Malloc and RSS memory usage

We run a service in production that routes network data through it, it’s very similar to a proxy but with its own quirks. The service is written in Node.js, and we noticed a very strange problem - if some user downloads very large amount of data through it, the memory would shoot up and the process would crash sometimes.

The first intuition was that we have a memory leak in our code, and after making improvements from our end, the situation didn’t improve much. I decided to write a bare minimal testcase that emulates our code. This sample downloads a huge file (in this case the Ubuntu ISO image file) whenever you shoot a HTTP request to localhost:3001 and also prints the RSS memory usage of process every second. We write the chunk as soon as we receive it, this code shouldn’t have any memory leaks as there are no dangling references anywhere.

var http = require('http');

setInterval(() => console.log(process.memoryUsage().rss / 1000000), 1000);

var server = http.createServer((req, res) => {
  http.get(HUGE_DOWNLOAD_URL, (downloadRes) => {
    downloadRes.on('data', (chunk) => res.write(chunk));
    downloadRes.on('end', res.end);


But as expected (really?) the RSS memory of the process grew as it kept on downloading the file. There can be times where the input stream is producing data at a faster rate than we can write to the output stream, in which case the res.write would queue the chunks in user memory. But such chunks would be cleared when the download is complete and the GC has run already. I even tried running Node with --expose-gc flag and using global.gc() to explicitly call the garbage collector, but still the RSS memory was high.

Ok, time to dig deeper.

Here as we can see chunk is the part of the data the flows into our application as we are downloading the file. That is the part which can actually grow our memory. This chunk is a Node Buffer object, it is a chunk of raw memory buffer. I decided to check the implementation of Node Buffer and saw calls BUFFER_MALLOC to allocate memory. BUFFER_MALLOC is defined as call to malloc or calloc as the case maybe. The free function was also being called to free up the data blocks that was reserved by malloc. So this wasn’t a memory leak on Node.js’ side as well.

A bit more intensive googling threw me to results that state calling malloc and then free doesn’t really return the memory back to the system, it keeps it reserved for the process - and only returns it back to the system only in certain circumstances. So repeatedly malloc-ing could be a source of the problem. Since in this example we create a lot of chunks from the file download, we are actually creating a lot of Buffers.

With this in mind, I delved into Google black magic only to dig up some issue from the old Node archive repository, with a comment from Ben Noordhuis. Ben states explicitly buffering up a lot of data can explain a growing RSS memory. He even made a nice little sample C file to demonstrate the malloc implementations are very reluctant at returning free memory to the system. This shouldn’t just affect Node.js, but also any other program that uses malloc to allocate memory.

Thus the root cause was that we were creating a lot of tiny buffers from the chunks returned by the data event much faster than they could be written away. This led to a lot of mallocs resulting in the kernel allocating a lot of memory pages to the process. Later even though memory was freed, Linux had kept the memory reserved for the process, causing the RSS not to drop. As it turns out RSS is a very bad metric for measuring memory leaks of a program and should be avoided if possible.

As for our problem, we just ended up piping the input stream to the output stream - that helped in getting the memory growth under control. Piping a stream ensures that once we have a chunk we write it downstream before reading another chunk from upstream - this keeps memory usage minimal while we don’t lose out on performance, because we are writing as fast as possible on the stream and we don’t have the problem of a fast producer overwhelming a slow consumer.

var server = http.createServer((req, res) => {
  http.get(HUGE_DOWNLOAD_URL, (downloadRes) => downloadRes.pipe(res));

Thanks to Fedor Indutny for feedback on the drafts of this post.