How to Fix Erlang Out of Memory Crashes When Using Mnesia

December 20, 2008 at 9:53 am (erlang) (, , , , , , , )

If you’re getting erlang out of memory crashes when using mnesia, chances are you’re doing it wrong, for various values of it. These out of memory crashes look something like this:

Crash dump was written to: erl_crash.dump
eheap_alloc: Cannot allocate 999999999 bytes of memory (of type "heap")

Possible Causes

  1. You’re doing it wrong
  2. Someone else is doing it wrong
  3. You don’t have enough RAM

While it’s possible that the crash is due to not having enough RAM, or that some other program or process is using too much RAM for itself, chances are it’s your fault.

One of the reasons these crashes can catch you by surprise is that the erlang VM is using a lot more memory than you might think. Erlang is a functional language with single assignment and no shared memory. A major consequence is that when you change a variable or send a message to another process, a new copy of the variable is created. So an operation as simple as dict:update_counter(“foo”, 1, Dict1) consumes twice the memory of Dict1 since Dict1 is copied to create the return value. And anything you do with ets, dets, or mnesia will result in at least 2 copies of every term: 1 copy for your process, and 1 copy for each table. This is because mnesia uses ets and/or dets for storage, which both use 1 process per table. That means every table operation results in a message pass, sending your term to the table or vice-versa. So that’s why erlang may be running out of memory. Here’s how to fix it.

Use Dirty Operations

If you’re doing anything in a transaction, try to figure out how to do it dirty, or at least move as many operations as possible out of the transaction. Mnesia transactions are separate processes with their own temporary ets tables. That means there’s the original term(s) that must be passed in to the transaction or read from other tables, any updated copies that your code creates, copies of terms that are written to the temporary ets table, the final copies of terms that are written to actual table(s) at the end of the transaction, and copies of any terms that are returned from the transaction process. Here’s an example to illustrate:

example() ->
    T = function() ->
        Var1 = mnesia:read(example_table, "foo"),
        Var2 = update(Var2), % a user-defined function to update Var1
        ok = mnesia:write(Var2),
        Var2
    end,
    {atomic, Var2} = mnesia:transaction(T),
    Var2.

First off, we already have a copy of Var1 in example_table. It gets sent to the transaction process when you do mnesia:read, creating a second copy. Var1 is then updated, resulting in Var2, which I’ll assume has the same memory footprint of Var1. So now we have 3 copies. Var2 is then written to a temporary ets table because mnesia:write is called within a transaction, creating a fourth copy. The transaction ends, sending Var2 back to the original process, and also overwriting Var1 with Var2 in example_table. That’s 2 more copies, resulting in a total of 6 copies. Let’s compare that to a dirty operation.

example() ->
    Var1 = mnesia:dirty_read(example_table, "foo"),
    Var2 = update(Var1),
    ok = mnesia:dirty_write(Var2),
    Var2.

Doing it dirty results in only 4 copies: the original Var1 in example_table, the copy sent to your process, the updated Var2, and the copy sent to mnesia to be written. Dirty operations like this will generally have 2/3 the memory footprint of operations done in a transaction.

Reduce Record Size

Figuring out how to reduce your record size by using different data structures can create huge gains by drastically reducing the memory footprint of each operation, and possibly removing the need to use transaction. For example, let’s say you’re storing a large record in mnesia, and using transactions to update it. If the size of the record grows by 1 byte, then each transactional operation like the above will require an additional 5 bytes of memory, or dirty operations will require an additional 3 bytes. For multi-megabyte records, this adds up very quickly. The solution is to figure how to break that record up into many small records. Mnesia can use any term as a key, so for example, if you’re storing a record with a dict in mnesia such as {dict_record, “foo”, Dict}, you can split that up into many records like [{tuple_record, {"foo", Key1}, Val1}]. Each of these small records can be accessed independently, which could eliminate the need to use transactions, or at least drastically reduce the memory footprint of each transaction.

Iterate in Batches

Instead of getting a whole bunch of records from mnesia all at once, using mnesia:dirty_match_object or mnesia:dirty_select, iterate over the records in batches. This is analagous to using lists operations on mnesia tables. The match_object methods may return a huge number of records, and all those records have to be sent from the table process to your process, doubling the amount of memory required. By iteratively doing operations on batches of records, you’re only accessing a portion at a time, reducing the amount of memory being used at once. Here’s some code examples that only access 1 record at a time. Note that if the table changes during iteration, the behavior is undefined. You could also use the select operations to process records in batches of NObjects at a time.

Dirty Mnesia Foldl

dirty_foldl(F, Acc0, Table) ->
    dirty_foldl(F, Acc0, Table, mnesia:dirty_first(Table)).

dirty_foldl(_, Acc, _, '$end_of_table') ->
    Acc;
dirty_foldl(F, Acc, Table, Key) ->
    Acc2 = lists:foldl(F, Acc, mnesia:dirty_read(Table, Key)),
    dirty_foldl(F, Acc2, Table, mnesia:dirty_next(Table, Key)).

Dirty Mnesia Foreach

dirty_foreach(F, Table) ->
    dirty_foreach(F, Table, mnesia:dirty_first(Table)).

dirty_foreach(_, _, '$end_of_table') ->
    ok;
dirty_foreach(F, Table, Key) ->
    lists:foreach(F, mnesia:dirty_read(Table, Key)),
    dirty_foreach(F, Table, mnesia:dirty_next(Table, Key)).

Conclusion

  1. It’s probably your fault
  2. Do as little as possible inside transactions
  3. Use dirty operations instead of transactions
  4. Reduce record size
  5. Iterate in small batches
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2 Comments

  1. Ulf said,

    Recommending dirty operations over transactions should come with a very big caveat: you change the semantics and forego safety, esp. if you have a replicated system. Dirty operations do not guarantee that replication works, for example. It may even work partially, given certain error situations, causing database inconsistency.

    I normally advice people to use mnesia:activity(Type, F) rather than mnesia:transaction(F), and to always start with real transactions, then measure and – only if really necessary (and safe!), switch to dirty where neeeded. This can then be done by just changing Type from ‘transaction’ to ‘async_dirty’.

    In my experience, the “iterate in small batches” should be one of the first points. It is very good advice. Also, monitor ets and mnesia tables to see if they keep growing. Inserting temporary objects and forgetting to delete them is a fairly common source of memory growth.

    In other cases, a form of load control may well be what’s needed, making sure that the system doesn’t take on more work than it can handle (easy to do in an asynchronous environment). One very simple such device would be a gen_server that workers ask (synchronously) for permission before starting a new task. The server can monitor the ‘run_queue’ to guard against cpu overload, memory usage, number of running processes, etc., depending on where your bottlenecks are. Keep it very simple.

  2. Jacob said,

    Ulf, thanks for the info on dirty operations. I didn’t know about the possible replication issues, which are definitely a big deal in certain environments.

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