Measuring and Improving Application Performance with PerfSuite

Get a realistic view of how your program runs on real hardware, so you can find small changes that make a big performance difference.

At some point, all developers of software applications, whether targeted to Linux or not, are likely to spend at least a small amount of time focusing on the performance of their applications. The reason is simple: many potential benefits can be gained from tuning software for improved performance. For example, in the scientific and engineering arenas, performance gains can make the difference between running smaller scale simulations rather than larger and potentially more accurate models that would improve the scientific quality of the results. Applications that are more user-oriented also stand to benefit from improvements that result in faster responsiveness to the user and an improved overall user experience.

Although microprocessor improvements over the past decade or so have made clock speeds well in excess of the gigahertz range commonplace, most developers are aware that a tenfold increase in processor frequency does not guarantee a tenfold reduction in the runtime of your application. Additionally, for those developing software for distribution to others, attention to performance and responsiveness can pay big dividends when you consider that your end user may be running your application on a mid-1990s era 100MHz Pentium processor.

This article is an introduction to a set of open-source software tools called PerfSuite that can help you to understand and possibly improve the performance of your application under Linux. PerfSuite consists of several related tools and libraries targeted at several different activities useful in performance-oriented analysis.

The development of PerfSuite was motivated by my own experiences in working with not only applications that I had developed, but a number of large supercomputer-class applications in both academic and corporate settings. After having worked with several research groups, I realized that developers often take advantage of only a limited set of tools that may be available to them. They typically rely on traditional time-based statistical profiling techniques such as gprof.

Of course, gprof-style profiles are invaluable and should be the mainstay of any developer's performance toolbox. However, the microprocessors of today, such as those on which you probably are using Linux, offer advanced features that can provide alternative insights into characteristics that directly affect the performance of your software. In particular, nearly all microprocessors in common use today incorporate hardware-based performance measurement support in their designs. This support can provide an alternative viewpoint of your software's performance. While time-based profiles tell you where your software spends its time, hardware performance measurements can help you understand what the processor is doing and how effectively the processor is being utilized. Hardware measurements also pinpoint particular reasons why the CPU is stalling rather than accomplishing useful work.

Hardware Performance Counter Basics

The first time I encountered the term hardware performance counters, it was in the context of having access to multimillion-dollar supercomputers where every CPU cycle is critical and research teams spend substantial amounts of time tweaking their codes in order to extract maximum performance from the system. Often, software is tailored explicitly for each type of computer on which it is to be run. Research teams sometimes pore over the numbers generated by these performance counters to measure the exact performance of their applications and to ferret out places where they might gain additional speedup. Needless to say, this all sounded exotic to me. But the purpose and function of the counters turned out to be simple: they are extra logic added to the CPU that track low-level operations or events within the processor accurately and with minimal overhead.

For example, even if you're not an expert in computer architecture, you probably already know that nearly all processors in common use are cache-based machines. Caches, which offer much higher-speed access to data and instructions than what is possible with main memory, are based on the principles of temporal and spatial locality. Put another way, cache designs hope to take advantage of many applications' tendency to reuse blocks of data not long after first use (temporal locality) and to also access data items near those already used (spatial locality). If your application follows these patterns, you have a much greater chance of achieving high performance on a cache-based processor. If not, your performance may be disappointing. If you're interested in improving a poorly performing application, your next task is to try to determine why the processor is stalling instead of completing useful work. This is where performance counters may help.

It takes a little research to learn which performance counters are available to you on a particular processor. Each CPU has a different set of available performance counters, usually with different names. In fact, different models in the same processor family can differ substantially in the specific performance counters available. In general, the counters measure similar types of things. For example, they can record the absolute number of cache misses, the number of instructions issued, the number of floating point instructions executed and the number of vector, such as SSE or MMX, instructions. The best reference for available counters on your processor are the vendor's technical reference on the processor, often available on the Web.

Another complication is kernel-level support is needed to access the performance counters. Although the Itanium (IA-64) kernel provides this support through the perfmon driver in the official kernel (authored by Stephane Eranian of HP Research), the standard x86 Linux tree currently does not.

Fortunately, efforts are underway to address these issues. The first is the development of a performance monitoring driver for the x86 kernel called perfctr. This is a very stable kernel patch developed by Mikael Pettersson of Uppsala University in Sweden. The perfctr kernel patch is becoming more widely adopted by the community and continually is improved and maintained. The second is an effort from the Innovative Computing Laboratory at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville called PAPI (Performance Application Programming Interface). PAPI defines a standard set of cross-platform performance monitoring events and a standard API that allows measurement using hardware counters in a portable way. The PAPI Project provides implementations for the library on several current processors and operating systems, including Intel/AMD x86 processors, Itanium systems and, most recently, AMD's x86-64 CPUs. On Linux, PAPI uses the perfmon and perfctr drivers as appropriate. Refer to the on-line Resources for references where you can learn much more about perfctr, perfmon and PAPI.

PerfSuite, discussed in the remainder of this article, builds upon PAPI, perfmon and perfctr to provide developers with an even higher-level user interface as well as additional functionality. A main focus of PerfSuite is ease of use. Based on my experiences in working with developers interested in performance analysis, it became clear that an ideal solution would require little or no extra work from users who simply want to know how well an application is performing on a computer. They want to know this without having to learn many details about how to configure or access the performance data at a low level.