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Swapfile Vs. Paging File

We have all been using the terms swapfile and paging file interchangeably. Even Microsoft invariably refers to the paging file as the swapfile and vice versa. However, the swapfile and paging file are two different entities. Although both are used to create virtual memory, there are subtle differences between the two.

The main difference lies in their names. Swapfiles operate by swapping entire processes from system memory into the swapfile. This immediately frees up memory for other applications to use.

In contrast, paging files function by moving "pages" of a program from system memory into the paging file. These pages are 4KB in size. The entire program does not get swapped wholesale into the paging file.

While swapping occurs when there is heavy demand on the system memory, paging can occur preemptively. This means that the operating system can page out parts of a program when it is minimized or left idle for some time. The memory used by the paged-out portions are not immediately released for use by other applications. Instead, they are kept on standby.

If the paged-out application is reactivated, it can instantly access the paged-out parts (which are still stored in system memory). But if another application requests for the memory space, then the system memory held by the paged-out data is released for its use. As you can see, this is really quite different from the way a swapfile works.

Swapfiles were used in old iterations of Microsoft Windows, prior to Windows 95. From Windows 95 onwards, all Windows versions use only paging files. Therefore, the correct term for the file used to create virtual memory in current operating systems is paging file, not swapfile.

Because both swapfiles and paging files do the same thing - create virtual memory, people will always refer to swapfiles and paging files interchangeably. Let's just keep in mind their innate differences.

Many thanks to Matt Woodward of Ars Technica!


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