What Is Virtual Memory? - Definition, Settings & Management

Instructor: Lucinda Stanley

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

This lesson will help you understand your computer's virtual memory. You will learn the definition of virtual memory, why this technology is important, and how you can manage it on your computer.

What is Virtual Memory?

Have you received this cryptic message on your computer?:

'Your system is low on virtual memory'

Or this message:

'Your system is accessing virtual memory'

If so, there's no need to panic!

When you bought your computer, you probably paid attention to the amount of RAM, or Random Access Memory it came with, because RAM is the space you have available to work on your computer for doing things like using programs. If you open a program and there is not enough available work space in RAM to allow the program to run, your operating system has instructions to store some of the program files in virtual memory. The alerts you receive are the operating system's way of letting you know the available RAM is not enough to accommodate the processes you are asking your computer to do.

The Relationship Between RAM and Virtual Memory

Think of your computer RAM like your kitchen workspace or table; you are working at your kitchen table making cookies. You have the ingredients such as flour, sugar, and salt laid out, in addition to a bowl, a spoon, measuring utensils, and probably the recipe. Midway through making the cookies, you decide you want to bake bread as well. So, you add another bowl, more ingredients, and another recipe to your table, leaving no empty space.

So, what do you do? You still need all the things that are on the table, but now there is no room to actually do any work. What you do is take some of the less used things and put them on the counter, still nearby but not clogging up your workspace, giving you room on your table to continue making your cookies and bread.

It isn't an ideal situation to have items on the counter. It takes time to stop the work process and cross the kitchen to the counter, but it is better than having to search a cabinet or drawer every time you need something. Your counter has become a holding area for things you need so you can conduct work on the table - it has become a virtual memory, or the holding area for items that are not vital at the moment.

Virtual memory allows you to supplement your RAM so you can have multiple or large programs open. Otherwise, you would only be able to run what will fit in your RAM. Virtual memory uses space in other memory (like your hard drive) to hold onto the pieces of the programs you are running that aren't immediately necessary. When those pieces become necessary, your operating system will swap out what you need for something that you are not using at the moment. This is referred to as swapping memory.

The Issue With Swapping Memory

Just like when you store your cooking and baking supplies on the counter, using virtual memory is not an ideal situation. Swapping adds time to processes and slows down the computer. So, what can you do about it? The best solution, especially if you receive a low-RAM alert, is to simply add more RAM. This involves purchasing an additional RAM card and installing it - not a difficult process, but something for another lesson.

If you're running low on virtual memory, there is also a quick fix that does not require you to purchase more RAM - or at least allows you to keep working until you can get to the store. The amount of virtual memory in a computer is preset in what is called a swap or page file. Typically, the amount of virtual memory is set at three times the amount of RAM you have on your computer. You can increase the amount of virtual memory your computer can access by changing the settings on your swap or page file. There are a number of specialized software programs that will do this for you, or you can do it yourself.

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