Performance Monitoring Tools for Linux

Mr. Gavin provides tools for systems data collection and display and discusses what information is needed and why.

For the last few years, I have been supporting users on various flavors of UNIX systems and have found the System Accounting Reports data invaluable for performance analysis. When I began using Linux for my personal workstation, the lack of a similar performance data collection and reporting tool set was a real problem. It's hard to get management to upgrade your system when you have no data to back up your claims of “I need more POWER!”. Thus, I started looking for a package to get the information I needed, and found out there wasn't any. I fell back on the last resort—I wrote my own, using as many existing tools as possible. I came up with scripts that collect data and display it graphically in an X11 window or hard copy.

What Do We Want to Know?

To get a good idea of how a system is performing, watch key system resources over a period of time to see how their usage and availability changes depending upon what's running on the system. The following categories of system resources are ones I wished to track.

CPU Utilization: The central processing unit, as viewed from Linux, is always in one of the following states:

  • idle: available for work, waiting

  • user: high-level functions, data movement, math, etc.

  • system: performing kernel functions, I/O and other hardware interaction

  • nice: like user, a job with low priority will yield the CPU to another task with a higher priority

By noting the percentage of time spent in each state, we can discover overloading of one state or another. Too much idle means nothing is being done; too much system time indicates a need for faster I/O or additional devices to spread the load. Each system will have its own profile when running its workload, and by watching these numbers over time, we can determine what's normal for that system. Once a baseline is established, we can easily detect changes in the profile.

Interrupts: Most I/O devices use interrupts to signal the CPU when there is work for it to do. For example, SCSI controllers will raise an interrupt to signal that a requested disk block has been read and is available in memory. A serial port with a mouse on it will generate an interrupt each time a button is pressed/released or when the mouse is moved. Watching the count of each interrupt can give you a rough idea of how much load the associated device is handling.

Context Switching: Time slicing is the term often used to describe how computers can appear to be doing multiple jobs at once. Each task is given control of the system for a certain “slice” of time, and when that time is up, the system saves the state of the running process and gives control of the system to another process, making sure that the necessary resources are available. This administrative process is called context switching. In some operating systems, the cost of this switching can be fairly expensive, sometimes using more resources than the processes it is switching. Linux is very good in this respect, but by watching the amount of this activity, you will learn to recognize when a system has a lot of tasks actively consuming resources.

Memory: When many processes are running and using up available memory, the system will slow down as processes get paged or swapped out to make room for other processes to run. When the time slice is exhausted, that task may have to be written out to the paging device to make way for the next process. Memory-utilization graphs help point out memory problems.

Paging: As mentioned above, when available memory begins to get scarce, the virtual memory system will start writing pages of real memory out to the swap device, freeing up space for active processes. Disk drives are fast, but when paging gets beyond a certain point, the system can spend all of its time shuttling pages in and out. Paging on a Linux system can also be increased by the loading of programs, as Linux “demand pages” each portion of an executable as needed.

Swapping: Swapping is much like paging. However, it migrates entire process images, consisting of many pages of memory, from real memory to the swap devices rather than the usual page-by-page mechanism normally used for paging.

Disk I/O: Linux keeps statistics on the first four disks; total I/O, reads, writes, block reads and block writes. These numbers can show uneven loading of multiple disks and show the balance of reads versus writes.

Network I/O: Network I/O can be used to diagnose problems and examine loading of the network interface(s). The statistics show traffic in and out, collisions, and errors encountered in both directions.

These charts can also help in the following instances:

  • The system is running jobs you aren't aware of during hours when you are not present.

  • Someone is logging on or remotely running commands on the system without your knowledge.

This sort of information will often show up as a spike in the charts at times when the system should have been idle. Sudden increases in activity can also be due to jobs run by crontab.



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Server Management

Server Management's picture

When you want to do network monitoring you need a network monitoring system also known as network monitoring software or a network monitoring tool. If you are looking then try SysOrb for free.

Application stats also shed light

Anonymous's picture

As well as Linux performance monitoring it's also useful to monitor the stuff the server is doing - whether that be Mysql, apache, tomcat, memcached, or what have you.

Having a tool that lets you monitor all this stuff in one place is a huge time saver for correlating issues and resolving performance impacts.

Time for an update

Anonymous's picture

There's been some progress in the last 12 years or so...for example, Zoom from RotateRight ( ) provides a rich GUI or CLI-based system-wide profiler for Linux. It takes callstacks with every sample and can show source and assembly code for any sampled function.

Don't forget to use collectl

Mark Seger's picture

Even though this is a pretty old article it seemed that there should be a reference to collectl for completeness.

Web Interface

Anonymous's picture

Hi Mr. Gavin,

Did you get a chance to complete the Perl based web interface for your scripts. If so, I will be very interested to get the sources...



Re: Performance Monitoring Tools for Linux

Anonymous's picture

The sarChart.cgi script has a bug in it. It reads from the tstamp column in each table incorrectly. To calculate the time it uses substr to extract the hour and min, but the offset parameter is off by 2 in both cases. This problem is probably due to changing the length of the year from 2 to 4 digits.

Re: Performance Monitoring Tools for Linux

Anonymous's picture

Bull *****..There is no bug in it..

Re: Performance Monitoring Tools for Linux

mrlynn's picture

To use these utilities on a multi-cpu machine change line 40 of the sa scrip fromt:
40 /^cpu/ {
/^cpu / {

Note: add a space between the "/" and the "u" in cpu.

This change won't give you information on each individual cpu - but will use the aggregates as reported in the proc pseudo file system.

Re: Performance Monitoring Tools for Linux

mrlynn's picture

Description of the columns in the CPU output is incorrect:
0000 4690259 69915 661038 7937582
Column 5: seconds in idle state since last booted
Column 2: seconds in system state since last booted
Column 3: seconds in nice state since last booted
Column 4: seconds in user state since last booted
Column 1: time-stamp of observation (HHMM)

call me picky.

picky too

Anonymous's picture

Call me picky but the unit of measure is 1/100 of a second


Anonymous's picture


Wow... 2+ years and you

Anonymous's picture

Wow... 2+ years and you decide to respond with "picky"..?

How about "you're right -- good catch". Or better yet, don't respond.

Am I contradicting myself by responding to you? No. You took a perfectly acceptable observation and decided to respond with an opinion. I'm taking your opinion and responding with an observation.

Query regarding running the above scripts

Surender's picture


Iam Surender, Iam a naive user. I have downloaded the above scripts for cpu utilisation, disk usage etc but I dont know how to execute the same. Somebody please help me out in this regard.

My email address: