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Quick Tip – *nix: ulimit

Last week one of our DBAs called me. She was trying to install Oracle 11g. She obtained zip files for the installation from another co-worker. This had many zip files, probably one per installation disk. She was trying to unzip the files and got some error.

Like always, I got down to business of checking and googling. When I tried to unzip the first file, it gave an error as to missing zip file headers. It suggested that the file could be part of a multi-part zip file. Good old google suggested how to combine a multi-part zip file. Just cat each file into one big file, then unzip it:

cat file1.zip file1.zip file3.zip > fullfile.zip

Unzip failed on the fullfile.zip. When I checked the file size, it had he same size as the 1st file, the largest file. Strangely, they both had the size of about 1GB. More googling revealed role of ulimit!

Resource limits on *NIX systems (ulimit)

All *nix systems (all flavors of Unix and Linux) have a limits on system resources per user. The limits include cpu time per process, number of processes, largest file size, memory size, number of file handles etc (file size is defined in number of blocks.). The root user gets unlimited resources, but all others are assigned a finite settings as defined in /etc/security/limits on AIX. (/etc/security/limits.conf in Ubuntu). Here is a good post, as to why you want to limit resources for users. To check the limits, use ulimit command.

ulimit -a

There are Hard limits (ulimit -Ha) set by the root and Soft limits (ulimit -Sa) a user can set herself.  See this blog for details on using ulimit.

Role of ulimit in our problem

Continuing our story about faile Oracle install above, when we did ulimit -a, one particular entry caught our attention. file size was set to 1GB (approx., remember it’s set in blocks?). Bingo, this is why when we try to create the fullfile.zip, it got truncated at 1GB, the limit for the user. Apparently, the DBAs are supposed to have unlimited file size. She got onto calling the Unix admin.

To cut the story short, apparently ulimit played a role in getting the original zip files as well. When she downloaded the files, it truncated the biggest of files to 1GB each. Our first file happened to be one and that’s why it looked incomplete. To make matters worse unzip and gzip ended in pointing to a multi-part zip file, which they weren’t.

Like I said, this is true for all *nix systems. This is very powerful, in controlling runaway processes sucking system resources away. But there may be a legitimate situation like above, where you need to override the settings. So, next time your file seem corrupted or truncated, remember to check ulimit.


  1. ulimit in IBM AIX
  2. ulimit on HP-UX
  3. ulimit on Linux – blog
  4. ulimit on Unix – blog

Depending on the *nix you are using, this may be variously mentioned as limits per user, per shell and it’s descendants. Some of the settings like cpu time is applied to individual processes user/shell is running.

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