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What to do when you run out of memory

A constant problem for computer science (since its inception) is how to manipulate data that is larger than machine memory. We present here some general strategies for working “out of core” or what you should do when you run out of memory.

Early computers were most limited by their paltry memory sizes. von Neumann himself commented that even a room full of genius mathematicians would not be capable of much if all they could communicate, think upon or remember were the characters on a single type written page (much more memory than the few hundred words available to the Eniac). The most visible portions of early computers are their external memories or secondary stores: card readers, paper tape readers and tape drives.


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SDC 920 computer, Computer History Museum, Mountain View CA

Historically computer scientists have concentrated on streaming or online algorithms (that is algorithms that work with the data in the order it is available and use limited memory). For many problems we have found this an insufficient model and it is much better to assume you can re-order and replicate data (such as scattering data to many processors and re-collecting it to sort). The scatter/gather paradigm is ubiquitous and is the underpinning of large scale sorting, databases and Map Reduce. So in one sense databases and Map Reduce different APIs on top of very related technologies (journaling, splitting and merging). Replicating data (or even delaying duplicate elimination) that is already “too large to handle” may seem counterintuitive; but it is exploiting the primary property of secondary storage: that secondary storage tends to be much larger than primary storage (typically by 2 orders of magnitude, compare a 2 terabyte drive to an 8 gigabyte memory stick). Continue reading What to do when you run out of memory