Pushing the Limits of Windows: Physical Memory. Physical Memory
One of the most fundamental resources on a computer is physical memory. Windows' memory manager is responsible with populating memory with the code and data of active processes, device drivers, and the operating system itself. Because most systems access more code and data than can fit in physical memory as they run, physical memory is in essence a window into the code and data used over time. The amount of memory can therefore affect performance, because when data or code a process or the operating system needs is not present, the memory manager must bring it in from disk.
Besides affecting performance, the amount of physical memory impacts other resource limits. For example, the amount of non-paged pool, operating system buffers backed by physical memory, is obviously constrained by physical memory. Physical memory also contributes to the system virtual memory limit, which is the sum of roughly the size of physical memory plus the maximum configured size of any paging files. Physical memory also can indirectly limit the maximum number of processes, which I'll talk about in a future post on process and thread limits. Windows Client Memory Limits
64-bit Windows client SKUs support different amounts of memory as a SKU-differentiating feature, with the low end being 512MB for Windows XP Starter to 128GB for Vista Ultimate. All 32-bit Windows client SKUs, however, including Windows Vista, Windows XP and Windows 2000 Professional, support a maximum of 4GB of physical memory. 4GB is the highest physical address accessible with the standard x86 memory management mode. Originally, there was no need to even consider support for more than 4GB on clients because that amount of memory was rare, even on servers.
However, by the time Windows XP SP2 was under development, client systems with more than 4GB were foreseeable, so the Windows team started broadly testing Windows XP on systems with more than 4GB of memory. Windows XP SP2 also enabled Physical Address Extensions (PAE) support by default on hardware that implements no-execute memory because its required for Data Execution Prevention (DEP), but that also enables support for more than 4GB of memory.
What they found was that many of the systems would crash, hang, or become unbootable because some device drivers, commonly those for video and audio devices that are found typically on clients but not servers, were not programmed to expect physical addresses larger than 4GB. As a result, the drivers truncated such addresses, resulting in memory corruptions and corruption side effects. Server systems commonly have more generic devices and with simpler and more stable drivers, and therefore hadn't generally surfaced these problems. The problematic client driver ecosystem lead to the decision for client SKUs to ignore physical memory that resides above 4GB, even though they can theoretically address it. 32-bit Client Effective Memory Limits
While 4GB is the licensed limit for 32-bit client SKUs, the effective limit is actually lower and dependent on the system's chipset and connected devices. The reason is that the physical address map includes not only RAM, but device memory as well, and x86 and x64 systems map all device memory below the 4GB address boundary to remain compatible with 32-bit operating systems that don't know how to handle addresses larger than 4GB. If a system has 4GB RAM and devices, like video, audio and network adapters, that implement windows into their device memory that sum to 500MB, 500MB of the 4GB of RAM will reside above the 4GB address boundary, as seen below.
The result is that, if you have a system with 3GB or more of memory and you are running a 32-bit Windows client, you may not be getting the benefit of all of the RAM. On Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Vista RTM, you can see how much RAM Windows has accessible to it in the System Properties dialog, Task Manager's Performance page, and, on Windows XP and Windows Vista (including SP1), in the Msinfo32 and Winver utilities. On Window Vista SP1, some of these locations changed to show installed RAM, rather than available RAM, as documented. Read more at the source