the current values for SHMMAX, SHMALL or SHMMIN, use the ipcs command.

PostgreSQL uses System V IPC to allocate shared memory. This parameter is one of the most important kernel parameters. Whenever you get following error messages, it means that you have an older version PostgreSQL and you have a very low SHMMAX value. Users are expected to adjust and increase the value according to the shared memory they are going to use.

Possible misconfiguration errors

If SHMMAX is misconfigured, you can get an error when trying to initialize a PostgreSQL cluster using the initdb command.

Similarly, you can get an error when starting the PostgreSQL server using the pg_ctl command.

Be aware of differing definitions

The definition of the SHMMAX/SHMALL parameters is slightly different between Linux and MacOS X. These are the definitions:

  • Linux: kernel.shmmax, kernel.shmall
  • MacOS X: kern.sysv.shmmax, kern.sysv.shmall

The sysctl command can be used to change the value temporarily. To permanently set the value, add an entry into /etc/sysctl.conf. The details are given below.

Remember: to make the change permanent add these values in /etc/sysctl.conf 

Huge Pages

Linux, by default, uses 4K memory pages, BSD has Super Pages, whereas Windows has Large Pages. A page is a chunk of RAM that is allocated to a process. A process may own more than one page depending on its memory requirements. The more memory a process needs the more pages that are allocated to it. The OS maintains a table of page allocation to processes. The smaller the page size, the bigger the table, the more time required to look up a page in that page table. Therefore, huge pages make it possible to use a large amount of memory with reduced overheads; fewer page lookups, fewer page faults, faster read/write operations through larger buffers. This results in improved performance.

PostgreSQL has support for bigger pages on Linux only. By default, Linux uses 4K of memory pages, so in cases where there are too many memory operations, there is a need to set bigger pages. Performance gains have been observed by using huge pages with sizes 2 MB and up to 1 GB. The size of Huge Page can be set boot time. You can easily check the huge page settings and utilization on your Linux box using cat /proc/meminfo | grep -i huge command.

In this example, although huge page size is set at 2,048 (2 MB), the total number of huge pages has a value of 0. which signifies that huge pages are disabled.

Script to quantify Huge Pages

This is a simple script which returns the number of Huge Pages required. Execute the script on your Linux box while your PostgreSQL is running. Ensure that $PGDATA environment variable is set to PostgreSQL’s data directory.

The output of the script looks like this: