The Linux Trace Toolkit

Analyzing performance is one of the most important tasks of a system administrator; here's how to do it using Linux.

As recent Linux history has shown (Mindcraft, anyone?), performance is not only good publicity, it's important. Yet current means of measuring performance offer only global statistics about the whole system or very precise data about an isolated application. Moreover, these often fail in helping the programmer or the system administrator to isolate a performance bottleneck resulting from the interaction of complex internetworking applications, which are more and more common. The Linux Trace Toolkit (LTT) addresses these issues and provides users with a unique view of the system's behavior with minimal performance overhead (< 2.5%).

LTT's Architecture

In order to be extendable and accomplish its task without hindering system performance, LTT is designed to be as modular as possible. In fact, it would be wrong to call it a “tool” since it is composed of many pieces that, grouped together, fulfill the desired function. This toolkit is implemented in four parts. First, there is a Linux kernel that enables events to be logged. Second, a Linux kernel module takes care of storing the events into its buffer and then signals the trace daemon when it reaches a certain threshold. The latter then reads the data from the module, which is visible from user space as a character device. Last, but certainly not least, the data decoder takes the raw trace data and puts it in a human-readable format while performing some basic and more advanced analysis. This decoder, as will be discussed further, serves as the toolkit's graphic and command-line front end.

Installing LTT

The LTT tar.gz archive can be found at and contains the following items:

  • Copying: the GNU GPL License

  • Help: LTT's help files in an HTML-browsable format

  • TraceDaemon: the directory containing the trace daemon

  • TraceToolkit: the directory containing the trace toolkit front end

  • patch-ltt-kernelversion-yymmdd: the kernel patch of yymmdd kernelversion

  • trace: a script to start the trace daemon

  • tracecpuid: another script to start the trace daemon

  • tracedump: a script to dump the content of trace

  • traceanalyze: a script to analyze a trace

  • traceview: a script to view a trace in graphical form

The scripts are there to speed up the tools' most common usages, but the tools can be summoned directly without any script.

To install LTT, simply follow the instructions that come with the LTT package. The first and hardest step is patching the kernel. Once this is done, configure the kernel and compile it. Note that there is an option for compiling with or without the tracing code. When compiled without, the resulting kernel operates as if you hadn't applied any patch to it. Next, compile the trace daemon and the trace toolkit graphic front end and put them in your favorite directory (/usr/bin or /usr/local/bin for example). Reboot with the LTT patched kernel, and you're ready to go.

Sample Tracing Session

To demonstrate the toolkit's operation, we traced 10 seconds' worth of system operation. During those 10 seconds, two commands were issued: dir on a directory not accessed since system boot (i.e., not present in the dcache) and bzip2 on a 10MB file. The system was booted in single-user mode (in order to have as few applications running as possible, and therefore isolate the operation of the observed applications) using the modified kernel. Note that no events are recorded by the kernel module until the trace daemon has issued the start command to it using the ioctl system call. The following command was issued to start the tracing:

trace 10 out140

trace is a script that takes two arguments: the number of seconds the trace should last and the base name for the output file. Two files are produced: out140.trace and out140.proc. The former holds the data recorded by the kernel module, and the latter, the content of /proc when the trace started. Using these two files, we know what the system looked like before we started tracing it and what happened during the trace. Hence, we can reconstruct the system's behavior.

Note that the trace daemon accepts many command-line options used to configure the kernel trace module. For instance, one can specify the events to be traced and the desired level of details. One can also specify whether CPU IDs should be recorded for SMP machines. Since LTT fetches the calling address for system calls, you can specify at which calling depth this address should be fetched or which address range it is a part of.



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Figure 3/4

Giuseppe's picture

I've started working on LTT and I've found useful this page.
I wonder if the Author could update the Figures 3 and 4 (maybe wrong!).