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The Grumpy Editor's guide to (some) development distributions

By Jonathan Corbet
November 7, 2007
Part of the LWN Grumpy Editor series
Your editor is not always known for the display of large amounts of good sense. Arguably, this poor judgment is best displayed by the habit of running leading-edge development distributions on systems which are needed for everyday work. Development distributions are where distributors create their next releases; they tend to contain packages fresh from their upstream sources which are not, always, quite ready for prime time. As a result of running these systems, episodes like the following are discouragingly commonplace:

  • Two hours prior to leaving to catch a plane to yet another conference, your editor decided to do a "quick" update on the laptop system, which was running the Ubuntu development repository. What followed was two highly focused hours with a rescue CD bringing the system back to a point where it would boot and run a presentation.

  • Your editor's desktop, running Fedora's Rawhide, started to exhibit an interesting interaction between Gnash and the X server, with the result that, at random times, random X clients would be abruptly disconnected. The old lesson about frequently saving one's work was well reinforced over the few days it took to track down the problem.

Given that this kind of occurrence is not particularly rare, one might well wonder why your editor continues to run development distributions on mission-critical systems. Natural cranial density may well play into this situation, of course. There are also clear advantages for somebody in your editor's line of work in seeing where distributions - and the applications they ship - are headed before they get the "stable" stamp applied to them. But that does not explain why so many others run these distributions; there is more to it than that.

When one runs a development distribution, one is immersed in the heart of the process that makes Linux happen. There are opportunities to help improve the system (by reporting bugs if nothing else) and to influence the directions that development takes. The only way to effectively test such a complex collection of software is to use it in real-world situations; this testing is a crucial part of the process as a whole. And the truth of the matter is that software which is under ongoing development is alive in ways that occasional, stabilized releases are not. It's sort of like having a small child in the house: development distributions will surprise you every day with some new ability, a new look, or something totally off the wall and humorous.

Of course, again like a child, these distributions will also bring surprises in the form of an occasional, unpleasant mess to clean up, usually at highly inopportune times. It's part of the deal.

LWN tends not to run a lot of distribution reviews, mostly because doing a review which goes beyond commenting on the installer requires using the distribution for real work over a substantial period of time. Your editor has, however, been using these two distributions for long enough to get a sense for the differences between them. So what follows is a review of Rawhide and Ubuntu (through the Edgy, Feisty, and Gutsy development periods - your editor has not, yet, had the courage to jump onto the Hardy train) as development distributions. Needless to say, your editor will not be making comments on the installation process.


So what does matter to users of development distributions? Clearly, an issue which will always be at the top of the list is stability. One expects to get bitten on occasion, but it would be nice if "on occasion" were as occasional as possible. Getting real metrics on stability of development distributions would not be easy to do, but your editor can say this: Ubuntu seems to break more often than Rawhide does, and in more severe ways. Your editor's Rawhide system has never required reinstallation from scratch - something which cannot be said of the laptop. The sad fact is that Ubuntu, for all its qualities, does have a bit of tendency to ship buggy software; the official releases, too, sometimes have surprises, especially with the more obscure packages. Don Marti's recent experience in this regard is not exceptional.

Tracking a development distribution is hard work; one must, to the extent possible, keep an eye on what is changing and try to figure out when the most auspicious times for an update might be. Rawhide publishes a single message daily with a list of updated packages and known dependency problems (example). Ubuntu, instead, sends out a separate message for every updated package (example). Either way, trying to follow everything that changes from one day to the next is an impossible task for all but the most dedicated reader - the volume is simply too high. So one ends up starting an update, looking at the list of packages to upgrade, and trying to decide whether, given the day's requirements, an update is a sensible thing to do or not. As noted above, your editor occasionally gets this decision wrong.

Coding coding coding
Tho the desktops blowing
Keeps on near exploding
Brains, wit and pleasure
Debuggin' forever
Wishing our code was not to blame
All the things that we're missing
Typecasts, NULLs and phishing
Are waiting at the end of the day

-- Alan Cox

The Fedora community has a most helpful resource in the form of the fedora-test mailing list. When something goes badly wrong, somebody will usually post some sort of anguished cry, allowing everybody who is further back in the pack of lemmings to decide to skip the update for that day. Thanks to this list, your editor was happily able to avoid the inadvertent breaking of the X window system which recently burned a number of Rawhide users. Even better, Rawhide developers will occasionally post warnings that a difficult transition is about to happen; for example, Rawhide users are well advised to take evasive action if they care about graphical displays over the next few weeks. Occasional bad poetry (see sidebar) is a special bonus.

As far as your editor can tell, the Ubuntu community lacks an analogous list; there is no public forum specifically for users of the development distribution.

Package management and updates

Another aspect of tracking a development distribution is package management. Rawhide's tool for this task is yum. Your editor has expressed his opinion on this tool before; it is not, shall we say, the yummiest part of the distribution. That said, yum has improved considerably in recent times. Some basic caching means that, at least some of the time, operations like "yum search" no longer allow the consumption of more than one cup of coffee before they complete. The under-publicized skip-broken plugin allows a system to be updated even if an obscure package is uninstallable because of a dependency problem (and Rawhide frequently has dependency problems). Your editor no longer remembers when it was last necessary to remove rpm's cache files by hand. Most of the time, the yum/rpm combination works well enough these days - at least for those of us who are not in a hurry and have a lot of memory.

Ubuntu, of course, uses apt and dpkg. These tools, in many ways, remain nicer than their rpm-based equivalents. Apt is faster and seems to be smarter about complicated updates - though one must still watch closely when doing a dist-upgrade (often necessary with development distributions) to ensure that apt does not stealthily remove crucial packages. Tools like dpkg-reconfigure are most nice to have when an update causes, say, one's mail configuration to take a strange turn. All told, Ubuntu's Debian-based package management tools still are nicer to work with, though the gap is narrowing.

One interesting difference is in the handling of configuration file updates. RPM-based distributions will, when faced with an updated configuration file, put the new version in the target directory with a .rpmnew extension. Except when they, instead, replace the file and leave the old one with a .rpmsave extension. Except when they use .rpmorig instead. Your editor's system currently has 106 .rpmnew files, 41 .rpmsave files, and 103 .rpmorig files under /etc; your editor has no clue about what changes might be indicated by any of them. A diligent user will, of course, read the update log and carefully look to see what has changed whenever one of these files is created. The rest of us just never notice until something breaks, at which point we go in to try to figure out, say, why printing no longer works.

Ubuntu, true to its Debian roots, halts the update process and asks the administrator what to do. Except, on occasion, where it just silently replaces some vital configuration file with a non-working version. Fortunately, that does not happen very often, but there is a much more frequent problem which afflicts all Debian-based distributions: it will often stop and ask what to do about configuration files which have never been changed by anybody. In cases where the file has never required intervention, it would sure be nice not to have to tell the system explicitly that the replacement does not require intervention either. But it must be said that it is better to err on the side of asking what to do than to silently install (or drop) configuration file updates.

