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12.2. The Windows NT Virtual Memory System

You could ask, "Why is virtual memory useful?" It certainly is not necessary; many operating systems do not use virtual memory and still manage to work. DOS does not support virtual memory, but even so, it survived on the market for almost two decades. A constant problem for developers, however, has always been the limitations of physical memory. In fact, it seems that nothing is ever enough when it comes to memory. Applications are getting larger and larger, so a number of techniques have had to be developed to handle limited physical memory situations. One of the best-known techniques is the overlay mechanism: A particular program is divided to several chunks, and only one can be actively accessed at a time. Whenever a chunk of the program is needed, it is read into physical memory, overwriting the previously loaded one in memory. The virtual memory management of the operating system is supposed to solve these problems for all running applications by dividing the memory into a set of pages. Thus a particular application need not take care of its memory management by using the old techniques.

Virtual memory has other benefits:

  • Process isolation: Processes have separate address spaces and therefore do not interfere with each other.

  • Memory protection: The processor is used in two modes, thus the operating system is clearly separated from the user applications.

  • No memory limitation: Pages that are currently not in use should not be allocated; data can be shared between applications.

How does Windows NT implement virtual memory? Modern processors support virtual memory (VM) management. VM could be developed without processor support, but it would be very slow. When the processor is running in virtual memory mode, all addresses are assumed to be virtual addresses and must be translated to physical addresses each time the processor executes a new instruction. This is why CPU support for VM is crucial for fast system performance.

On 4GB VM systems, the CPU looks at a 32-bit address as though it were made up of three parts:

  • A directory offset

  • A page table offset

  • A page offset

(The PAE, or Physical Address Extension, mode adds a fourth layer of indirection.)

Translating a virtual address from page directory to page frame is similar to traversing a b-tree structure where the page directory is the root, page tables are the immediate descendants of the root, and page frames are the page tables' descendants. Figure 12.1 illustrates this organization.

Figure 12.1. Page directory.

The first step in translating the virtual address is to extract the higher-order 10 bits to serve as the first offset. This offset is used to index a 32-bit value in a page of memory called the page directory. Each process has a single, unique page directory under Windows NT (which is mapped to the 0xc0300000 address under Windows NT 4 Intel platforms). The page directory itself is a 4K page, segmented into 1,024 four-byte values called page directory entries (PDEs). The 10 bits provide the exact number of bits necessary to index each PDE in the page directory (210 bits=1,024 possible combinations).

Each PDE is then used to identify another page of memory called a page table. The second 10-bit offset is subsequently used to index a 4-byte page-table entry (PTE) in exactly the same way that the page directory does. PTEs identify pages of memory called page frames. The remaining 12-bit offset in the virtual address is used to address a specific byte of memory in the page frame identified by the PTE. With 12 bits, the final offset can index all 4,096 bytes in the page frame.

Through three layers of indirection, Windows NT offers virtual memory that is unique to each process. On IA32, the page directory has up to 1,024 PDEs, or a maximum of 1,024 page tables (without PAE enabled). Each page table contains up to 1024 PTEs, with a maximum of 1,024 page frames per page table. Each page frame has its own 4,096 one-byte locations of actual data. That gives 4GB of address space (1,024 * 1,024 * 4,096).

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