PHP Performance Profiling

by Jonathan Oxer

Due to the incredible growth of PHP in the last couple of years, it's now being used for tasks ranging from tiny scripts to large-scale Web applications. Some Web applications contain hundreds of thousands of lines of PHP code, and the fact that PHP can scale to these levels is a great testament to its design and the efficient Zend Engine that actually manages PHP code execution.

Of course, bigger and more complex projects result in more load on your servers, and when you throw a database into the mix you have even more potential performance bottlenecks to track. A typical scenario might be you've added a few new features to a Web application and now are seeing more server load and memory usage; thus, pages seem to load slower. What can you do? Maybe you can afford to throw bigger hardware at the problem, but even if that's a viable option, you also should find the parts of your code that are causing the slowdowns and optimize them.

A number of factors can affect the performance of a Web application, including Web server configuration, database performance, data structure, the application design and the implementation of the application. I'm going to assume you've already taken care of the first items, and now you want to iron out bottlenecks in your application implementation, that is, in the actual code. But how do you find the bottlenecks in the first place?

The answer is a technique known as performance profiling. Performance profiling runs your code in a controlled environment and returns a report listing such statistics as time spent within each function, how long each database query takes and how much memory has been used.

By doing performance profiling on your code, you quickly can see where you may be wasting time with slow database queries or inefficient code. Having this information then allows you to spend your time tuning PHP and SQL where it needs it most. No more guessing what's going on internally: performance profiling gives you hard figures.

Profiling Tools

A number of different tools have been developed to help with PHP performance profiling, including Benchmark (a PEAR project), DBG, Xdebug and Advanced PHP Debugger (another PEAR project).

If you're really serious about squeezing every last cycle out of the code, you should investigate all the benchmarking tools you can find, because they work in different ways and allow you to extract different kinds of information. For now, however, I'm going to concentrate on APD, the Advanced PHP Debugger.

APD is a debugger written in C by George Schlossnagle and Daniel Cowgill that loads as an extension to the Zend Engine. It works by hooking into the Zend internals and intercepting PHP function calls, allowing it to do things like measure function execution time, count function calls, perform stack backtraces and other funky things.

Installing APD

Currently, three main ways exist to install APD on a Linux system: grab the source and compile it yourself, use PEAR or use the Debian package. The latest source always is available from the APD Web site. Building and installing it isn't a hard process, but you need to make sure the various PHP development resources are installed on your system. For example, you need the PHP C headers, as well as a program called phpize that is used to prepare the package as a Zend extension. If you decide to go that route, make sure you follow the instructions in the README included with the source.

If you use PEAR, included with PHP4.3+, you can install PHP modules with minimal fuss. Once again, the full instructions are available on the APD Web site, which is part of the PEAR project. Assuming PEAR support is included in your version of PHP, getting it going should be as simple as typing pear install apd and answering a few questions.

Finally, for Debian users I maintain a .deb package of the latest version of APD. It's much too recent to be in Woody, but at the time of this writing it's in Sid (current Unstable) and should enter Sarge (current Testing) soon. You should be able to use apt-get install php4-apd to have everything done for you.

Whatever installation method you use, you should have the CGI version of PHP installed, because some of the command-line tools included with APD are written in PHP and need the parser to run. Personally, I run my Web servers with the Apache module version of PHP because it's much faster, but that doesn't matter. Simply install the CGI version of PHP as well and away you go. It doesn't need to affect your Apache module installation of PHP; they can live side by side quite happily.

You can use the phpinfo() function to confirm that APD installed and loaded properly. Create a file in your Web root that calls phpinfo(), and open it in a browser. The quickest way to do that probably is to type

        echo '<?php phpinfo() ?>' > info.php

in your Web root. When you access the file in your browser through your Web server (not by directly opening the file), it lists all the extensions that PHP has loaded. You should see APD listed somewhere on the page. If that worked fine, you're ready for the next step.

Your First Test

At this point you should have APD installed on your server, along with all the other usual stuff--Apache, MySQL or Postgres, your PHP scripts themselves, and whatever else you need to run your Web application.

Now, pick a PHP script in your Web application for a test run, and open it in an editor. In my example here, I use the file src/webmail.php from Squirrelmail, a popular Web mail system written in PHP. The basic procedure is to invoke special APD functions inside your PHP script that tell APD to do its stuff. Right at the top of your PHP script, put in a call to apd_set_pprof_trace(), like this:


What this does is tell APD to start a trace on execution of your script at that point and dump it out to disk in a predefined location, which is set in the php.ini file using the apd.dumpdir directive. If you used my Debian package, the location should be set to /var/log/php4-apd/; if you used PEAR or compiled from source, please check the included documentation.

Gathering Some Data

Now that your script is set up and ready to profile, load it in a Web browser. It should run exactly as before, and you shouldn't see any difference at all from the client side; the page loads as it always has.

