# c – When should I use mmap for file access?

## The Question :

289 people think this question is useful

POSIX environments provide at least two ways of accessing files. There’s the standard system calls open(), read(), write(), and friends, but there’s also the option of using mmap() to map the file into virtual memory.

When is it preferable to use one over the other? What’re their individual advantages that merit including two interfaces?

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mmap is great if you have multiple processes accessing data in a read only fashion from the same file, which is common in the kind of server systems I write. mmap allows all those processes to share the same physical memory pages, saving a lot of memory.

mmap also allows the operating system to optimize paging operations. For example, consider two programs; program A which reads in a 1MB file into a buffer creating with malloc, and program B which mmaps the 1MB file into memory. If the operating system has to swap part of A‘s memory out, it must write the contents of the buffer to swap before it can reuse the memory. In B‘s case any unmodified mmap‘d pages can be reused immediately because the OS knows how to restore them from the existing file they were mmap‘d from. (The OS can detect which pages are unmodified by initially marking writable mmap‘d pages as read only and catching seg faults, similar to Copy on Write strategy).

mmap is also useful for inter process communication. You can mmap a file as read / write in the processes that need to communicate and then use synchronization primitives in the mmap'd region (this is what the MAP_HASSEMAPHORE flag is for).

One place mmap can be awkward is if you need to work with very large files on a 32 bit machine. This is because mmap has to find a contiguous block of addresses in your process’s address space that is large enough to fit the entire range of the file being mapped. This can become a problem if your address space becomes fragmented, where you might have 2 GB of address space free, but no individual range of it can fit a 1 GB file mapping. In this case you may have to map the file in smaller chunks than you would like to make it fit.

Another potential awkwardness with mmap as a replacement for read / write is that you have to start your mapping on offsets of the page size. If you just want to get some data at offset X you will need to fixup that offset so it’s compatible with mmap.

And finally, read / write are the only way you can work with some types of files. mmap can’t be used on things like pipes and ttys.

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One area where I found mmap() to not be an advantage was when reading small files (under 16K). The overhead of page faulting to read the whole file was very high compared with just doing a single read() system call. This is because the kernel can sometimes satisify a read entirely in your time slice, meaning your code doesn’t switch away. With a page fault, it seemed more likely that another program would be scheduled, making the file operation have a higher latency.

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mmap has the advantage when you have random access on big files. Another advantage is that you access it with memory operations (memcpy, pointer arithmetic), without bothering with the buffering. Normal I/O can sometimes be quite difficult when using buffers when you have structures bigger than your buffer. The code to handle that is often difficult to get right, mmap is generally easier. This said, there are certain traps when working with mmap.
As people have already mentioned, mmap is quite costly to set up, so it is worth using only for a given size (varying from machine to machine).

For pure sequential accesses to the file, it is also not always the better solution, though an appropriate call to madvise can mitigate the problem.

You have to be careful with alignment restrictions of your architecture(SPARC, itanium), with read/write IO the buffers are often properly aligned and do not trap when dereferencing a casted pointer.

You also have to be careful that you do not access outside of the map. It can easily happen if you use string functions on your map, and your file does not contain a \0 at the end. It will work most of the time when your file size is not a multiple of the page size as the last page is filled with 0 (the mapped area is always in the size of a multiple of your page size).

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In addition to other nice answers, a quote from Linux system programming written by Google’s expert Robert Love:

### Advantages of mmap( )

Manipulating files via mmap( ) has a handful of advantages over the
standard read( ) and write( ) system calls. Among them are:

• Reading from and writing to a memory-mapped file avoids the
extraneous copy that occurs when using the read( ) or write( ) system
calls, where the data must be copied to and from a user-space buffer.

• Aside from any potential page faults, reading from and writing to a memory-mapped file does not incur any system call or context switch
overhead. It is as simple as accessing memory.

• When multiple processes map the same object into memory, the data is shared among all the processes. Read-only and shared writable
mappings are shared in their entirety; private writable mappings have
their not-yet-COW (copy-on-write) pages shared.

• Seeking around the mapping involves trivial pointer manipulations. There is no need for the lseek( ) system call.

For these reasons, mmap( ) is a smart choice for many applications.

### Disadvantages of mmap( )

There are a few points to keep in mind when using mmap( ):

• Memory mappings are always an integer number of pages in size. Thus, the difference between the size of the backing file and an
integer number of pages is “wasted” as slack space. For small files, a
significant percentage of the mapping may be wasted. For example, with
4 KB pages, a 7 byte mapping wastes 4,089 bytes.

• The memory mappings must fit into the process’ address space. With a 32-bit address space, a very large number of various-sized mappings
can result in fragmentation of the address space, making it hard to
find large free contiguous regions. This problem, of course, is much
less apparent with a 64-bit address space.

• There is overhead in creating and maintaining the memory mappings and associated data structures inside the kernel. This overhead is
generally obviated by the elimination of the double copy mentioned in
the previous section, particularly for larger and frequently accessed
files.

For these reasons, the benefits of mmap( ) are most greatly realized
when the mapped file is large (and thus any wasted space is a small
percentage of the total mapping), or when the total size of the mapped
file is evenly divisible by the page size (and thus there is no wasted
space).

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Memory mapping has a potential for a huge speed advantage compared to traditional IO. It lets the operating system read the data from the source file as the pages in the memory mapped file are touched. This works by creating faulting pages, which the OS detects and then the OS loads the corresponding data from the file automatically.

This works the same way as the paging mechanism and is usually optimized for high speed I/O by reading data on system page boundaries and sizes (usually 4K) – a size for which most file system caches are optimized to.

An advantage that isn’t listed yet is the ability of mmap() to keep a read-only mapping as clean pages. If one allocates a buffer in the process’s address space, then uses read() to fill the buffer from a file, the memory pages corresponding to that buffer are now dirty since they have been written to.
Dirty pages can not be dropped from RAM by the kernel. If there is swap space, then they can be paged out to swap. But this is costly and on some systems, such as small embedded devices with only flash memory, there is no swap at all. In that case, the buffer will be stuck in RAM until the process exits, or perhaps gives it back withmadvise().
Non written to mmap() pages are clean. If the kernel needs RAM, it can simply drop them and use the RAM the pages were in. If the process that had the mapping accesses it again, it cause a page fault the kernel re-loads the pages from the file they came from originally. The same way they were populated in the first place.