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What is virtual memory?

        Tech | Memory

Virtual memory is a common part of most operating systems on desktop computers. It has become so common because it provides a big benefit for users at a very low cost.

Most computers today have something like 64 or 128 megabytes of RAM (random-access memory) available for use by the CPU (central processing unit). Often, that amount of RAM is not enough to run all of the programs that most users expect to run at once. For example, if you load the Windows operating system, an e-mail program, a Web browser and word processor into RAM simultaneously, 64 megabytes is not enough to hold it all. If there were no such thing as virtual memory, your computer would have to say, "Sorry, you cannot load any more applications. Please close an application to load a new one." With virtual memory, the computer can look for areas of RAM that have not been used recently and copy them onto the hard disk. This frees up space in RAM to load the new application. Because it does this automatically, you don't even know it is happening, and it makes your computer feel like is has unlimited RAM space even though it has only 32 megabytes installed. Because hard-disk space is so much cheaper than RAM chips, virtual memory also provides a nice economic benefit.

The area of the hard disk that stores the RAM image is called a page file. It holds pages of RAM on the hard disk, and the operating system moves data back and forth between the page file and RAM. (On a Windows machine, page files have a .SWP extension.)

Of course, the read/write speed of a hard drive is much slower than RAM, and the technology of a hard drive is not geared toward accessing small pieces of data at a time. If your system has to rely too heavily on virtual memory, you will notice a significant performance drop. The key is to have enough RAM to handle everything you tend to work on simultaneously. Then, the only time you "feel" the slowness of virtual memory is in the slight pause that occurs when you change tasks. When you have enough RAM for your needs, virtual memory works beautifully. When you don't, the operating system has to constantly swap information back and forth between RAM and the hard disk. This is called thrashing, and it can make your computer feel incredibly slow.

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