Worker Memory Management

For cluster-wide memory-management, see Managing Memory.

Workers are given a target memory limit to stay under with the command line --memory-limit keyword or the memory_limit= Python keyword argument, which sets the memory limit per worker processes launched by dask worker

$ dask worker tcp://scheduler:port --memory-limit=auto  # TOTAL_MEMORY * min(1, nthreads / total_nthreads)
$ dask worker tcp://scheduler:port --memory-limit="4 GiB"  # four gigabytes per worker process.

Workers use a few different heuristics to keep memory use beneath this limit:

Spilling based on managed memory

Every time the worker finishes a task, it estimates the size in bytes that the result costs to keep in memory using the sizeof function. This function defaults to sys.getsizeof() for arbitrary objects, which uses the standard Python __sizeof__ protocol, but also has special-cased implementations for common data types like NumPy arrays and Pandas dataframes. The sum of the sizeof of all data tracked by Dask is called managed memory.

When the managed memory exceeds 60% of the memory limit (target threshold), the worker will begin to dump the least recently used data to disk. By default, it writes to the OS’s temporary directory (/tmp in Linux); you can control this location with the --local-directory keyword:

$ dask worker tcp://scheduler:port --memory-limit="4 GiB" --local-directory /scratch

That data is still available and will be read back from disk when necessary. On the diagnostic dashboard status page, disk I/O will show up in the task stream plot as orange blocks. Additionally, the memory plot in the upper left will show a section of the bar colored in grey.

Spilling based on process memory

The approach above can fail for a few reasons:

  1. Custom objects may not report their memory size accurately

  2. User functions may take up more RAM than expected

  3. Significant amounts of data may accumulate in network I/O buffers

To address this, we periodically monitor the process memory of the worker every 200 ms. If the system reported memory use is above 70% of the target memory usage (spill threshold), then the worker will start dumping unused data to disk, even if internal sizeof recording hasn’t yet reached the normal 60% threshold. This more aggressive spilling will continue until process memory falls below 60%.

Pause worker

At 80% process memory load, the worker’s thread pool will stop starting computation on additional tasks in the worker’s queue. This gives time for the write-to-disk functionality to take effect even in the face of rapidly accumulating data. Currently executing tasks continue to run. Additionally, data transfers to/from other workers are throttled to a bare minimum.

Kill Worker

At 95% process memory load (terminate threshold), a worker’s nanny process will terminate it. Tasks will be cancelled mid-execution and rescheduled elsewhere; all unique data on the worker will be lost and will need to be recomputed. This is to avoid having our worker job being terminated by an external watchdog (like Kubernetes, YARN, Mesos, SGE, etc..). After termination, the nanny will restart the worker in a fresh state.

Thresholds configuration

These values can be configured by modifying the ~/.config/dask/distributed.yaml file:

   # Fractions of worker process memory at which we take action to avoid memory
   # blowup. Set any of the values to False to turn off the behavior entirely.
      target: 0.60     # fraction of managed memory where we start spilling to disk
      spill: 0.70      # fraction of process memory where we start spilling to disk
      pause: 0.80      # fraction of process memory at which we pause worker threads
      terminate: 0.95  # fraction of process memory at which we terminate the worker

Using the dashboard to monitor memory usage

The dashboard (typically available on port 8787) shows a summary of the overall memory usage on the cluster, as well as the individual usage on each worker. It provides different memory readings:


Overall memory used by the worker process (RSS), as measured by the OS


Sum of the sizeof of all Dask data stored on the worker, excluding spilled data.


Memory usage that Dask is not directly aware of. It is estimated by subtracting managed memory from the total process memory and typically includes:

  • The Python interpreter code, loaded modules, and global variables

  • Memory temporarily used by running tasks

  • Dereferenced Python objects that have not been garbage-collected yet

  • Unused memory that the Python memory allocator did not return to libc through free yet

  • Unused memory that the user-space libc free function did not release to the OS yet (see memory allocators below)

  • Memory fragmentation

  • Memory leaks

unmanaged recent

Unmanaged memory that has appeared within the last 30 seconds. This is not included in the ‘unmanaged’ memory measure above. Ideally, this memory should be for the most part a temporary spike caused by tasks’ heap use plus soon-to-be garbage collected objects.

The time it takes for unmanaged memory to transition away from its “recent” state can be tweaked through the distributed.worker.memory.recent-to-old-time key in the ~/.config/dask/distributed.yaml file. If your tasks typically run for longer than 30 seconds, it’s recommended that you increase this setting accordingly.

By default, distributed.Client.rebalance(), distributed.scheduler.Scheduler.rebalance(), and the Active Memory Manager ignore unmanaged recent memory. This behaviour can also be tweaked using the Dask config - see the specific components’ documentation.


managed memory that has been spilled to disk. This is not included in the ‘managed’ measure above. This measure reports the number of bytes actually spilled to disk, which may differ from the output of sizeof particularly in case of compression.

The sum of managed + unmanaged + unmanaged recent is equal by definition to the process memory.