In general, Debian-based systems have traditionally been seen as being easier to update - especially from remote repositories - than RPM-based systems. Your editor has not really found that to be the case here, though. The desktop Rawhide system started at Fedora Core 2 and has never seen an installation CD since. As mentioned above, the Ubuntu system has required a couple of reinstallations. Ubuntu has, unfortunately, earned a bit of a reputation for upgrade-related problems; somewhere in the process of civilizing Debian, that distribution's robust upgradability has suffered.

Of course, Rawhide is not perfect in this regard. Your editor still has not had the time to figure out why the PulseAudio transition has left sound in a problematic state, for example. Gracefully replacing core infrastructure on a running distribution is simply not an easy thing to do.

Package selection

With regard to the variety of packages available, Ubuntu used to have a huge lead. When the full set of universe repositories is used, this Debian-based distribution still offers more packages than Rawhide does. In the recent past, Rawhide was, to a great extent, limited to the set of packages offered by Fedora Core. The separate-but-unequal "Extras" repository filled in some of the gaps, but, for the development distribution, Core and Extras were often inconsistent with each other and a system using Extras packages tended to be hard to update. Now there is only one repository and life is better. Your editor has always made a point of having something Debian-based around just because almost any package of interest was only an apt-get away. But now it is rare that a desired tool cannot be found in Rawhide.

Whether one can get the current version of a given program from either of these repositories tends to be a hit-or-miss proposition. Both distributions freeze updates as their release dates approach, with the result that, near the end of the cycle, the packages on offer tend to lag behind what is available upstream. Ubuntu is rather more aggressive than Rawhide, though, in shoveling quite-new software versions in shortly before its release dates. It's worth noting that the Fedora project appears to be planning to change how Rawhide works starting with the Fedora 9 cycle; the stabilized distribution and Rawhide will fork much sooner, allowing Rawhide to blast on ahead during the later stages of the distribution cycle.

Both distributions, sometimes, seem to be a bit over-zealous in churning packages; your editor has never understood why large packages like dejavu-fonts or the language packages (or just seem to require daily, bandwidth-sapping updates.

For people who want easy access to packages containing patent-encumbered or non-free software, Ubuntu will clearly work better. Repositories with that kind of stuff are configured from the outset and the pieces fit together nicely. Rawhide users must go to third-party repositories - a move which is likely to introduce dependency problems and make updates harder to do. Meanwhile, this aspect of Ubuntu is, for better or for worse, likely to make life easier for those who want to run a development distribution on a difficult laptop.


Your editor tries to make a point of changing distributions on occasion, just to have a good feel for what is out there. The two development distributions discussed here are far from the only ones out there. Others worth of consideration for any willing victim include:

  • Debian sid, which has long been the definitive development distribution. Many developers have been running sid for many years and have never looked for anything else.

  • Gentoo. The last time your editor attempted to install Gentoo was some years ago on a very slow system. A few days later, it was still building packages. There is, however, a large group of users (with faster machines) who swear by this distribution.

  • Mandriva's Cooker appears to have an active and growing user community.

When looking at the major distributions and their associated development versions, one is struck by one significant absence: there is no development repository available for SUSE Linux. There is an occasional openSUSE development release, but no access to the current development repository. As a result, SUSE misses out on the sort of active user and testing community that these other distributions have. Update: some commenters have pointed out the openSUSE Factory distribution, which your editor obviously missed.

Your editor does not wish to choose a winner among the two development distributions here, much less try to compare them with the other available distributions. One can certainly have a fun, useful, occasionally thrilling ride with any of them. The best thing for anybody with the requisite interest, technical skills (especially in the disaster recovery area), and calm disposition is to pick one and jump into the game. There's no better way to get into the process that creates Linux.

Comments (50 posted)

Laptops, power management, and Ubuntu

By Jake Edge
November 7, 2007

Laptop hard disk failures are horrible to contemplate; they always come at the worst possible time, far from home or office, while managing to lose a huge amount of important data. This explains the loud outcry when it appeared that Ubuntu was causing premature failures in laptop hard disks, as was reported in many places last week. The problem is not really Ubuntu-specific, nor as widespread as was feared, but before the dust settled it certainly looked like it might give Ubuntu a very public black eye.

Laptop manufacturers want to reduce the power consumption of their devices; one way to do that is to spin down the hard disk when it hasn't been accessed for a time. Some hard disks then move the heads away from the platters, called "parking the heads", in order to prevent damage to the drive under a sudden deceleration; hitting the floor for example. Depending on the drive, head parking or spinning down will increment a count, the load/unload cycle (or just load cycle) count, which can then be queried using the smartctl command:

    [root@anhinga jake]# smartctl -A /dev/sda | grep Load_Cycle
    193 Load_Cycle_Count        [...]          359618
The number at the end of the line is the count.

Drive manufacturers typically rate their laptop drives for 600,000 load cycles, so when people started noticing counts around half that number on their relatively new Ubuntu laptops, they got worried. Bugs were were filed in Ubuntu's Launchpad, various blogs started reporting it, and the story was picked up by Slashdot, running under the headline "Ubuntu May Be Killing Your Laptop's Hard Drive". At that point, muttering about tar and feathers could be heard in various quarters, but it is difficult to put the blame solely on Ubuntu.

The default power saving settings for a particular laptop are set by the manufacturer. Unless "laptop mode" is enabled – it is off by default, but would seem a reasonable thing to enable on a laptop – Ubuntu does not change those settings. In order to get the best battery life, laptop makers are setting very aggressive power saving modes that will spin down the disk and park the heads after a short period of idle time (typically 15-60 seconds). If the disk is accessed after that happens, the process is reversed and the counter gets incremented again. For some laptops, this happens regardless of whether it is running from battery or not.

Default Ubuntu installs, not unlike many other distributions, tend to access the disk frequently – for logging, atime updates, or other reasons. If the time between accesses is larger than the time between spin downs, a high load cycle count can result. The load cycle count is an indicator of the wear and tear on the drive, for both the motors and the parking mechanism and the drive rating is only an estimate of what can be expected. Users are reporting drive problems with only one-third of the expected load cycles; which may or may not be related, of course.

In some ways, Ubuntu is being victimized by its own success; this problem is getting pinned on Ubuntu, in part, because it is so popular. Users of other distributions are starting to chime in with similar problems. As might be guessed, the problem is not Linux-specific either, with both Mac OS X and Windows laptop users reporting high load cycle counts as well. It is a hard problem to completely get a handle on because it is very hardware-specific, with software settings and usage patterns playing a role as well.

It is hard to claim that any distribution should be changing default power management settings without request by the user – the hardware manufacturers should be responsible for setting reasonable defaults. It will be very difficult for a distribution to know what settings to make, so the laptop vendors need to be held accountable to choose defaults that won't harm the hardware under normal use. It could be argued that a user who enabled laptop mode on Ubuntu made it reasonable for the OS to set the hard disk to its most aggressive power management setting, but that may have worsened the problem for some. Various fixes have been gathered on the Ubuntu wiki page, but the basic idea is to change the power savings setting for the hard disk using hdparm -B 254 /dev/hda (or /dev/sda). The 254 value sets the least aggressive power savings mode; some users are reporting that 255 will disable power management completely, while others say it has no effect.

