This article is from the Frequently Asked Questions for Linux, the Free/Open Source UNIX-like operating system kernel that runs on many modern computer systems. Maintained by David C. Merrill with numerous contributions by others. (v1.0).
A: You may have too little real memory. If you have less RAM than all the programs you're running at once, Linux will swap to your hard disk instead and thrash horribly. The solution in this case is to not run so many things at once or buy more memory. You can also reclaim some memory by compiling and using a kernel with fewer options configured. See How To Upgrade/Recompile a Kernel.
You can tell how much memory and swap you're using with the free command, or by typing:
$ cat /proc/meminfo
If your kernel is configured with a RAM disk, this is probably wasted space and will cause things to go slowly. Use LILO or rdev to tell the kernel not to allocate a RAM disk (see the LILO documentation or type man rdev).