Slab Coloring

We know from Chapter 2 that the same hardware cache line maps many different blocks of RAM. In this chapter, we have also seen that objects of the same size tend to be stored at the same offset within a cache. Objects that have the same offset within different slabs will, with a relatively high probability, end up mapped in the same cache line. The cache hardware might therefore waste memory cycles transferring two objects from the same cache line back and forth to different RAM locations, while other cache lines go underutilized. The slab allocator tries to reduce this unpleasant cache behavior by a policy called slab coloring: different arbitrary values called colors are assigned to the slabs.

Before examining slab coloring, we have to look at the layout of objects in the cache. Let's consider a cache whose objects are aligned in RAM. This means that the object address must be a multiple of a given positive value, say aln. Even taking the alignment constraint into account, there are many possible ways to place objects inside the slab. The choices depend on decisions made for the following variables:

Number of objects that can be stored in a slab (its value is in the num field of the cache descriptor).


Object size, including the alignment bytes.


Slab descriptor size plus all object descriptors size. Its value is equal to 0 if the slab and object descriptors are stored outside of the slab.


Number of unused bytes (bytes not assigned to any object) inside the slab. The total length in bytes of a slab can then be expressed as: slab length = (num x osize) + dsize + free free is always smaller than osize, since otherwise, it would be possible to place additional objects inside the slab. However, free could be greater than aln.

The slab allocator takes advantage of the free unused bytes to color the slab. The term "color" is used simply to subdivide the slabs and allow the memory allocator to spread objects out among different linear addresses. In this way, the kernel obtains the best possible performance from the microprocessor's hardware cache.

Slabs having different colors store the first object of the slab in different memory locations, while satisfying the alignment constraint. The number of available colors is (free/ain)+l. The first color is denoted as 0 and the last one (whose value is in the colour field of the cache descriptor) is denoted as free/ain.

If a slab is colored with color coi, the offset of the first object (with respect to the slab initial address) is equal to coi x ain+dsize bytes; this value is stored in the colour_off field of the cache descriptor. Figure 7-6 illustrates how the placement of objects inside the slab depends on the slab color. Coloring essentially leads to moving some of the free area of the slab from the end to the beginning.

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