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Top SQL Server Memory Pressure Counters

Even a superficial reading of books and articles on SQL Server performance monitoring will tell
you that SQL Server memory pressure is the first thing you should monitor. Not the only thing,
far from it, and some CPU, I/O and internal SQL Server counters are critically important to get
the complete picture but it’s the memory counters that often show us the first indication of
suboptimal performance

Memory and the way SQL Server uses it, is right on a sort of tripoint where SQL Server, CPU
and I/O meet and memory pressure may indicate missing indexes, badly designed tables, an
actual lack of memory on the server for the workload it’s been tasked with, other applications
running on the system, users logging onto the server and so on. Conversely, allowing SQL
Server to use more memory can help cover up lots of these and other issues [10]

Most important memory measurements deal with SQL Server’s buffer pool, an internal cache of
database pages, SQL Server’s memory and the system’s memory. These measurements are:

1. Page Life Expectancy


2. Buffer Cache hit ratio
3. Page reads / sec
4. Page writes / sec
5. Lazy writes / sec
6. Memory Grants Pending
7. Total Server Memory
8. Target Server Memory
9. Available Mbytes
10. Pages / sec
11. Paging File % Usage

SQL Server’s Buffer Manager Measurements


Page Life Expectancy

By far the most cited performance counter is Page Life Expectancy (aka PLE). This counter is
part of SQL Server’s Buffer Manager Object and MSDN defines [1] it as “the number of seconds
a page will stay in the buffer pool without references.” Even though it doesn’t say so in its
definition nor in its name, this counter actually shows the average, not some total or min/max, of
the lifetime of pages in the buffer pool. So this counter indicates just how long, in seconds and
on average, the pages are staying in the buffer pool and the longer an average page is living in
the buffer pool, the higher the chances are that SQL Server will find it there when eventually it
needs it again instead of having to read it from the disk

The relevance of monitoring this counter cannot be overstated, as a low value for it indicates that
a SQL Server memory pressure, as explained above, must necessarily lead to more I/O which is,
of course, the slowest component in the stack by several orders of magnitude. As an example a
missing index on a large table (table for which pages cannot fit into RAM available for SQL
Server’s buffer pool) will eventually lead to a full scan which will of course lead to increased
reading (problem) and flushing of potentially useful pages of other tables (aggravating problem).
Such an event would be easily detectable by following the page life expectancy counter as its
value would necessarily drop

Several authorities on the subject, including SQL Server’s Customer Advisory Team (CAT) [3],
indicated that the value for this counter should be at least 300 for OLTP applications. SQL
Server’s CAT also indicated that values for this counter should never quickly drop by 50% or
more

Today the value 300 is too small to be used as a threshold. This value was determined when
servers generally had 4GB of RAM installed. Today, it is not uncommon for a SQL Servers to
have more than 48GB of RAM. [12] Instead the old 300 threshold, an adaptive formula can be
used to get a threshold estimate:

MAXBP(MB)/1024/4*300

MAXBP(MB) represents the maximum amount of Buffer Pool memory. SQL Server:Buffer
Manager:Database Pages counter can be used to get number of pages which should be converted
to MB: (pages*8)/1024 and used as MAXBP(MB) value. The above formula considers each 4GB
of Buffer Pool (per NUMA node or otherwise) to have its own 300 second Page Life
Expectancy. [13]

Besides the formula, the baseline value can be determined to react when Page Life Expectancy
measured value is below that baseline.

To query the value of this counter run the following:

SELECT [cntr_value]
FROM sys.dm_os_performance_counters
WHERE
[object_name] LIKE '%Buffer Manager%'
AND [counter_name] = 'Page life expectancy'

Buffer Cache hit ratio

Tightly related to Page Life Expectancy is Buffer Cache hit ratio performance counter. This
counter is also part of SQL Server’s Buffer Manager object and MSDN defines it as:

…the percentage of pages found in the buffer cache without having to read from disk. The ratio
is the total number of cache hits divided by the total number of cache lookups over the last few
thousand page accesses.

As MSDN continues to note, you want this ratio as high as possible as, again, reading from
memory is several orders of magnitude faster than reading from disks (even with SSDs in game).
SQL Server’s CAT doesn’t mention it, nor gives guidelines on the actual value that this counter
should have, but other sources [4] indicate that for OLTP applications it should equal or exceed
98%

To query the value of this counter run the following:

SELECT [cntr_value]
FROM sys.dm_os_performance_counters
WHERE
[object_name] LIKE '%Buffer Manager%'
AND [counter_name] = 'Buffer cache hit ratio'

Together with PLE, the Buffer Cache hit ratio can give us a critical insight into SQL Server’s
buffer pool, the subsystem of SQL Server that uses most of its memory and that is fundamental
in obtaining optimal performance

Page reads / sec, Page writes / sec and Lazy writes / sec Measurements

Continuing with Buffer Cache counters, we have the number of read and written database pages
per second together with Lazy writes / sec. Taken together these three measurements may give
good indication on memory contention (pressure) and possible indexing issues (specific SQL
Server counters that may reflect on database design issues will be detailed in a separate article)

MSDN [1] defines Page reads / sec as:

the number of physical database page reads that are issued per second. This statistic displays the
total number of physical page reads across all databases. Because physical I/O is expensive, you
may be able to minimize the cost, either by using a larger data

Page writes / sec is defined as:

Indicates the number of physical database page writes that are issued per second

Of course, Page writes / sec is also a server-level measurement showing page writes across all
databases. Lazy writes / sec is defined as:

the number of buffers written per second by the buffer manager’s lazy writer. The lazy writer is a
system process that flushes out batches of dirty, aged buffers (buffers that contain changes that
must be written back to disk before the buffer can be reused

