What Is Memory Management? - Requirements, Errors & Techniques

Instructor: Lucinda Stanley

Lucinda has taught business and information technology and has a PhD in Education.

This lesson will help you understand how your computer's operating system manages memory including memory for the work you are actually doing as well as saving and storage of files. The lesson also covers some typical errors messages that sometimes appear related to memory management and some techniques for resolving those errors.

What is Memory Management?

What actually happens when we click the 'Save As' command button? Is our computer's memory actually set up like a miniature filing cabinet? Not exactly!

Memory management is not the same as file management. When we think about saving our files on our computer, whether it be on the hard drive or on a tertiary storage device such as a USB or pen drive, we think with human logic. That is, we think about creating parent folders and subfolders that our computer automatically alphabetizes. This is so we can find the information again.

However, the way our computer actually stores data has nothing to do with the alphabet, folders or subfolders - those are constructs to help our human brains locate information. Operating systems don't have a need for those guidelines. What actually happens when you click the 'Save As' command button is that your data is transferred to the memory management unit (MMU), which then finds the next available space in the storage device.

Memory management process
Memory Management Process

Think of it like a series of mailboxes. The first thing that you save gets stored in the first mailbox, the second in the second mailbox, and so on. This makes sense to the operating system, particularly if it is able to use random access to retrieve the data when you command it to open a file. While you may name the file something that has meaning to you, the operating system provides the file with a name in computer language that has meaning to to the operating system and tells it exactly where to find that file when commanded to retrieve it.

It's a beautiful thing - computers and humans working together, each speaking their own language.

Error Messages

Anyone who has owned a computer long enough has likely experienced what has become known as the Blue Screen of Death:

Blue Screen of Death
Blue Screen of Death

Here's one that isn't as scary, but means the same:

Emoticon Blue Screen of Death
Emoticon Blue Screen of Death

Why do we get such errors? What may be happening is that your operating system is having trouble finding blank spaces to store your data, typically on your hard drive or in random access memory (RAM), the working space your operating system provides for you to run programs and create files. To resolve this, you may need to purchase and install more RAM.

Disk Defragmenting

The Blue Screen of Death may also occur when your available space is fragmented. In this case, your operating system has to split your file and save it to multiple mailboxes, creating fragmented files (files that are split or fragmented in order to fit in the available spaces for storage).

Consider freagmentation in terms of those mailboxes we talked about earlier. When you first save files, your operating system fills in the mailboxes in order. Over time, you delete certain files, leaving unfilled mailboxes scattered about. When you save the next files, the operating system fills in all open mailboxes, and if there isn't enough room for the new file in one box, it will split the file into multiple pieces and divide it among the open spaces. This slows down the process to retrieve the files you are looking for, and if there are a lot of fragmented files, you are going to notice a slowdown in your computer speed and may experience a Blue Screen of Death.

There are a variety of products and services on the market to help you defragment your computer. However, your operating system has a built-in program that helps with cleaning up these fragmented or broken files. It may be set up to do it automatically, or you may have to do it manually. If you search your hard drive for Disk Defragmenter, you can gain access to a dialog box that looks like this:

Disk Defragmenter Dialog Box
Disk Defragmenter Dialog Box

You can choose which section of your computer you want the program to analyze by clicking the drive, then selecting 'Analyze'. It will let you know what percent of your drive is fragmented. In this case, the hard drive is only 8% fragmented, which is probably not a significant amount of fragmentation, but its better to keep it under control early rather than waiting until there is a problem.

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