The biggest change distributions can make to help alleviate this problem is to reduce the number of writes, especially nearly useless writes, to the disk. One of the culprits reported for Ubuntu is the acpid power management daemon writing battery status to a logfile every 15 seconds, which seems like a good way to ensure the battery life reduces more quickly than it should. Some logging could be deferred or disabled when running from battery.

Using the relatime option when mounting filesystems is another, fairly simple, change that could be made to significantly reduce disk writes that are likely to be pointless. Fedora 8 enables that option by default for all systems, battery powered or not, for the disk performance increase that it gives. People running older kernels, before 2.6.20 added the relatime option, may want to consider disabling atime updates altogether using the noatime mount option.

There is still plenty of work to be done to produce the most power efficient Linux systems, but we are making lots of progress. The ongoing work to reduce the power consumption of both the kernel and, more importantly, user space programs, has made amazing strides in a fairly short period of time. This panic over Ubuntu the Mighty Disk Eater might have been overblown, but it will serve to help us get better systems in the long run; yet another step on the path to world domination.

(Note that the Load_Cycle_Count number above in the smartctl example is correct for the author's Fedora 7 laptop with a less than one year old disk. It was increasing at several thousand per day until the hdparm change was made.)

Comments (36 posted)

Memory part 7: Memory performance tools

November 7, 2007

This article was contributed by Ulrich Drepper

[Editor's note: welcome to part 7 of Ulrich Drepper's "What every programmer should know about memory"; this section is concerned with tools which can help programmers optimize the memory performance of their code. Those who have not seen the previous parts of this document can find them from part 1.]

7 Memory Performance Tools

A wide variety of tools is available to help programmers understand the cache and memory use of a program. Modern processors have performance monitoring hardware that can be used. Some events are hard to measure exactly, so there is also room for simulation. When it comes to higher-level functionality, there are special tools to monitor the execution of a process. We will introduce a set of commonly used tools available on most Linux systems.

7.1 Memory Operation Profiling

Profiling memory operations requires collaboration from the hardware. It is possible to gather some information in software alone, but this is either coarse-grained or merely a simulation. Examples of simulation will be shown in Section 7.2 and Section 7.5. Here we will concentrate on measurable memory effects.

Access to performance monitoring hardware on Linux is provided by oprofile. Oprofile provides continuous profiling capabilities as first described in [continuous]; it performs statistical, system-wide profiling with an easy-to-use interface. Oprofile is by no means the only way the performance measurement functionality of processors can be used; Linux developers are working on pfmon which might at some point be sufficiently widely deployed to warrant being described here, too.

The interface oprofile provides is simple and minimal but also pretty low-level, even if the optional GUI is used. The user has to select among the events the processor can record. The architecture manuals for the processors describe the events but, oftentimes, it requires extensive knowledge about the processors themselves to interpret the data. Another problem is the interpretation of the collected data. The performance measurement counters are absolute values and can grow arbitrarily. How high is too high for a given counter?

A partial answer to this problem is to avoid looking at the absolute values and, instead, relate multiple counters to each other. Processors can monitor more than one event; the ratio of the collected absolute values can then be examined. This gives nice, comparable results. Often the divisor is a measure of processing time, the number of clock cycles or the number of instructions. As an initial stab at program performance, relating just these two numbers by themselves is useful.

Figure 7.1: Cycles per Instruction (Follow Random)

Figure 7.1 shows the Cycles Per Instruction (CPI) for the simple random “Follow” test case for the various working set sizes. The names of the events to collect this information for most Intel processor are CPU_CLK_UNHALTED and INST_RETIRED. As the names suggest, the former counts the clock cycles of the CPU and the latter the number of instructions. We see a picture similar to the cycles per list element measurements we used. For small working set sizes the ratio is 1.0 or even lower. These measurements were made on a Intel Core 2 processor, which is multi-scalar and can work on several instructions at once. For a program which is not limited by memory bandwidth, the ratio can be significantly below 1.0 but, in this case, 1.0 is pretty good.

Once the L1d is no longer large enough to hold the working set, the CPI jumps to just below 3.0. Note that the CPI ratio averages the penalties for accessing L2 over all instructions, not just the memory instructions. Using the cycles for list element data, it can be worked out how many instructions per list element are needed. If even the L2 cache is not sufficient, the CPI ratio jumps to more than 20. These are expected results.

But the performance measurement counters are supposed to give more insight into what is going on in the processor. For this we need to think about processor implementations. In this document, we are concerned with cache handling details, so we have to look at events related to the caches. These events, their names, and what they count, are processor-specific. This is where oprofile is currently hard to use, irrespective of the simple user interface: the user has to figure out the performance counter details by her/himself. In Section 10 we will see details about some processors.

For the Core 2 processor the events to look for are L1D_REPL, DTLB_MISSES, and L2_LINES_IN. The latter can measure both all misses and misses caused by instructions instead of hardware prefetching. The results for the random “Follow” test can be seen in Figure 7.2.

Figure 7.2: Measured Cache Misses (Follow Random)

All ratios are computed using the number of retired instructions (INST_RETIRED). This means that instructions not touching memory are also counted, which, in turn, means that the number of instructions which do touch memory and which suffer a cache miss is even higher than shown in the graph.

The L1d misses tower over all the others since an L2 miss implies, for Intel processors, an L1d miss due to the use of inclusive caches. The processor has 32k of L1d and so we see, as expected, the L1d rate go up from zero at about that working set size (there are other uses of the cache beside the list data structure, which means the increase happens between the 16k and 32k mark). It is interesting to see that the hardware prefetching can keep the miss rate at 1% for a working set size up to and including 64k. After that the L1d rate skyrockets.

The L2 miss rate stays zero until the L2 is exhausted; the few misses due to other uses of L2 do not influence the numbers much. Once the size of L2 (221 bytes) is exceeded, the miss rates rise. It is important to notice that the L2 demand miss rate is nonzero. This indicates that the hardware prefetcher does not load all the cache lines needed by instructions later. This is expected, the randomness of the accesses prevents perfect prefetching. Compare this with the data for the sequential read in Figure 7.3.

Figure 7.3: Measured Cache Misses (Follow Sequential)

In this graph we can see that the L2 demand miss rate is basically zero (note the scale of this graph is different from Figure 7.2). For the sequential access case, the hardware prefetcher works perfectly: almost all L2 cache misses are caused by the prefetcher. The fact that the L1d and L2 miss rates are the same shows that all L1d cache misses are handled by the L2 cache without further delays. This is the ideal case for all programs but it is, of course, hardly ever achievable.

The fourth line in both graphs is the DTLB miss rate (Intel has separate TLBs for code and data, DTLB is the data TLB). For the random access case, the DTLB miss rate is significant and contributes to the delays. What is interesting is that the DTLB penalties set in before the L2 misses. For the sequential access case the DTLB costs are basically zero.

Going back to the matrix multiplication example in Section 6.2.1 and the example code in Section 9.1, we can make use of three more counters. The SSE_PRE_MISS, SSE_PRE_EXEC, and LOAD_HIT_PRE counters can be used to see how effective the software prefetching is. If the code in Section 9.1 is run we get the following results:

Useful NTA prefetches 2.84%
Late NTA prefetches 2.65%

The low useful NTA (non-temporal aligned) prefetch ratio indicates that many prefetch instructions are executed for cache lines which are already loaded, so no work is needed. This means the processor wastes time to decode the prefetch instruction and look up the cache. One cannot judge the code too harshly, though. Much depends on the size of the caches of the processor used; the hardware prefetcher also plays a role.

