Shared Memory & Docker

The shared memory device, /dev/shm, provides a temporary file storage filesystem using RAM for storing files. It’s not mandatory to have /dev/shm, although it’s probably desirable since it facilitates inter-process communication (IPC).

Why would you use /dev/shm instead of just stashing a temporary file under /tmp? Well, /dev/shm exists in RAM (so it’s fast), whereas /tmp resides on disk (so it’s relatively slow).

BASH Demo 

You can create temporary files in shared memory directly from BASH. First let’s check what’s currently under /dev/shm.

ls -l /dev/shm
total 0

Nothing. Cool, we’ll write the current date and time to a file under /dev/shm.

date >/dev/shm/date.txt

Check if the file is there.

ls -l /dev/shm/
-rw-rw-r-- 1 wookie wookie 29 Nov  8 05:40 date.txt

Indeed it is. The file can then be accessed from another process.

cat /dev/shm/date.txt 
Mon 08 Nov 2021 05:40:20 GMT

So the shared memory behaves just like a normal file system, but it’s all in RAM.

A shared memory segment is a chunk of memory that is shared between multiple processes.

What Processes are Using Shared Memory? 

Many applications make use of shared memory. We can delve into this using the ipcs command. We’ll start by looking at the shared memory segments.

ipcs -m
------ Shared Memory Segments --------
key        shmid      owner      perms      bytes      nattch     status      
0x00000000 1376256    wookie     600        7802880    2          dest         
0x00000000 1277954    wookie     600        851968     2          dest         
0x00000000 1277956    wookie     600        851968     2          dest        
0x00000000 1277958    wookie     600        77824      2          dest         
0x00000000 1671189    wookie     600        36864      2          dest         
0x00000000 1179651    wookie     600        8011776    2          dest    
0x00000000 1703959    wookie     600        524288     2          dest
0x0001eaea 557069     wookie     666        16384      0

There are six shared memory segments of various sizes. They have permissions of either 600 (read and write for user) or 666 (read and write for user, group and other). How do those segments relate to processes?

ipcs -pm
------ Shared Memory Creator/Last-op PIDs --------
shmid      owner      cpid       lpid      
1376256    wookie     268958     1923      
1277954    wookie     6254       285824
1277956    wookie     6254       285824 
1277958    wookie     6254       285824    
1671189    wookie     6139       504020   
1179651    wookie     24234      285810    
1703959    wookie     282127     479099    
557069     wookie     125674     125674

The cpid column gives the PID of the process that created the shared memory segment, while the lpid column reflects the PID of the last process which interacted with it.

Those shared memory segments were created by four distinct processes. If we look up the PIDs this is what we find:

 268958  /usr/lib/rstudio/bin/rstudio
   6254  /usr/lib/firefox/firefox
   6139  /opt/google/chrome/chrome
  24234  /usr/lib/thunderbird/thunderbird
 282127  /usr/lib/slack/slack
 125674  /usr/share/dbeaver-ce/dbeaver

Many desktop applications (for example, Slack, Firefox, RStudio, Thunderbird and DBeaver) use shared memory. Some applications (like Firefox) use multiple segments of shared memory.

Now it stands to reason that if these applications are using shared memory on my desktop then they will probably want to use it in a Docker container too. So we need to ensure that there is shared memory available in a container.

What about Docker? 

Docker containers are allocated 64 MB of shared memory by default. We’ll fire up an Ubuntu container to test.

docker run --rm -it --name ubuntu ubuntu

Now we can check the characteristics of that container using docker inspect.

docker inspect ubuntu | grep -i shm
"ShmSize": 67108864,

Nice: 64 MB is precisely 67108864 bytes!

Can we change the amount of shared memory allocated to a container? Sure we can! Use the --shm-size option.

docker run --rm -it --name ubuntu --shm-size=2gb ubuntu

Inspect the container again.

docker inspect ubuntu | grep -i shm
"ShmSize": 2147483648,

Aha: 2 GB is exactly 2147483648 bytes.

In both of the cases above the container is getting its own /dev/shm, separate from that of the host. To confirm, let’s check on its contents.

ls -l /dev/shm
total 0

It’s pristine: no sight of the file we created in /dev/shm on the host.

Mounting Host /dev/shm in a Container 

What about sharing memory between the host and a container or between containers? This can be done by mounting /dev/shm.

docker run --rm -it --name ubuntu -v /dev/shm:/dev/shm ubuntu

Now we can see the file we created earlier from within the container.

cat /dev/shm/date.txt 
Mon 08 Nov 2021 05:40:20 GMT

Shared Memory & Selenium 

I make rather extensive use of Selenium Docker images. For anything but simple applications these have a tendency to be rather memory intensive.

Launch Selenium/Firefox and allow access to 2 GB of shared memory.

docker run -d -p 4444:4444 --shm-size=2gb selenium/standalone-firefox:3.141

Launch Selenium/Chrome and volume mount the host’s shared memory.

docker run -d -p 4444:4444 -v /dev/shm:/dev/shm selenium/standalone-chome:3.141

Chrome can be particularly resource hungry, so I often disable its use of shared memory via the --disable-dev-shm-usage option.

from selenium import webdriver
from selenium.webdriver.common.desired_capabilities import DesiredCapabilities
from import Options

options = Options()

driver = webdriver.Remote(

Cleaning Up 

Just to keep things neat and tidy, we’ll delete the files that we created in /dev/shm.

rm /dev/shm/date.txt