What is different this time is a pprof tracefile has been written out to the dumpdir previously defined. A pprof tracefile is a text file that contains a machine-parsable summary of how your PHP was processed, and it is named something like pprof.25802. The number is the process ID of the Web server process that handled the request. You can take a quick look through the tracefile, but at this point it won't mean much to you. For my example using Squirrelmail, it looks something like this:

        #Pprof [APD] v0.9
        ! 1 /jade/webserver/site13/web/squirrelmail-1.2.5/src/webmail.php
        & 1 main 2
        + 1 1 2
        - 2 98816
        ! 2 /jade/webserver/site13/web/squirrelmail-1.2.5/functions/strings.php
        & 3 require_once 2
        + 3 2 16
        & 4 php_self 2
        + 4 2 597
        @ 1 0 1
        - 4 244352
        - 3 244368
        ! 3 /jade/webserver/site13/web/squirrelmail-1.2.5/config/config.php
        + 3 3 17
        - 3 291224
        ... etc

and so on for several more pages. Essentially it's a step-by-step record of what the Zend engine did as it processed your script, but the format is not designed for direct human consumption. Instead, it's an intermediate log that can be processed to generate nice reports.

Interpreting The pprof Tracefile

APD comes with a little shell script written in PHP, called pprofp, that can be run from the command line to parse the pprof tracefile and give you a human-readable report. To use it, run pprofp and pass it an option and the path of the tracefile, like this:

        pprofp -u /var/log/php-apd/pprof.25802

This command prints out a function call summary that should look something like this:

Trace for /jade/webserver/site13/web/squirrelmail-1.2.5/src/webmail.php
Total Elapsed Time =    0.15
Total System Time  =    0.02
Total User Time    =    0.13
         Real         User        System             secs/    cumm
%Time (excl/cumm)  (excl/cumm)  (excl/cumm) Calls    call    s/call  Memory Usage Name
 30.8  0.05  0.12   0.04  0.11   0.01  0.01    22   0.0018    0.0050       859752 require_once
 15.4  0.02  0.02   0.02  0.02   0.00  0.00     8   0.0025    0.0025       403200 register_attachment_common
 15.4  0.02  0.02   0.02  0.02   0.00  0.00    23   0.0009    0.0009       298360 define
  7.7  0.01  0.01   0.01  0.01   0.00  0.00     1   0.0100    0.0100       145536 php_self
  7.7  0.01  0.01   0.01  0.01   0.00  0.00     7   0.0014    0.0014       342368 function_exists
  7.7  0.02  0.02   0.01  0.01   0.01  0.01     1   0.0100    0.0100       457224 session_start
  7.7  0.01  0.01   0.01  0.01   0.00  0.00     4   0.0025    0.0025          968 cacheprefvalues
  7.7  0.01  0.01   0.01  0.01   0.00  0.00     1   0.0100    0.0100       163952 is_array
  0.0  0.00  0.01   0.00  0.01   0.00  0.00     4   0.0000    0.0025           64 getpref
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     1   0.0000    0.0000           16 is_logged_in
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     1   0.0000    0.0000         -248 ereg
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     1   0.0000    0.0000           16 set_up_language
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     1   0.0000    0.0000           72 ini_get
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     1   0.0000    0.0000          232 setlocale
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     1   0.0000    0.0000          256 header
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     3   0.0000    0.0000          296 putenv
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     1   0.0000    0.0000           96 getenv
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     1   0.0000    0.0000           56 textdomain
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     1   0.0000    0.0000          424 bindtextdomain
  0.0  0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00   0.00  0.00     1   0.0000    0.0000           56 do_hook

The report above shows time and memory usage on a per-function basis, sorted by user-time as directed by the -u option. The first few columns are execution time in seconds. The Calls column is a count of the number of times that function was executed by the script. secs/call is the average execution time of each call to that function, while cumm s/call is the cumulative time spent on that function. Then it lists memory usage and finally the name of the function itself. Notice that function call reports are truncated to 15 functions by default.

If your script has some major performance problems, here is where they should start to become glaringly obvious. Do you have a slow function that's called many times? Better take a close look at it. Are you doing lots of SQL queries? You can see them here right away.

pprofp Options

The basic report shown above is useful for getting an overview of the script's execution, but you also can pass other options to pprofp that tell it to format the report in different ways. Simply call it using pprofp <option> <tracefile>, using one or more of these options:

Sort Options

-a: sort by alphabetic names of subroutines.

-l: sort by number of calls to subroutines

-m: sort by memory used in a function call.

-r: sort by real time spent in subroutines.

-R: sort by real time spent in subroutines (inclusive of child calls).

-s: sort by system time spent in subroutines.

-S: sort by system time spent in subroutines (inclusive of child calls).

-u: sort by user time spent in subroutines.

-U: sort by user time spent in subroutines (inclusive of child calls).

-v: sort by average amount of time spent in subroutines.

-z: sort by user+system time spent in subroutines. (default)

Display Options

-c: display real time elapsed alongside call tree.

-i: suppress reporting for PHP built-in functions

-O <cnt>: specify maximum number of subroutines to display. (default 15)

-t: display compressed call tree.

-T: display uncompressed call tree.

If you have a lot of functions (subroutines) in your script, it may be helpful to sort by number of calls (pprofp -l <tracefile>) or by memory used (pprofp -m <tracefile>) to see quickly where the bottlenecks are.