The low late NTA prefetch ratio is misleading. The ratio means that 2.65% of all prefetch instructions are issued too late. The instruction which needs the data is executed before the data could be prefetched into the cache. It must be kept in mind that only 2.84%+2.65%=5.5% of the prefetch instructions were of any use. Of the NTA prefetch instructions which are useful, 48% did not finish in time. The code therefore can be optimized further:

  • most of the prefetch instructions are not needed.

  • the use of the prefetch instruction can be adjusted to match the hardware better.

It is left as an exercise to the reader to determine the best solution for the available hardware. The exact hardware specification plays a big role. On Core 2 processors the latency of the SSE arithmetic operations is 1 cycle. Older versions had a latency of 2 cycles, meaning that the hardware prefetcher and the prefetch instructions had more time to bring in the data.

To determine where prefetches might be needed—or are unnecessary—one can use the opannotate program. It lists the source or assembler code of the program and shows the instructions where the event was recognized. Note that there are two sources of vagueness:

  1. Oprofile performs stochastic profiling. Only every Nth event (where N is a per-event threshold with an enforced minimum) is recorded to avoid slowing down operation of the system too much. There might be lines which cause 100 events and yet they might not show up in the report.

  2. Not all events are recorded accurately. For example, the instruction counter at the time a specific event was recorded might be incorrect. Processors being multi-scalar makes it hard to give a 100% correct answer. A few events on some processors are exact, though.

The annotated listings are useful for more than determining the prefetching information. Every event is recorded with the instruction pointer; it is therefore also possible to pinpoint other hot spots in the program. Locations which are the source of many INST_RETIRED events are executed frequently and deserve to be tuned. Locations where many cache misses are reported might warrant a prefetch instruction to avoid the cache miss.

One type of event which can be measured without hardware support is page faults. The OS is responsible for resolving page faults and, on those occasions, it also counts them. It distinguishes two kinds of page faults:

Minor Page Faults
These are page faults for anonymous (i.e., not file-backed) pages which have not been used so far, for copy-on-write pages, and for other pages whose content is already in memory somewhere.

Major Page Faults
Resolving them requires access to disk to retrieve the file-backed (or swapped-out) data.

Obviously, major page faults are significantly more expensive than minor page faults. But the latter are not cheap either. In either case an entry into the kernel is necessary, a new page must be found, the page must be cleared or populated with the appropriate data, and the page table tree must be modified accordingly. The last step requires synchronization with other tasks reading or modifying the page table tree, which might introduce further delays.

The easiest way to retrieve information about the page fault counts is to use the time tool. Note: use the real tool, not the shell builtin. The output can be seen in Figure 7.4. {The leading backslash prevents the use of the built-in command.}

$ \time ls /etc
0.00user 0.00system 0:00.02elapsed 17%CPU (0avgtext+0avgdata 0maxresident)k
0inputs+0outputs (1major+335minor)pagefaults 0swaps

Figure 7.4: Output of the time utility

The interesting part here is the last line. The time tool reports one major and 335 minor page faults. The exact numbers vary; in particular, repeating the run immediately will likely show that there are now no major page faults at all. If the program performs the same action, and nothing changes in the environment, the total page fault count will be stable.

An especially sensitive phase with respect to page faults is program start-up. Each page which is used will produce a page fault; the visible effect (especially for GUI applications) is that the more pages that are used, the longer it takes for the program to start working. In Section 7.5 we will see a tool to measure this effect specifically.

Under the hood, the time tool uses the rusage functionality. The wait4 system call fills in a struct rusage object when the parent waits for a child to terminate; that is exactly what is needed for the time tool. But it is also possible for a process to request information about its own resource usage (that is where the name rusage comes from) or the resource usage of its terminated children.

#include <sys/resource.h>
int getrusage(__rusage_who_t who, struct rusage *usage)

The who parameter specifies which process the information is requested for. Currently, RUSAGE_SELF and RUSAGE_CHILDREN are defined. The resource usage of the child processes is accumulated when each child terminates. It is a total value, not the usage of an individual child process. Proposals to allow requesting thread-specific information exist, so it is likely that we will see RUSAGE_THREAD in the near future. The rusage structure is defined to contain all kinds of metrics, including execution time, the number of IPC messages sent and memory used, and the number of page faults. The latter information is available in the ru_minflt and ru_majflt members of the structure.

A programmer who tries to determine where her program loses performance due to page faults could regularly request the information and then compare the returned values with the previous results.

From the outside, the information is also visible if the requester has the necessary privileges. The pseudo file /proc/<PID>/stat, where <PID> is the process ID of the process we are interested in, contains the page fault numbers in the tenth to fourteenth fields. They are pairs of the process's and its childrens' cumulative minor and major page faults, respectively.

7.2 Simulating CPU Caches

While the technical description of how a cache works is relatively easy to understand, it is not so easy to see how an actual program behaves with respect to cache. Programmers are not directly concerned with the values of addresses, be they absolute nor relative. Addresses are determined, in part, by the linker and, in part, at runtime by the dynamic linker and the kernel. The generated assembly code is expected to work with all possible addresses and, in the source language, there is not even a hint of absolute address values left. So it can be quite difficult to get a sense for how a program is making use of memory. {When programming close to the hardware this might be different, but this is of no concern to normal programming and, in any case, is only possible for special addresses such as memory-mapped devices.}

CPU-level profiling tools such as oprofile (as described in Section 7.1) can help to understand the cache use. The resulting data corresponds to the actual hardware, and it can be collected relatively quickly if fine-grained collection is not needed. As soon as more fine-grained data is needed, oprofile is not usable anymore; the thread would have to be interrupted too often. Furthermore, to see the memory behavior of the program on different processors, one actually has to have such machines and execute the program on them. This is sometimes (often) not possible. One example is the data from Figure 3.8. To collect such data with oprofile one would have to have 24 different machines, many of which do not exist.

The data in that graph was collected using a cache simulator. This program, cachegrind, uses the valgrind framework, which was initially developed to check for memory handling related problems in a program. The valgrind framework simulates the execution of a program and, while doing this, it allows various extensions, such as cachegrind, to hook into the execution framework. The cachegrind tool uses this to intercept all uses of memory addresses; it then simulates the operation of L1i, L1d, and L2 caches with a given size, cache line size, and associativity.

To use the tool a program must be run using valgrind as a wrapper:

valgrind --tool=cachegrind command arg

In this simplest form the program command is executed with the parameter arg while simulating the three caches using sizes and associativity corresponding to that of the processor it is running on. One part of the output is printed to standard error when the program is running; it consists of statistics of the total cache use as can be seen in Figure 7.5.