The color of the bars will change as a function of memory usage too:


The worker is operating as normal


The worker may be spilling data to disk


The worker is paused or retiring


Data that has already been spilled to disk; this is in addition to process memory

Memory not released back to the OS

In many cases, high unmanaged memory usage or “memory leak” warnings on workers can be misleading: a worker may not actually be using its memory for anything, but simply hasn’t returned that unused memory back to the operating system, and is hoarding it just in case it needs the memory capacity again. This is not a bug in your code, nor in Dask — it’s actually normal behavior for all processes on Linux and MacOS, and is a consequence of how the low-level memory allocator works (see below for details).

Because Dask makes decisions (spill-to-disk, pause, terminate, Active Memory Manager, rebalance()) based on the worker’s memory usage as reported by the OS, and is unaware of how much of this memory is actually in use versus empty and “hoarded”, it can overestimate — sometimes significantly — how much memory the process is using and think the worker is running out of memory when in fact it isn’t.

More in detail: both the Linux and MacOS memory allocators try to avoid performing a brk kernel call every time the application calls free by implementing a user-space memory management system. Upon free, memory can remain allocated in user space and potentially reusable by the next malloc - which in turn won’t require a kernel call either. This is generally very desirable for C/C++ applications which have no memory allocator of their own, as it can drastically boost performance at the cost of a larger memory footprint. CPython however adds its own memory allocator on top, which reduces the need for this additional abstraction (with caveats).

There are steps you can take to alleviate situations where worker memory is not released back to the OS. These steps are discussed in the following sections.

Manually trim memory

Linux workers only

It is possible to forcefully release allocated but unutilized memory as follows:

import ctypes

def trim_memory() -> int:
    libc = ctypes.CDLL("")
    return libc.malloc_trim(0)

This should be only used as a one-off debugging experiment. Watch the dashboard while running the above code. If unmanaged worker memory (on the “Bytes stored” plot) decreases significantly after calling, then move on to the next section. Otherwise, you likely do have a memory leak.

Note that you should only run this malloc_trim if you are using the default glibc memory allocator. When using a custom allocator such as jemalloc (see below), this could cause unexpected behavior including segfaults. (If you don’t know what this means, you’re probably using the default glibc allocator and are safe to run this).

Automatically trim memory

Linux workers only

To aggressively and automatically trim the memory in a production environment, you should instead set the environment variable MALLOC_TRIM_THRESHOLD_ (note the final underscore) to 0 or a low number; see the mallopt man page for details. Reducing this value will increase the number of syscalls, and as a consequence may degrade performance.


The variable must be set before starting the dask worker process.


If using a Nanny, the MALLOC_TRIM_THRESHOLD_ environment variable will automatically be set to 65536 for the worker process which the nanny is monitoring. You can modify this behavior using the distributed.nanny.environ configuration value.


Linux and MacOS workers

Alternatively to the above, you may experiment with the jemalloc memory allocator, as follows:

On Linux:

conda install jemalloc
LD_PRELOAD=$CONDA_PREFIX/lib/ dask worker <...>

On macOS:

conda install jemalloc
DYLD_INSERT_LIBRARIES=$CONDA_PREFIX/lib/libjemalloc.dylib dask worker <...>

Alternatively on macOS, install globally with homebrew:

brew install jemalloc
DYLD_INSERT_LIBRARIES=$(brew --prefix jemalloc)/lib/libjemalloc.dylib dask worker <...>

jemalloc offers a wealth of configuration settings; please refer to its documentation.

Ignore process memory

If all else fails, you may want to stop Dask from using memory metrics from the OS (RSS) in its decision-making:

      measure: managed

        measure: managed
      spill: false
      pause: false
      terminate: false

This of course will be problematic if you have a genuine issue with unmanaged memory, e.g. memory leaks and/or suffer from heavy fragmentation.

User-defined managed memory containers


This feature is intended for advanced users only; the built-in container for managed memory should fit the needs of most. If you’re looking to dynamically spill CUDA device memory into host memory, you should use dask-cuda.

The design described in the sections above stores data in the worker’s RAM, with automatic spilling to disk when the target or spill thresholds are passed. If one desires a different behaviour, a data= parameter can be passed when initializing the Worker or Nanny. This optional parameter accepts any of the following values:

  • an instance of MutableMapping[str, Any]

  • a callable which returns a MutableMapping[str, Any]

  • a tuple of

    • callable which returns a MutableMapping[str, Any]

    • dict of keyword arguments to the callable

Doing so causes the Worker to ignore both the target and the spill thresholds. However, if the object also supports the following duck-type API in addition to the MutableMapping API, the spill threshold will remain active:

class distributed.spill.ManualEvictProto(*args, **kwargs)[source]

Duck-type API that a third-party alternative to SpillBuffer must respect (in addition to MutableMapping) if it wishes to support spilling when the distributed.worker.memory.spill threshold is surpassed.

This is public API. At the moment of writing, Dask-CUDA implements this protocol in the ProxifyHostFile class.

evict() int[source]

Manually evict a key/value pair from fast to slow memory. Return size of the evicted value in fast memory.

If the eviction failed for whatever reason, return -1. This method must guarantee that the key/value pair that caused the issue has been retained in fast memory and that the problem has been logged internally.

This method never raises.

property fast: | bool

Access to fast memory. This is normally a MutableMapping, but for the purpose of the manual eviction API it is just tested for emptiness to know if there is anything to evict.