Function Call Tree

Although the function call report probably is the most immediately useful one for finding bottlenecks, one of the funkiest options in the pprofp script is the ability to output a function call tree. A function call tree essentially is a step-by-step list of each executed function, indented to show function nesting.

You can output a function call tree with the -t or -T options, like this:

        pprofp -t /var/log/php4-apd/pprof.15507

which output something like this for my Squirrelmail example:

require_once (2x)
  require_once (3x)
    require_once (2x)
            ... etc

As you can see, a require_once was performed and inside that a php_self was executed. Then another require_once executed session_is_registered, followed by another require_once and so on. Basically, the function call tree is like a little window into the Zend Engine, allowing you to watch the sequence of events that take place when your Web application is run.

If you do much object-oriented development, you may find that you rapidly lose track of what's actually going on inside some classes and methods. It's tempting to think of classes as a black box, because that's how we're taught to use them. But, when optimizing a complex Web application, you need to know what's actually going on inside each one, or you may have performance bottlenecks you do not even notice.

APD Function Reference

APD provides quite a number of functions that you can use to help profile and debug your code. Experiment with these to see the gory internal details of what the Zend Engine is doing with your script, but note that some of them now are deprecated for PHP4.3+:

  • apd_set_pprof_trace(): the most useful APD function as far as profiling is concerned, this dumps a tracefile named pprof.<pid> in your apd.dumpdir. The tracefile is a machine-parsable output file that can be processed with the pprofp <tracefile> command.

  • apd_set_session_trace(N): similar to apd_set_pprof_trace(), it dumps a human-readable session trace named apd_dump_<pid> in your apd.dumpdir. This is the old way of doing things, noted here because it still works (for now). It's been deprecated, so it's better to use a pproftrace instead. N is an integer that sets the items to be traced; for now, use a value of 99 to turn on all implemented options.

  • array apd_callstack(): returns the current call stack at that stage of execution as an array.

  • apd_cluck([string warning[,string line delimiter]): behaves like Perl's Carp::cluck module. Throws a warning and a callstack. The default line delimiter is <BR />\n. This function is deprecated for users of PHP4.3+; use the internal debug_backtrace() and debug_print_backtrace()instead.

  • apd_croak([string error[, string line delimiter]]): behaves like Perl's Carp::croak module. Throws an error, a callstack and then exits. The default line delimiter is <BR />\n'. This function is deprecated for users of PHP4.3+; use the internal debug_backtrace() and debug_print_back-trace() instead.

  • array apd_dump_regular_resources(): returns all current regular resources as an array.

  • array apd_dump_persistent_resources(): returns all persistent resources as an array.

  • override_function(string func_name, string func_args, string func_code): syntax is similar to create_function(), overrides built-in functions (replaces them in the symbol table).

  • rename_function(string orig_name, string new_name): renames orig_name to new_name in the global function_table. Useful for temporarily overriding built-in functions.

Profiling A Live Site

To get the best understanding of how your PHP implementation runs under real conditions, you should do the profiling in an environment as close as possible to the real thing. Real data and many real or simulated client connections are helpful. You can create this environment by making a duplicate of your site and running HTTP benchmarking software or even using a couple of shell scripts and Wget to simulate user loads. Alternatively, you can do the profiling right on your live site.

As you've seen, using the profiling features of APD in your scripts causes the Web server to write out text files for every script access. That's obviously a very bad thing if you're trying to profile a live site, because data is dumped out faster than you can deal with it. Besides, it causes a slowdown on the server if your site has a lot of visitors--and if it didn't, you wouldn't be profiling it, would you? A useful little trick to get around the problem is to activate profiling only for page requests coming from your specific IP address. Doing so allows you to browse the live site and produce profile information without any action being taken on requests by other users.

This situation actually is pretty trivial to implement. Simply wrap the invocation of apd_set_pprof_trace() in a check for the requesting IP address, as shown below. Then, only your nominated client addresses cause the script to go into profiling mode:

        $DEBUGIPS = array('','');
        if(array_search($_SERVER[REMOTE_IP], $DEBUGIPS)) {
Where to Go from Here?

What now? Optimize your code, of course. I'm not going to tell you how to do that here, because it's way beyond the scope of this short article. But, at least now you have some insight into the internal workings of your application and won't be wasting time optimizing parts of your code that aren't really a problem. And when you do make changes, you have a benchmark against which you can test your code to see how the changes affect performance and efficiency.

Jonathan Oxer is the founder and Technical Director of Internet Vision Technologies, an Australian Web application development agency with clients around the world. He also is a Debian developer, current maintainer of apt-cacher and was organizer of the Debian Mini-Conf in Perth in January 2003 in association with Linux Conf Australia, where he also presented one of the technical papers. His first book, How to Hire a Web Developer and Stay Sane, will be published soon. His second book, The Debian Universe is being written live on-line, and his third and fourth books (How to Deploy Web Applications and Stay Sane and Disaster Proofing for Small Networks) already are underway.

Load Disqus comments

Firstwave Cloud