==19645== I   refs:      152,653,497
==19645== I1  misses:         25,833
==19645== L2i misses:          2,475
==19645== I1  miss rate:        0.01%
==19645== L2i miss rate:        0.00%
==19645== D   refs:       56,857,129  (35,838,721 rd + 21,018,408 wr)
==19645== D1  misses:         14,187  (    12,451 rd +      1,736 wr)
==19645== L2d misses:          7,701  (     6,325 rd +      1,376 wr)
==19645== D1  miss rate:         0.0% (       0.0%   +        0.0%  )
==19645== L2d miss rate:         0.0% (       0.0%   +        0.0%  )
==19645== L2 refs:            40,020  (    38,284 rd +      1,736 wr)
==19645== L2 misses:          10,176  (     8,800 rd +      1,376 wr)
==19645== L2 miss rate:          0.0% (       0.0%   +        0.0%  )

Figure 7.5: Cachegrind Summary Output

The total number of instructions and memory references is given, along with the number of misses they produce for the L1i/L1d and L2 cache, the miss rates, etc. The tool is even able to split the L2 accesses into instruction and data accesses, and all data cache uses are split in read and write accesses.

It becomes even more interesting when the details of the simulated caches are changed and the results compared. Through the use of the —I1, —D1, and —L2 parameters, cachegrind can be instructed to disregard the processor's cache layout and use that specified on the command line. For example:

  valgrind --tool=cachegrind --L2=8388608,8,64 command arg

would simulate an 8MB L2 cache with 8-way set associativity and 64 byte cache line size. Note that the —L2 option appears on the command line before the name of the program which is simulated.

This is not all cachegrind can do. Before the process exits cachegrind writes out a file named cachegrind.out.XXXXX where XXXXX is the PID of the process. This file contains the summary information and detailed information about the cache use in each function and source file. The data can be viewed using the cg_annotate program.

The output this program produces contains the cache use summary which was printed when the process terminated, along with a detailed summary of the cache line use in each function of the program. Generating this per-function data requires that cg_annotate is able to match addresses to functions. This means debug information should be available for best results. Failing that, the ELF symbol tables can help a bit but, since internal symbols are not listed in the dynamic symbol table, the results are not complete. Figure 7.6 shows part of the output for the same program run as Figure 7.5.

        Ir  I1mr I2mr         Dr  D1mr D2mr        Dw D1mw D2mw  file:function
53,684,905     9    8  9,589,531    13    3 5,820,373   14    0  ???:_IO_file_xsputn@@GLIBC_2.2.5
36,925,729 6,267  114 11,205,241    74   18 7,123,370   22    0  ???:vfprintf
11,845,373    22    2  3,126,914    46   22 1,563,457    0    0  ???:__find_specmb
 6,004,482    40   10    697,872 1,744  484         0    0    0  ???:strlen
 5,008,448     3    2  1,450,093   370  118         0    0    0  ???:strcmp
 3,316,589    24    4    757,523     0    0   540,952    0    0  ???:_IO_padn
 2,825,541     3    3    290,222     5    1   216,403    0    0  ???:_itoa_word
 2,628,466     9    6    730,059     0    0   358,215    0    0  ???:_IO_file_overflow@@GLIBC_2.2.5
 2,504,211     4    4    762,151     2    0   598,833    3    0  ???:_IO_do_write@@GLIBC_2.2.5
 2,296,142    32    7    616,490    88    0   321,848    0    0  dwarf_child.c:__libdw_find_attr
 2,184,153 2,876   20    503,805    67    0   435,562    0    0  ???:__dcigettext
 2,014,243     3    3    435,512     1    1   272,195    4    0  ???:_IO_file_write@@GLIBC_2.2.5
 1,988,697 2,804    4    656,112   380    0    47,847    1    1  ???:getenv
 1,973,463    27    6    597,768    15    0   420,805    0    0  dwarf_getattrs.c:dwarf_getattrs

Figure 7.6: cg_annotate Output

The Ir, Dr, and Dw columns show the total cache use, not cache misses, which are shown in the following two columns. This data can be used to identify the code which produces the most cache misses. First, one probably would concentrate on L2 cache misses, then proceed to optimizing L1i/L1d cache misses.

cg_annotate can provide the data in more detail. If the name of a source file is given, it also annotates (hence the program's name) each line of the source file with the number of cache hits and misses corresponding to that line. This information allows the programmer to drill down to the exact line where cache misses are a problem. The program interface is a bit raw: as of this writing, the cachegrind data file and the source file must be in the same directory.

It should, at this point, be noted again: cachegrind is a simulator which does not use measurements from the processor. The actual cache implementation in the processor might very well be quite different. cachegrind simulates Least Recently Used (LRU) eviction, which is likely to be too expensive for caches with large associativity. Furthermore, the simulation does not take context switches and system calls into account, both of which can destroy large parts of L2 and must flush L1i and L1d. This causes the total number of cache misses to be lower than experienced in reality. Nevertheless, cachegrind is a nice tool to learn about a program's memory use and its problems with memory.

7.3 Measuring Memory Usage

Knowing how much memory a program allocates and possibly where the allocation happens is the first step to optimizing its memory use There are, fortunately, some easy-to-use programs available which do not even require that the program be recompiled or specifically modified.

For the first tool, called massif, it is sufficient to not strip the debug information which the compiler can automatically generate. It provides an overview of the accumulated memory use over time. Figure 7.7 shows an example of the generated output.

Figure 7.7: Massif Output

Like cachegrind (Section 7.2), massif is a tool using the valgrind infrastructure. It is started using

      valgrind --tool=massif command arg

where command arg is the program which is observed and its parameter(s), The program will be simulated and all calls to memory allocation functions are recognized. The call site is recorded along with a timestamp value; the new allocation size is added to both the whole-program total and total for the specific call site. The same applies to the functions which free memory where, obviously, the size of the freed block is subtracted from the appropriated sums. This information can then be used to create a graph showing the memory use over the lifetime of the program, splitting each time value according to the location which requested the allocation. Before the process is terminated massif creates two files: massif.XXXXX.txt and, where XXXXX in both cases is the PID of the process. The .txt file is a summary of the memory use for all call sites and the .ps is what can be seen in Figure 7.7.

Massif can also record the program's stack usage, which can be useful to determine the total memory footprint of an application. But this is not always possible. In some situations (some thread stacks or when signaltstack is used) the valgrind runtime cannot know about the limits of the stack . In these situations, it also does not make much sense to add these stacks' sizes to the total. There are several other situations where it makes no sense. If a program is affected by this, massif should be started with the addition option —stacks=no. Note, this is an option for valgrind and therefore must come before the name of the program which is being observed.

Some programs provide their own memory allocation functions or wrapper functions around the system's allocation functions. In the first case, allocations are normally missed; in the second case, the recorded call sites hide information, since only the address of the call in the wrapper function is recorded. For this reason, it is possible to add additional functions to the list of allocation functions. The —alloc-fn=xmalloc parameter would specify that the function xmalloc is also an allocation function, which is often the case in GNU programs. Calls to xmalloc are recorded, but not the allocation calls made from within xmalloc.

