Linux inotify limits

The underlying technology used to watch for filesystem changes on Linux is inotify, a component of the Linux kernel.

inotify has several configurable limits:

  • max_user_instances limits (roughly) how many applications can watch files (per user);
  • max_user_watches limits how many filesystem items can be watched, in total across all applications (per user);
  • max_queued_events limits how many filesystem events will be held in the kernel queue if the application does not read them;

There are also physical limits, dependent on the amount of RAM/memory a system has available, and open file/handle limits, as configured in limits.conf (5) and with Bash’s ulimit.

Note that the first two limits are per user, rather than per application. This means that all applications a user runs which make use of filesystem events compete for the same “pool” of resources. Also note that it’s not possible to set different limits for different users.

The default max_user_watches limit on most Linux systems is 8192. That is regularly reached if you watch large folder structures, or if you use more than one application that watches the filesystem in some way, something you might not be aware of!

Errors you may have seen

You may have seen one of the following errors, or something similar, which are characteristic of exceeding an inotify limit:

Unable to monitor filesystem. Please run:
echo 100000 | sudo tee /proc/sys/fs/inotify/max_user_watches
No space left on device - Failed to watch “…”:
The user limit on the total number of inotify watches was
reached or the kernel failed to allocate a needed resource.
Io(Error { repr: Os {
	code: 28,
	message: “No space left on device”
} })
tail: cannot watch ‘/path/to/dir’: No space left on device
Failed to watch /path/to/dir;
upper limit on inotify watches reached!

Note that these errors are from a variety of applications, as this page is intended for guidance for more than just the Watchexec family of tools.

Fixing it

For most users, the default limit is much too low. 65536 is a good start on a more reasonable allowance.

To fix it permanently, you need to use sysctl to configure your kernel on boot. Write the following line to a appropriately-named file under /etc/sysctl.d/, for example /etc/sysctl.d/inotify.conf:


To fix it temporarily (it will persist until a reboot), use the sysctl command instead:

sysctl fs.inotify.max_user_watches=65536

You may increase the limits further, if you require it.

The hard upper bound is controlled by how much kernel memory you are willing or able to dedicate for this use. One inotify watch costs 540 bytes of kernel memory on 32-bit architectures, and 1080 bytes on 64-bit ones. The consuming application may have additional overhead on this.

For example, applications that use the Notify library use about 10 additional bytes, plus the full filesystem path, for each watched item. (A watched item is generally a single directory. When watching directories recursively, one inotify watch is established per subdirectory.)

There are recorded instances of people using millions of watches, for example to monitor their entire home directory. They may potentially be using gigabytes of kernel (which isn’t swappable) and userspace (which is) memory for that purpose.

Other limits

max_user_instances may also be too low on some systems. For example, on servers it is frequently set as low as 127. A good workstation default is 1024.

max_queued_events is rarely an issue. Applications will most often read events from the queue as fast as they can, and use their own userspace queues and structures to deal with them, so events will not remain kernel-side for very long.

This is compounded by the behaviour of the inotify subsystem when the queue maximum is reached: instead of ignoring further events, the whole inotify instance is dropped. This is usually a fatal error for an application, and may be hard to recover from if not: applications will therefore want to zealously avoid that happening.


Note on dnotify, inotify, fanotify, fsnotify

Dnotify was the original Linux kernel implementation of filesystem watching. Prior to dnotify was “FAM”, which came from IRIX. Dnotify was replaced around 2008 by inotify. Then fanotify was initially implemented, but ultimately not merged and abandoned. Meanwhile, fsnotify replaced the entire backend kernel implementation, with dnotify and inotify (and then fanotify) re-written as frontends on fsnotify, eliminating duplication.

Thus, nowadays (i.e. on kernels 4.3 and higher, from about 2015 onwards) when speaking of all or any of these systems, one is talking about the same mechanism, but accessed through different kernel calls, potentially exposing different capabilities and trade-offs (e.g. fanotify is more powerful and may be vastly more efficient, but currently — as of 2021 — requires root access, as it is geared towards access control rather than monitoring).