underyx

Raising the Maximum Number of File Descriptors (Open Files) on Ubuntu 14.04 Trusty

So, I think I reached a new milestone in my sysadmin career (I mainly identify as a developer, but am responsible for the infrastructure at Allmyles as well, currently.) The milestone I’m talking about is when you’re first hit with a downtime completely out of the blue, seeing some weird ‘Reached maximum number of open files’ error, or something similar.

Chances are, if you now need to research how to raise the limit, you didn’t even know before that such a limit existed, or like me, you had some vague idea, but never gave it much thought ('We don’t need to deal with this right now, surely we will revisit the issue before we even get close to the current limit.’) Well, no. You won’t. And when your services go down, it’s going to be hell to find any worthwhile resource that describes how to solve this thing, so you better do this now, or at the very least, set up some monitoring for the number of used file descriptors for critical processes!

If anyone’s interested, as I understand it, this entire feature is mostly obsolete — it seems like a nice safeguard against a certain type of memory leak (namely, accidentally opening too many files which each take up a bit of year memory), or for controlling resources available for each user, but it seems like it has practically no use nowadays, when file opens have practically no cost at all on most systems.

For reference, our current stack, for which the steps described below worked is:

  • Instances hosted on Amazon EC2 (not that this one should matter)
  • Ubuntu 14.04 (Trusty) for the OS
  • Supervisor for process management
  • And lastly, the process hitting errors was Elasticsearch

Realizing You Have A Problem is the First Step

If you’re currently trying to fix the issue on a live server, just skip on down to the next section. Otherwise, it’s probably a nice idea to check what your limit is set to, and how close you are to reaching it.

The canonical way to check the limits for your current session which everyone will tell you is the ulimit command:

$ ulimit -n
4096
$ ulimit -Hn
4096
$ ulimit -Sn
4096

A couple things to note:

  • There are separate limits for different users, so make sure to run this as the user your process is using.
  • There’s a hard limit, and a soft limit. The latter is the actual limit your processes have to obey, and the former set the maximum number the soft limit can be set to. If you need to set separate values for these two, you probably already know how to do that and are not reading this post, so just keep in mind to always modify both, and check the soft limit.

So this is what you would find after 10 seconds of Googling, but keep in mind that ulimit is not guaranteed to give you the limits your processes actually have! There’s a million things that can modify a limits of a process after (or before) you initialized your shell. So what you should do instead is fire up top, htop, ps, or whatever you want to use to get the ID of the problematic process, and do a cat /proc/{process_id}/limits:

$ cat /proc/1882/limits
Limit                     Soft Limit           Hard Limit           Units
Max cpu time              unlimited            unlimited            seconds
Max file size             unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max data size             unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max stack size            8388608              unlimited            bytes
Max core file size        0                    unlimited            bytes
Max resident set          unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max processes             15922                15922                processes
Max open files            4096                 4096                 files
Max locked memory         65536                65536                bytes
Max address space         unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max file locks            unlimited            unlimited            locks
Max pending signals       15922                15922                signals
Max msgqueue size         819200               819200               bytes
Max nice priority         0                    0
Max realtime priority     0                    0
Max realtime timeout      unlimited            unlimited            us

Eek! Our Elasticsearch process has a max file limit of 4096, which is way less than we intended! Lucky for us /proc/{process_id}/fd is a directory that holds a file for each open file the process has, so it’s pretty easy to count how close we are to reach the limit:

$ sudo ls /proc/1882/fd | wc -l
4096

Welp, at least that explains why we’re seeing all those errors in the log. For the record, it took us 79 Elasticsearch indices to hit the 4096 open file limit. Oh well, let’s move on to actually fixing this.

The Stuff You Came Here to Read: Raising the Limit

Sorry it took this long to get here! The ulimit -n 64000 command that’s floating around, as every easy 'solution’, will not actually fix your problem. The issue is that the command only raises your limit for the active shell session, so it’s not permanent, and it most definitely will not affect your processes that are already running (actually, nothing will, so don’t have high expectations here.)