The second tool is called memusage; it is part of the GNU C library. It is a simplified version of massif (but existed a long time before massif). It only records the total memory use for heap (including possible calls to mmap etc. if the -m option is given) and, optionally, the stack. The results can be shown as a graph of the total memory use over time or, alternatively, linearly over the calls made to allocation functions. The graphs are created separately by the memusage script which, just as with valgrind, has to be used to start the application:

     memusage command arg

The -p IMGFILE option must be used to specify that the graph should be generated in the file IMGFILE, which will be a PNG file. The code to collect the data is run in the actual program itself, it is not an simulation like valgrind. This means memusage is much faster than massif and usable in situations where massif would be not useful. Besides total memory consumption, the code also records allocation sizes and, on program termination, it shows a histogram of the used allocation sizes. This information is written to standard error.

Sometimes it is not possible (or feasible) to call the program which is supposed to be observed directly. An example is the compiler stage of gcc, which is started by the gcc driver program. In this case the name of the program which should be observed must be provided to the memusage script using the -n NAME parameter. This parameter is also useful if the program which is observed starts other programs. If no program name is specified all started programs will be profiled.

Both programs, massif and memusage, have additional options. A programmer finding herself in the position needing more functionality should first consult the manual or help messages to make sure the additional functionality is not already implemented.

Now that we know how the data about memory allocation can be captured, it is necessary to discuss how this data can be interpreted in the context of memory and cache use. The main aspects of efficient dynamic memory allocation are linear allocation and compactness of the used portion. This goes back to making prefetching efficient and reducing cache misses.

A program which has to read in an arbitrary amount of data for later processing could do this by creating a list where each of the list elements contains a new data item. The overhead for this allocation method might be minimal (one pointer for a single-linked list) but the cache effects when using the data can reduce the performance dramatically.

One problem is, for instance, that there is no guarantee that sequentially allocated memory is laid out sequentially in memory. There are many possible reasons for this:

  • memory blocks inside a large memory chunk administrated by the memory allocator are actually returned from the back to the front;

  • a memory chunk is exhausted and a new one is started in a different part of the address space;

  • the allocation requests are for different sizes which are served from different memory pools;

  • the interleaving of allocations in the various threads of multi-threaded programs.

If data must be allocated up front for later processing, the linked-list approach is clearly a bad idea. There is no guarantee (or even likelihood) that the consecutive elements in the list are laid out consecutively in memory. To ensure contiguous allocations, that memory must not be allocated in small chunks. Another layer of memory handling must be used; it can easily be implemented by the programmer. An alternative is to use the obstack implementation available in the GNU C library. This allocator requests large blocks of memory from the system's allocator and then hands arbitrarily large or small blocks of memory out. These allocations are always sequential unless the large memory chunk is exhausted, which is, depending on the requested allocation sizes, pretty rare. Obstacks are not a complete replacement for a memory allocator, they have limited abilities to free objects. See the GNU C library manual for details.

So, how can a situation where the use of obstacks (or similar techniques) is advisable be recognized from the graphs? Without consulting the source, possible candidates for the changes cannot be identified, but the graph can provide an entry point for the search. If many allocations are made from the same location, this could mean that allocation in bulk might help. In Figure 7.7, we can see such a possible candidate in the allocations at address 0x4c0e7d5. From about 800ms into the run until 1,800ms into the run this is the only area (except the top, green one) which grows. Moreover, the slope is not steep, which means we have a large number of relatively small allocations. This is, indeed, a candidate for the use of obstacks or similar techniques.

Another problem the graphs can show is when the total number of allocations is high. This is especially easy to see if the graph is not drawn linearly over time but, instead, linearly over the number of calls (the default with memusage). In that case, a gentle slope in the graph means a lot of small allocations. memusage will not say where the allocations took place, but the comparison with massif's output can say that, or the programmer might recognize it right away. Many small allocations should be consolidated to achieve linear memory use.

But there is another, equally important, aspect to this latter class of cases: many allocations also means higher overhead in administrative data. This by itself might not be that problematic. The red area named “heap-admin” represents this overhead in the massif graph and it is quite small. But, depending on the malloc implementation, this administrative data is allocated along with the data blocks, in the same memory. For the current malloc implementation in the GNU C library, this is the case: every allocated block has at least a 2-word header (8 bytes for 32-bit platforms, 16 bytes for 64-bit platforms). In addition, block sizes are often a bit larger than necessary due to the way memory is administrated (rounding up block sizes to specific multiples).

This all means that memory used by the program is interspersed with memory only used by the allocator for administrative purposes. We might see something like this:

Each block represents one memory word and, in this small region of memory, we have four allocated blocks. The overhead due to the block header and padding is 50%. Due to the placement of the header, this automatically means that the effective prefetch rate of the processor is lowered by up to 50% as well. If the blocks were be processed sequentially (to take maximum advantage of prefetching), the processor would read all the header and padding words into the cache, even though they are never supposed to be read from or written to by the application itself. Only the runtime uses the header words, and the runtime only comes into play when the block is freed.

Now, one could argue that the implementation should be changed to put the administrative data somewhere else. This is indeed done in some implementations, and it might prove to be a good idea. There are many aspects to be kept in mind, though, security not being the least of them. Regardless of whether we might see a change in the future, the padding issue will never go away (amounting to 16% of the data in the example, when ignoring the headers). Only if the programmer directly takes control of allocations can this be avoided. When alignment requirements come into play there might still be holes, but this is also something under control of the programmer.

7.4 Improving Branch Prediction

In Section 6.2.2, two methods to improve L1i use through branch prediction and block reordering were mentioned: static prediction through __builtin_expect and profile guided optimization (PGO). Correct branch prediction has performance impacts, but here we are interested in the memory usage improvements.

The use of __builtin_expect (or better the likely and unlikely macros) is simple. The definitions are placed in a central header and the compiler takes care of the rest. There is a little problem, though: it is easy enough for a programmer to use likely when really unlikely was meant and vice versa. Even if somebody uses a tool like oprofile to measure incorrect branch predictions and L1i misses these problems are hard to detect.

There is one easy method, though. The code in Section 9.2 shows an alternative definition of the likely and unlikely macros which measure actively, at runtime, whether the static predictions are correct or not. The results can then be examined by the programmer or tester and adjustments can be made. The measurements do not actually take the performance of the program into account, they simply test the static assumptions made by the programmer. More details can be found, along with the code, in the section referenced above.

PGO is quite easy to use with gcc these days. It is a three-step process, though, and certain requirements must be fulfilled. First, all source files must be compiled with the additional -fprofile-generate option. This option must be passed to all compiler runs and to the command which links the program. Mixing object files compiled with and without this option is possible, but PGO will not do any good for those that do not have it enabled.

The compiler generates a binary which behaves normally except that it is significantly larger and slower since it records (and emits) all kinds of information about branches taken or not. The compiler also emits a file with the extension .gcno for each input file. This file contains information related to the branches in the code. It must be preserved for later.

Once the program binary is available, it should be used to run a representative set of workloads. Whatever workload is used, the final binary will be optimized to do this task well. Consecutive runs of the program are possible and, in general necessary; all the runs will contribute to the same output file. Before the program terminates, the data collected during the program run is written out into files with the extension .gcda. These files are created in the directory which contains the source file. The program can be executed from any directory, and the binary can be copied, but the directory with the sources must be available and writable. Again, one output file is created for each input source file. If the program is run multiple times, it is important that the .gcda files of the previous run are found in the source directories since otherwise the data of the runs cannot be accumulated in one file.