Regarding guidelines, the number of lazy writes shouldn’t exceed 20 on average systems [7] [9]
and should ideally be close to zero which would indicate a sufficiently large buffer pool. There
are no general guidelines on reads and writes figures so we should establish a baseline values for
them prior to any troubleshooting. The Accidental DBA [8] mentions this rule of thumb:

If Lazy writes/sec is consistently experiencing non-zero values with a low PLE and elevated
values for Page reads/sec and Page writes/sec the server is experiencing buffer pool contention
and you will need to go about troubleshooting this problem further
To query the values of these counters run the following:

SELECT [counter_name], [cntr_value]


FROM sys.dm_os_performance_counters
WHERE
[object_name] LIKE '%Buffer Manager%'
AND [counter_name] IN ('Page reads/sec', 'Page writes/sec', 'Lazy
writes/sec')

SQL Server’s Memory Manager Measurements


Memory Grants Pending

This SQL Server performance counter is, obviously, available in its Memory Manager object and
is defined by MSDN [2] as “the total number of processes waiting for a workspace memory
grant” where by processes is referred to SQL Server’s internal system processes (like sessions
and the likes of the aforementioned lazy writer)

SQL Server Customer Advisory Team [3] recommends that the value of this measurement
should always be less or equal to 1. Anything above that indicates that there are processes
waiting for memory and that you should probably increase the memory allocated to SQL Server

To query the value of this counter run the following:

SELECT [cntr_value]
FROM sys.dm_os_performance_counters
WHERE
[object_name] LIKE '%Memory Manager%'
AND [counter_name] = 'Memory Grants Pending'

To find out which queries are currently waiting on a memory grant, run the following query:

SELECT *
FROM sys.dm_exec_query_memory_grants
WHERE
grant_time IS NULL

Total Server Memory and Target Server Memory

This pair of performance counters is also part of SQL Server’s Memory Manager Object. Total
Server Memory is defined by MSDN as “the amount of memory the server has committed using
the memory manager” while Target Server Memory is defined as “the ideal amount of memory
the server can consume”

Upon staring SQL Server its total memory will be low and it will grow throughout the warm-up
period while SQL Server is bringing pages into its buffer pool and until it reaches a steady state.
When this steady state is reached the total server memory will ideally be around the value of the
target memory. Once the steady state is reached though, the Total Server Memory measurement
should not decrease importantly as that would indicate that SQL Server is being forced to
dynamically deallocate its memory due to system-level memory pressure

Since Target Server Memory is actually equal to the current value of Max Server Memory
setting, we can follow suggestions available in for example “Suggested Max Memory Settings
for SQL Server 2005/2008” [11]

To query these two counters run the following:

SELECT [counter_name], [cntr_value]


FROM sys.dm_os_performance_counters
WHERE
[object_name] LIKE '%Memory Manager%'
AND [counter_name] IN ('Total Server Memory (KB)', 'Target Server Memory
(KB)')

From here you can calculate the ratio in percentages of these two counters by running the
following query:

SELECT ROUND(100.0 * (
SELECT CAST([cntr_value] AS FLOAT)
FROM sys.dm_os_performance_counters
WHERE
[object_name] LIKE '%Memory Manager%'
AND [counter_name] = 'Total Server Memory (KB)'
) / (
SELECT CAST([cntr_value] AS FLOAT)
FROM sys.dm_os_performance_counters
WHERE
[object_name] LIKE '%Memory Manager%'
AND [counter_name] = 'Target Server Memory (KB)')
, 2)AS [Ratio]

As indicated above this measurement should be at around 100% once the steady state is reached

Operating System’s Memory Measurements


Available Mbytes

Available Mbytes (and its more granular kin “Available Bytes” and “Available Kbytes”) counter
is a system-level counter that indicates how much free memory is available in the system. It is
part of Memory performance counter category

There are two things to pay attention to with this measurement:

1. The values for it should never get too low and while what “too low” means will depend
on your system/server/applications/databases there are some recommendations [11] that it
shouldn’t drop below 2 to 4GB for today’s average production servers
2. It should never importantly fluctuate as that could indicate the SQL Server is dynamically
adjusting its memory use and/or that there are other applications/subsystems running on
the database server [5]

The value of this counter, as with other operating system counters, cannot be queried through
SQL Server but has to be monitored through Windows’ Performance Monitor

Pages / sec

This operating system counter indicates the number of pages read from or written to a disk due to
hard page faults. Hard page faults happen whenever the operating system cannot satisfy a
memory page request from the pages available in RAM and has to dip into the I/O subsystem
and read the page or pages from the disk. Of course, this measurement shows all hard page faults
per second, not just those from SQL Server, but it’s still an important measurement of general
memory and I/O pressure on the system

Regarding the guidelines for the values of this measurement, there is a wide range of acceptable
values [6] [7] and of course ideally this number would tend toward zero. The best
recommendation here is to measure a baseline value when the system is functioning optimally
and then compare all later measurements with that baseline value. Whenever the later
measurements are significantly greater than the baseline value, it may indicate a memory
pressure problem

Paging File % Usage

Last but not least is the Paging File % Usage counter which, rather obviously, indicates the
percentage of the paging file that is currently being used by the operating system. Paging file is
used whenever the operating system is running out of available RAM and cannot satisfy the
current memory needs of all the processes running on it. Whenever that occurs, the system
“pages” some of its memory pages into the paging file. This is a performance problem as writing
a memory page to drive and reading it back once it’s needed is, of course, orders of magnitude
slower than just being able to keep that page in memory the whole time

Guideline on the values for this measurements, especially for SQL Server dedicated machines, is
0 [5] and anything above it, without wishing to again restate the obvious, is a sure sign of a
memory pressure on the system level