The actual way to raise your descriptors consists of editing three files:

  • /etc/security/limits.conf needs to have these lines in it:

    *    soft nofile 64000
    *    hard nofile 64000
    root soft nofile 64000
    root hard nofile 64000
    

    The asterisk at the beginning of the first two lines means 'apply this rule to all users except root’, and you can probably guess that the last two lines set the limit only for the root user. The number at the end is of course, the new limit you’re setting. 64000 is a pretty safe number to use

  • /etc/pam.d/common-session needs to have this line in it:

    session required pam_limits.so
    
  • /etc/pam.d/common-session-noninteractive also needs to have this line in it:

    session required pam_limits.so
    

I never got around to looking into what exactly this does, but I’d assume that these two files control whether the limits file you edited above is actually read at the beginning of your sessions.

So, you did it, great job! Just reboot the machine (yup, sadly, you need to) and your limits should reflect your changes:

$ ulimit -n
64000
$ ulimit -Hn
64000
$ ulimit -Sn
64000

Whee! And to check your problematic process again:

$ cat /proc/1860/limits
Limit                     Soft Limit           Hard Limit           Units
Max cpu time              unlimited            unlimited            seconds
Max file size             unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max data size             unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max stack size            8388608              unlimited            bytes
Max core file size        0                    unlimited            bytes
Max resident set          unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max processes             15922                15922                processes
Max open files            4096                 4096                 files
Max locked memory         65536                65536                bytes
Max address space         unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max file locks            unlimited            unlimited            locks
Max pending signals       15922                15922                signals
Max msgqueue size         819200               819200               bytes
Max nice priority         0                    0
Max realtime priority     0                    0
Max realtime timeout      unlimited            unlimited            us

Wait, what? That still says 4096! There must be something we missed (except if you’re seeing 64000–in which case you can pat yourself on the back and close this tab.)

Finding That One Last Thing You Still Need to Do

So you stitched together and followed all the steps that you found on three different blogs, and four Stack Overflow questions, and it still won’t work. Huh?

The thing that most resources neglect to emphasize, is that your limits can really easily be modified by anything responsible for execution of your processes. If ulimit -n (run as the correct user) is giving you the number you just set, but cat /proc/{process_id}/limits is still printing the low number, you almost certainly have a process manager, an init script, or something similar messing your limits up. You also need to keep in mind that processes inherit the limits of the parent process. This last step (if necessary) is going to vary a lot based on your stack and configuration, so the best I can do is give you an example, of how our Supervisor setup had to be configured to fix the number of file descriptors.

Supervisor has a config variable that sets the file descriptor limit of its main process. Apparently, this setting is in turn inherited by any and all processes it launches. What’s even worse is that the default for this setting is 4096, and that’s no good when we’re wanting 64000 instead. To override this default, you can add the following line to /etc/supervisor/supervisord.conf, in the [supervisord] section:

minfds=64000

Pretty easy to fix, but also really hard to find if you have no knowledge of this inheritance rule, or the fact that Supervisor by default is not having any of that OS level limit configuration. At this point, all you have to do is restart supervisord, in my case with sudo service supervisor restart. This should automatically restart your problematic processes as well, with your newly set limit:

$ cat /proc/1954/limits
Limit                     Soft Limit           Hard Limit           Units
Max cpu time              unlimited            unlimited            seconds
Max file size             unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max data size             unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max stack size            8388608              unlimited            bytes
Max core file size        0                    unlimited            bytes
Max resident set          unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max processes             15922                15922                processes
Max open files            64000                64000                files
Max locked memory         65536                65536                bytes
Max address space         unlimited            unlimited            bytes
Max file locks            unlimited            unlimited            locks
Max pending signals       15922                15922                signals
Max msgqueue size         819200               819200               bytes
Max nice priority         0                    0
Max realtime priority     0                    0
Max realtime timeout      unlimited            unlimited            us

Neat! You got that thing fixed. Now go celebrate by setting this up on your other servers, too. And while you’re at it, you can tack on some monitoring as well.