When a representative set of tests has been run, it is time to recompile the application. The compiler has to be able to find the .gcda files in the same directory which holds the source files. The files cannot be moved since the compiler would not find them and the embedded checksum for the files would not match anymore. For the recompilation, replace the -fprofile-generate parameter with -fprofile-use. It is essential that the sources do not change in any way that would change the generated code. That means: it is OK to change white spaces and edit comments, but adding more branches or basic blocks invalidates the collected data and the compilation will fail.

This is all the programmer has to do; it is a fairly simple process. The most important thing to get right is the selection of representative tests to perform the measurements. If the test workload does not match the way the program is actually used, the performed optimizations might actually do more harm than good. For this reason, is it often hard to use PGO for libraries. Libraries can be used in many—sometimes widely different—scenarios. Unless the use cases are indeed similar, it is usually better to rely exclusively on static branch prediction using __builtin_expect.

A few words on the .gcno and .gcda files. These are binary files which are not immediately usable for inspection. It is possible, though, to use the gcov tool, which is also part of the gcc package, to examine them. This tool is mainly used for coverage analysis (hence the name) but the file format used is the same as for PGO. The gcov tool generates output files with the extension .gcov for each source file with executed code (this might include system headers). The files are source listings which are annotated, according to the parameters given to gcov, with branch counter, probabilities, etc.

7.5 Page Fault Optimization

On demand-paged operating systems like Linux, an mmap call only modifies the page tables. It makes sure that, for file-backed pages, the underlying data can be found and, for anonymous memory, that, on access, pages initialized with zeros are provided. No actual memory is allocated at the time of the mmap call. {If you want to say “Wrong!” wait a second, it will be qualified later that there are exceptions.}

The allocation part happens when a memory page is first accessed, either by reading or writing data, or by executing code. In response to the ensuing page fault, the kernel takes control and determines, using the page table tree, the data which has to be present on the page. This resolution of the page fault is not cheap, but it happens for every single page which is used by a process.

To minimize the cost of page faults, the total number of used pages has to be reduced. Optimizing the code for size will help with this. To reduce the cost of a specific code path (for instance, the start-up code), it is also possible to rearrange code so that, in that code path, the number of touched pages is minimized. It is not easy to determine the right order, though.

The author wrote a tool, based on the valgrind toolset, to measure page faults as they happen. Not the number of page faults, but the reason why they happen. The pagein tool emits information about the order and timing of page faults. The output, written to a file named pagein.<PID>, looks as in Figure 7.8.

   0 0x3000000000 C            0 0x3000000B50: (within /lib64/
   1 0x 7FF000000 D         3320 0x3000000B53: (within /lib64/
   2 0x3000001000 C        58270 0x3000001080: _dl_start (in /lib64/
   3 0x3000219000 D       128020 0x30000010AE: _dl_start (in /lib64/
   4 0x300021A000 D       132170 0x30000010B5: _dl_start (in /lib64/
   5 0x3000008000 C     10489930 0x3000008B20: _dl_setup_hash (in /lib64/
   6 0x3000012000 C     13880830 0x3000012CC0: _dl_sysdep_start (in /lib64/
   7 0x3000013000 C     18091130 0x3000013440: brk (in /lib64/
   8 0x3000014000 C     19123850 0x3000014020: strlen (in /lib64/
   9 0x3000002000 C     23772480 0x3000002450: dl_main (in /lib64/

Figure 7.8: Output of the pagein Tool

The second column specifies the address of the page which is paged-in. Whether it is a code or data page is indicated in the third column, which contains `C' or `D' respectively. The fourth column specifies the number of cycles which passed since the first page fault. The rest of the line is valgrind's attempt to find a name for the address which caused the page fault. The address value itself is correct but the name is not always accurate if no debug information is available.

In the example in Figure 7.8, execution starts at address 0x3000000B50, which forces the page at address 0x3000000000 to be paged in. Shortly after that, the page after this is also brought in; the function called on that page is _dl_start. The initial code accesses a variable on page 0x7FF000000. This happens just 3,320 cycles after the first page fault and is most likely the second instruction of the program (just three bytes after the first instruction). If one looks at the program, one will notice that there is something peculiar about this memory access. The instruction in question is a call instruction, which does not explicitly load or store data. It does store the return address on the stack, though, and this is exactly what happens here. This is not the official stack of the process, though, it is valgrind's internal stack of the application. This means when interpreting the results of pagein it is important to keep in mind that valgrind introduces some artifacts.

The output of pagein can be used to determine which code sequences should ideally be adjacent in the program code. A quick look at the /lib64/ code shows that the first instructions immediately call the function _dl_start, and that these two places are on different pages. Rearranging the code to move the code sequences onto the same page can avoid—or at least delay—a page fault. It is, so far, a cumbersome process to determine what the optimal code layout should be. Since the second use of a page is, by design, not recorded, one needs to use trial and error to see the effects of a change. Using call graph analysis, it is possible to guess about possible call sequences; this might help speed up the process of sorting the functions and variables.

At a very coarse level, the call sequences can be seen by looking a the object files making up the executable or DSO. Starting with one or more entry points (i.e., function names), the chain of dependencies can be computed. Without much effort this works well at the object file level. In each round, determine which object files contain needed functions and variables. The seed set has to be specified explicitly. Then determine all undefined references in those object files and add them to the set of needed symbols. Repeat until the set is stable.

The second step in the process is to determine an order. The various object files have to be grouped together to fill as few pages as possible. As an added bonus, no function should cross over a page boundary. A complication in all this is that, to best arrange the object files, it has to be known what the linker will do later. The important fact here is that the linker will put the object files into the executable or DSO in the same order in which they appear in the input files (e.g., archives), and on the command line. This gives the programmer sufficient control.

For those who are willing to invest a bit more time, there have been successful attempts at reordering made using automatic call tracing via the __cyg_profile_func_enter and __cyg_profile_func_exit hooks gcc inserts when called with the -finstrument-functions option [oooreorder]. See the gcc manual for more information on these __cyg_* interfaces. By creating a trace of the program execution, the programmer can more accurately determine the call chains. The results in [oooreorder] are a 5% decrease in start-up costs, just through reordering of the functions. The main benefit is the reduced number of page faults, but the TLB cache also plays a role—an increasingly important role given that, in virtualized environments, TLB misses become significantly more expensive.

By combining the analysis of the pagein tool with the call sequence information, it should be possible to optimize certain phases of the program (such as start-up) to minimize the number of page faults.

The Linux kernel provides two additional mechanisms to avoid page faults. The first one is a flag for mmap which instructs the kernel to not only modify the page table but, in fact, to pre-fault all the pages in the mapped area. This is achieved by simply adding the MAP_POPULATE flag to the fourth parameter of the mmap call. This will cause the mmap call to be significantly more expensive, but, if all pages which are mapped by the call are being used right away, the benefits can be large. Instead of having a number of page faults, which each are pretty expensive due to the overhead incurred by synchronization requirements etc., the program would have one, more expensive, mmap call. The use of this flag has disadvantages, though, in cases where a large portion of the mapped pages are not used soon (or ever) after the call. Mapped, unused pages are obviously a waste of time and memory. Pages which are immediately pre-faulted and only much later used also can clog up the system. The memory is allocated before it is used and this might lead to shortages of memory in the meantime. On the other hand, in the worst case, the page is simply reused for a new purpose (since it has not been modified yet), which is not that expensive but still, together with the allocation, adds some cost.

