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05/27/2003 Archived Entry: "Automated Lament"
Posted by CKL @ 11:47 PM PST

My Linux box is leaking. Memory, that is. But let me start at the beginning.

This machine, which I've named "Queeg," is an antique with a Pentium II MMX chip at its core. It was built in mid-1997 on an Intel PD440FX motherboard, one of the last pre-AGP boards. I bought it primarily because I wanted to play the new Starfleet Academy game (actually, I was reviewing it for PC World Online), and my old 486 didn't meet the minimum system requirements.

I know, I'm slow to upgrade. Sue me.

Queeg has 128MB of RAM, which is as much as its motherboard will take, as much memory as I've got in my Rio 500, and much less than I can jam into my PalmPilot (a Sony CLIE, actually) on a Memory Stick. I've set up Queeg with the recommended amount of swap space, or virtual memory: twice physical memory, 256MB. Now Queeg is leaking memory.

I came home one night last week to find Queeg thrashing like crazy. Thrashing, for those who don't know and might actually care, is when the operating system is "swapping"-- reading and writing between memory and disk-- so often that it doesn't have time to do anything else. My pointer wasn't responding to mouse motions, and I couldn't even get Caps Lock to illuminate (a sure sign that a computer is hung).

So I rebooted, and everything was back to normal. But intermittent calls to "free" or "top" over the next few days showed that swap space was being allocated, but not released. Normally I wouldn't have thought this was a problem, but after the thrashing incident, I'm a bit wary. Right now, I'm running Red Hat 8.0's "up2date" package manager to make sure my kernel and any other critical software is patched to current levels.

What's the point of all this? I'm not sure yet. Certainly, that the best operating system in the world won't fix basic problems with your hardware. I'm running Queeg flat out right now, with X Windows in 16-bit color and all kinds of unnecessary daemons in the background. I should clean up the latter for security, if nothing else, but I suspect this old hardware is getting creaky regardless.

I'm a lazy sysadmin. Sometimes I enjoy tinkering, but I never like having to debug package installations. They're not meaningful problems. Usually it's some dependency issue, or a typo in a Makefile, or some other silly thing, and the solution is esoteric and applicable to nothing else you will ever do.

Computers are not easy to use, no matter what Bill Gates or Steve Jobs would like you to believe. Computers are far from perfect, and when they break, they're very difficult to repair. Automation is hard. The computer will not do your work for you. There is no magic bullet. Good sysadmins are worth their weight in gold-pressed latinum.

And I should probably stop tempting fate by naming my computers after neurotic characters.

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