R Parallel: How can I free memory from within a process on a FORK'ed cluster. rm followed by gc doesn't work.

I am trying to free memory and stop a process once memory becomes constrained on a FORK'ed cluster. However, even though the process is halted, I cannot seem to reclaim the memory. When I do it on a PSOCK cluster it works fine, but on a FORK'ed cluster, even when calling

rm(list = ls())

no memory gets freed. See below for an example. Memory usage can be viewed using htop on linux. I've also tried replacing stop() with mcexit() but that just causes more problems and doesn't seem to free up any memory.

I am running on Ubuntu 18.04 and R 3.6.1.


noOfThreads <- detectCores() - 1
cluster <- makeCluster(noOfThreads, type = "FORK") # Remove type = "FORK" and this will work

clusterApplyLB(cluster, 1:noOfThreads, function(x) {
  bigList <- list()
  index <- 1
  while(T) {
    bigList[[index]] <- rep('x', 10000000)
    index <- index + 1
    cat(sprintf("%i: %i\n", x, index))
    memFree <- as.numeric(system("awk '/MemFree/ {print $2}' /proc/meminfo", intern=TRUE))
    memTotal <- as.numeric(system("awk '/MemTotal/ {print $2}' /proc/meminfo", intern=TRUE))
    if (memFree / memTotal < 0.5) {
      rm(list = ls())
      stop("Out of Memory")

# stopCluster(Cluster) # Will free up the memory

I have not done this kind of parallelisation, but installr has some utilities for killing processes, like


I actually don't think manually calling gc will do much for you, it's probably doing a pretty good job already. And I wouldn't use rm(list=ls()), just focus on the variables that are causing problems.

Anyway I am on Windows 10

This is a bit of a puzzle. The reason the gc wouldn't be freeing memory is if it's not running or there's lingering reference to the object.

Allocate static amount of memory for testing

Using vector to assign chunks of memory might be more efficient for testing. At least it makes it easier for me to sort out how much memory I can expect to be used.

foo <- vector(length=250000)
object_size(foo) #1 MB

Report pre and post memory use

I modified the script:

  • allocate a static amount per iteration 100Mb per for 10 iterations.
  • run gc() once after the loop
  • emit pre loop and post gc memory use
  • output to text file in /tmp

Modified testing script


noOfThreads <- detectCores() - 1
cluster <- makeCluster(noOfThreads, type = "FORK", 

# Worker function to be run on by each forked process
workfun <- function(node_num){
  bigList <- list()
  index <- 1

  # Pre allocation memory reporting
  memFree <- as.numeric(system("awk '/MemFree/ {print $2}' /proc/meminfo", intern=TRUE))
  cat(sprintf("%i: pre memFree: %i\n", node_num, memFree))

  while(index < 11) {
    # Allocate ~100 MB of logical vector
    bigList[[index]] <- vector(length=25000000)

    # Gather & emit iteration's memory use
    memFree <- as.numeric(system("awk '/MemFree/ {print $2}' /proc/meminfo", intern=TRUE))
    cat(sprintf("%i: %i memFree: %i\n", node_num, index, memFree))

    index <- index + 1
  # Remove objects in environment and garbage clean, 
  #  but keep the node number!
  rm(list = setdiff(ls(), "node_num"))
  # Post GC report
  memFree <- as.numeric(system("awk '/MemFree/ {print $2}' /proc/meminfo", intern=TRUE))
  cat(sprintf("%i: end memFree: %i\n", node_num, memFree))

# Run the function on the forks
clusterApplyLB(cluster, 1:noOfThreads, workfun)

Results: (node_num: iteration mem free)

2: pre memFree: 6931168
3: pre memFree: 6930664
1: pre memFree: 6930664
3: 1 memFree: 6629988
2: 1 memFree: 6534276
1: 1 memFree: 6532512
3: 10 memFree: 3911460
2: 10 memFree: 3911836
1: 10 memFree: 3913236
3: end memFree: 5704496
2: end memFree: 6849472
1: end memFree: 6849532

Looks like gc does run.

I'm seeing just over 80MB remaining after the call to gc() in any of the threads. Each fork should be allocating ~ 1000 MB of space during it's run.

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