[erlang-questions] ETS memory fragmentation after deleting data

Dániel Szoboszlay <>
Thu Feb 7 15:35:43 CET 2019


I would like to understand some things about ETS memory fragmentation after
deleting data. My current (probably faulty) mental model of the issue looks
like this:

   - For every object in an ETS table a block is allocated on a carrier
   (typically a multi-block carrier, unless the object is huge).
   - Besides the objects themselves, the ETS table obviously needs some
   additional blocks too to describe the hash table data structure. The size
   of this data shall be small compared to the object data however (since ETS
   is not terribly space-inefficient), so I won't think about them any more.
   - If I delete some objects from an ETS table, the corresponding blocks
   are deallocated. However, the rest of the objects remain in their original
   location, so the carriers cannot be deallocated (unless all of their
   objects get deleted).
   - This implies that deleting a lot of data from ETS tables would lead to
   memory fragmentation.
   - Since there's no way to force ETS to rearrange the objects it already
   stores, the memory remains fragmented until subsequent updates to ETS
   tables fill the gaps with new objects.

I wrote a small test program (available here
<https://gist.github.com/dszoboszlay/921b26a57463ec1f5df1816a840a78aa>) to
verify my mental model. But it doesn't exactly behave as I expected.

   1. I create an ETS table and populate it with 1M objects, where each
   object is 1027 words large.

   I expect the total ETS memory use to be around 1M * 1027 * 8 bytes ~
   7835 MiB (the size of all other ETS tables on a newly started Erlang node
   is negligible).

   And indeed I see that the total block size is ~7881 MiB and the total
   carrier size is ~7885 MiB (99.95% utilisation).
   2. I delete 75% of the objects randomly.

   I expect the block size to go down by ~75% and the carrier size with
   some smaller value.

   In practice however the block size goes down by 87%, while the carrier
   size drops by 48% (resulting in a disappointing 25% utilisation).
   3. Finally, I try to defragment the memory by overwriting each object
   that was left in the table with itself.

   I expect this operation to have no effect on the block size, but close
   the gap between the block size and carrier size by compacting the blocks on
   fewer carriers.

   In practice however the block size goes up by 91%(!!!), while the
   carrier size comes down very close to this new block size (utilisation is
   back at 99.56%). All in all, compared to the initial state in step 1, both
   block and carrier size is down by 75%.

So here's the list of things I don't understand or know based on this

   - How could the block size drop by 87% after deleting 75% of the data in
   step 2?
   - Why did overwriting each object with itself resulted in almost
   doubling the block size?
   - Would you consider running a select_replace to compact a table after
   deletions safe in production? E.g. doing it on a Mnesia table that's
   several GB-s in size and is actively used by Mnesia transactions. (I know
   the replace is atomic on each object, but how would a long running replace
   affect the execution time of other operations for example?)
   - Step 3 helped to reclaim unused memory, but it almost doubled the used
   memory (the block size). I don't know what caused this behaviour, but is
   there an operation that would achieve the opposite effect? That is, without
   altering the contents of the table reduce the block size by 45-50%?

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