ESXi Host Memory States – Ballooning

To check for ballooning you can either open ESXTOP or the vCenter Performance Graphs.

VMware ballooning is a memory reclamation  technique used when and ESXi host is running low on memory. You should not see balloning if your hosts is performing like it should. To understand ballooning we would have to take a look at the following picture:


Ballooning in short is a process where the hypervisor reclaims  memory back from the virtual machine. Ballooning is an activity that happens when the ESXi host is running out of physical memory. The demand of the virtual machine is too high for the host to handle.

Lets take a high level example:

  1. Inside a virtual machine you start an application. For instance PROPHET
  2. PROPHET as an application will ask the guest operating system (in this case windows) for memory. Windows will give it memory and map it from the virtual memory -> guest physical memory 
  3. what happens next is that the hypervisor sees the request for memory and the hypervisor maps guest physical memory -> host physical memory
  4. Now everything is perfect. You play PROPHET for a few hours. And then you close it down.
  5. When you close PROPHET the guest operating system will mark the memory as “free” and make it available for other applications. BUT since the hypervisor does not have access to Windows’ “free memory” list the memory will still be mapped in “host physical memory” and putting memory load on the ESXi host.
  6. This is where ballooning comes into place. In case of an ESXi host running low on memory the hypervisor will ask the “balloon” driver installed inside the virtual machine (with VMware Tools) to “inflate”
  7. The balloon driver will inflate and because it is “inside” the operating system it will start by getting memory from the “free list”. The hypervisor will detect what memory the balloon driver has reclaimed and will free it up on the “host physical memory” layer!

The balloon driver can inflate up to a maximum of 65%. For instance a VM with 1000MB memory the balloon can inflate to 650MB. The way to avoid ballooning is not to uninstall the balloon driver but to create a “Memory Reservation” for the virtual machine. In case of full inflation for this particular VM the result is the hypervisor gets 650MB memory reclaimed. The downfall of this is that you risk your VM to do Guest OS Swapping to its page file! Just remember page file swapping is better than hypervisor swapping. Hypervisor swapping happens without the guest operating system is aware of it. Page file swapping it is the OS that decides what pages to swap to disk!



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