A swapfile is file-backed memory that the system uses to temporarily offload the RAM. It is supported since kernel 5.0. Use swapon(8) to activate the swapfile. There are some limitations of the implementation in BTRFS and linux swap subsystem:

  • filesystem - must be only single device

  • filesystem - must have only single data profile

  • swapfile - the containing subvolume cannot be snapshotted

  • swapfile - must be preallocated

  • swapfile - must be nodatacow (ie. also nodatasum)

  • swapfile - must not be compressed

The limitations come namely from the COW-based design and mapping layer of blocks that allows the advanced features like relocation and multi-device filesystems. However, the swap subsystem expects simpler mapping and no background changes of the file blocks once they’ve been attached to swap.

With active swapfiles, the following whole-filesystem operations will skip swapfile extents or may fail:

  • balance - block groups with swapfile extents are skipped and reported, the rest will be processed normally

  • resize grow - unaffected

  • resize shrink - works as long as the extents are outside of the shrunk range

  • device add - a new device does not interfere with existing swapfile and this operation will work, though no new swapfile can be activated afterwards

  • device delete - if the device has been added as above, it can be also deleted

  • device replace - ditto

When there are no active swapfiles and a whole-filesystem exclusive operation is running (eg. balance, device delete, shrink), the swapfiles cannot be temporarily activated. The operation must finish first.

To create and activate a swapfile run the following commands:

# truncate -s 0 swapfile
# chattr +C swapfile
# fallocate -l 2G swapfile
# chmod 0600 swapfile
# mkswap swapfile
# swapon swapfile

Please note that the UUID returned by the mkswap utility identifies the swap “filesystem” and because it’s stored in a file, it’s not generally visible and usable as an identifier unlike if it was on a block device.

The file will appear in /proc/swaps:

# cat /proc/swaps
Filename          Type          Size           Used      Priority
/path/swapfile    file          2097152        0         -2

The swapfile can be created as one-time operation or, once properly created, activated on each boot by the swapon -a command (usually started by the service manager). Add the following entry to /etc/fstab, assuming the filesystem that provides the /path has been already mounted at this point. Additional mount options relevant for the swapfile can be set too (like priority, not the BTRFS mount options).

/path/swapfile        none        swap        defaults      0 0


If the swapfile activation fails please verify that you followed all the steps above or check the system log (eg. dmesg or journalctl) for more information.

Notably, the swapon utility exits with a message that does not say what failed:

# swapon /path/swapfile
swapon: /path/swapfile: swapon failed: Invalid argument

The specific reason is likely to be printed to the system log by the btrfs module:

# journalctl -t kernel | grep swapfile
kernel: BTRFS warning (device sda): swapfile must have single data profile