The granularity of MAP_POPULATE is simply too coarse. And there is a second possible problem: this is an optimization; it is not critical that all pages are, indeed, mapped in. If the system is too busy to perform the operation the pre-faulting can be dropped. Once the page is really used the program takes the page fault, but this is not worse than artificially creating resource scarcity. An alternative is to use the POSIX_MADV_WILLNEED advice with the posix_madvise function. This is a hint to the operating system that, in the near future, the program will need the page described in the call. The kernel is free to ignore the advice, but it also can pre-fault pages. The advantage here is that the granularity is finer. Individual pages or page ranges in any mapped address space area can be pre-faulted. For memory-mapped files which contain a lot of data which is not used at runtime, this can have huge advantages over using MAP_POPULATE.

Beside these active approaches to minimizing the number of page faults, it is also possible to take a more passive approach which is popular with the hardware designers. A DSO occupies neighboring pages in the address space, one range of pages each for the code and the data. The smaller the page size, the more pages are needed to hold the DSO. This, in turn, means more page faults, too. Important here is that the opposite is also true. For larger page sizes, the number of necessary pages for the mapping (or anonymous memory) is reduced; with it falls the number of page faults.

Most architectures support page sizes of 4k. On IA-64 and PPC64, page sizes of 64k are also popular. That means the smallest unit in which memory is given out is 64k. The value has to be specified when compiling the kernel and cannot be changed dynamically (at least not at the moment). The ABIs of the multiple-page-size architectures are designed to allow running an application with either page size. The runtime will make the necessary adjustments, and a correctly-written program will not notice a thing. Larger page sizes mean more waste through partially-used pages, but, in some situations, this is OK.

Most architectures also support very large page sizes of 1MB or more. Such pages are useful in some situations, too, but it makes no sense to have all memory given out in units that large. The waste of physical RAM would simply be too large. But very large pages have their advantages: if huge data sets are used, storing them in 2MB pages on x86-64 would require 511 fewer page faults (per large page) than using the same amount of memory with 4k pages. This can make a big difference. The solution is to selectively request memory allocation which, just for the requested address range, uses huge memory pages and, for all the other mappings in the same process, uses the normal page size.

Huge page sizes come with a price, though. Since the physical memory used for large pages must be continuous, it might, after a while, not be possible to allocate such pages due to memory fragmentation. prevent this. People are working on memory defragmentation and fragmentation avoidance, but it is very complicated. For large pages of, say, 2MB the necessary 512 consecutive pages are always hard to come by, except at one time: when the system boots up. This is why the current solution for large pages requires the use of a special filesystem, hugetlbfs. This pseudo filesystem is allocated on request by the system administrator by writing the number of huge pages which should be reserved to


the number of huge pages which should be reserved. This operation might fail if not enough continuous memory can be located. The situation gets especially interesting if virtualization is used. A system virtualized using the VMM model does not directly access physical memory and, therefore, cannot by itself allocate the hugetlbfs. It has to rely on the VMM, and this feature is not guaranteed to be supported. For the KVM model, the Linux kernel running the KVM module can perform the hugetlbfs allocation and possibly pass a subset of the pages thus allocated on to one of the guest domains.

Later, when a program needs a large page, there are multiple possibilities:

  • the program can use System V shared memory with the SHM_HUGETLB flag.

  • the hugetlbfs filesystem can actually be mounted and the program can then create a file under the mount point and use mmap to map one or more pages as anonymous memory.

In the first case, the hugetlbfs need not be mounted. Code requesting one or more large pages could look like this:

key_t k = ftok("/some/key/file", 42);
void *a = shmat(id, NULL, 0);

The critical parts of this code sequence are the use of the SHM_HUGETLB flag and the choice of the right value for LENGTH, which must be a multiple of the huge page size for the system. Different architectures have different values. The use of the System V shared memory interface has the nasty problem of depending on the key argument to differentiate (or share) mappings. The ftok interface can easily produce conflicts which is why, if possible, it is better to use other mechanisms.

If the requirement to mount the hugetlbfs filesystem is not a problem, it is better to use it instead of System V shared memory. The only real problems with using the special filesystem are that the kernel must support it, and that there is no standardized mount point yet. Once the filesystem is mounted, for instance at /dev/hugetlb, a program can make easy use of it:

int fd = open("/dev/hugetlb/file1", O_RDWR|O_CREAT, 0700);
void *a = mmap(NULL, LENGTH, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, fd, 0);

By using the same file name in the open call, multiple processes can share the same huge pages and collaborate. It is also possible to make the pages executable, in which case the PROT_EXEC flag must also be set in the mmap call. As in the System V shared memory example, the value of LENGTH must be a multiple of the system's huge page size.

A defensively-written program (as all programs should be) can determine the mount point at runtime using a function like this:

char *hugetlbfs_mntpoint(void) {
  char *result = NULL;
  FILE *fp = setmntent(_PATH_MOUNTED, "r");
  if (fp != NULL) {
    struct mntent *m;
    while ((m = getmntent(fp)) != NULL)
       if (strcmp(m->mnt_fsname, "hugetlbfs") == 0) {
         result = strdup(m->mnt_dir);
  return result;

More information for both these cases can be found in the hugetlbpage.txt file which comes as part of the kernel source tree. The file also describes the special handling needed for IA-64.

Figure 7.9: Follow with Huge Pages, NPAD=0

To illustrate the advantages of huge pages, Figure 7.9 shows the results of running the random Follow test for NPAD=0. This is the same data shown in Figure 3.15, but, this time, we measure the data also with memory allocated in huge pages. As can be seen the performance advantage can be huge. For 220 bytes the test using huge pages is 57% faster. This is due to the fact that this size still fits completely into one single 2MB page and, therefore, no DTLB misses occur.

After this point, the winnings are initially smaller but grow again with increasing working set size. The huge pages test is 38% faster for the 512MB working set size. The curve for the huge page test has a plateau at around 250 cycles. Beyond working sets of 227 bytes, the numbers rise significantly again. The reason for the plateau is that 64 TLB entries for 2MB pages cover 227 bytes.

As these numbers show, a large part of the costs of using large working set sizes comes from TLB misses. Using the interfaces described in this section can pay off big-time. The numbers in the graph are, most likely, upper limits, but even real-world programs show a significant speed-up. Databases, since they use large amounts of data, are among the programs which use huge pages today.

There is currently no way to use large pages to map file-backed data. There is interest in implementing this capability, but the proposals made so far all involve explicitly using large pages, and they rely on the hugetlbfs filesystem. This is not acceptable: large page use in this case must be transparent. The kernel can easily determine which mappings are large and automatically use large pages. A big problem is that the kernel does not always know about the use pattern. If the memory, which could be mapped as a large page, later requires 4k-page granularity (for instance, because the protection of parts of the memory range is changed using mprotect) a lot of precious resources, in particular the linear physical memory, will have been wasted. So it will certainly be some more time before such an approach is successfully implemented.

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