Andi Kleen's blog

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Literature survey for practical TSX lock elision applications

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This is a short non comprehensive (and somewhat biased) literature survey on how lock elision with Intel TSX can be used to improve performance to programs by increasing parallelism. Focus is on practical incremental improvements in existing software.

A basic introduction of TSX lock elision is available in Scaling existing lock based applications with Lock elision.

Lock libraries

The papers below are on actual code using lock elision, not just how to implement lock elision itself. The basic rules of how to implement lock elision in a locking library are in chapter 12 of the Intel Optimization manual. Common anti-patterns (mistakes) while doing so are described in TSX Anti-patterns.

Existing lock libraries that implement lock elision using TSX include glibc pthreads, Thread Building Blocks, tsx-tools and ConcurrencyKit


Lock elision has been used widely to speed up both production and research databases. A lot of work has been done on the SAP HANA in memory data which uses TSX in production today to improve performance of the B+Tree index and the delta tree data structures. This is described in Improving In-Memory Database Index Performance with TSX.

Several research databases went beyond just using TSX to speed up specific data structures, but map complete database transactions to hardware transaction. This requires much more changes to the databases, and careful memory layout, but can also give more gains. It generally goes beyond simple lock elision. This approach has been implemented by Leis in Exploiting HTM in Main memory databases. A similar approach is used in Using Restricted Transactional Memory to Build a Scalable In-Memory Database. Both see large gains on TPC-C style workloads.

For non in memory databases, a group at Berkeley used lock elision to improve parallelism in LevelDB and getting a 25% speedup on a 4 core system. Standard LevelDB is essentially a single lock system, so this was a nice speedup with only minor work compared to other efforts that used manual fine grained locking to improve parallelism in LevelDB. However it required special handling of condition variables, which are used for commit. For simpler key value stores Diegues used an automatic tuner with TSX transactions to get a 2x gain with memcached.

DrTM uses TSX together with RDMA to implement a fast distributed transaction manager using 2PL. TSX provides local isolation, while RDMA (which aborts transactions) provides remote isolation.


An attractive use of lock elision is to speed up locks implicit in language runtimes. Yoo implemented transparent. support for using TSX for Java synchronized sections in Early Experience on Transactional
Execution of Java TM Programs
. The runtime automatically detects when a synchronized region does not benefit from TSX and disables lock elision then. This works transparently, but using it successfully may still need some changes in the program to minimize conflicts and other aborts, as described by Gil Tene in Understanding Hardware Transactional Memory. This support is available in JDK 8u40 and can be enabled with the -XX:+UseRTMLocking option.

Another interesting case for lock elision is improving parallelism for the Great Interpreter Lock (GIL) used in interpreters. Odaiara implemented this for Ruby in Eliminating Global Interpreter Locks in Ruby through HTM. They saw a 4.4x speedup on Ruby NPB, 1.6x in WEBrick and 1.2x speedup in Ruby on Rails on a 12 core system.

Hardware transactions can be used for auto-parallelizing existing loops, even when the compiler cannot prove that iterations are independent, by using the transactions to isolate individual iterations. Odaira implemented TSX loop speculation manually for workloads in SPECCpu and report a 11% speedup on a 4 core system. There are some limitations to this technique due to the lazy subscription problem described by Dice, but in principle it can be directly implemented in compilers.

Salamanca used TSX to implement tracing recovery code for Speculative Trace Optimization (STO) for loops. The basic principles are similar to the previous paper, but they implemented an automated prototype. They report 9% improvement on 4 cores with a number of benchmarks.

An older paper, which predates TSX, by Dice describes how to use Hardware Transactional Memory to simplify Work Stealing schedulers.

High Performance Computing use TSX lock elision to benchmark a number of HPC applications in Performance Evaluation of Intel TSX for High-Performance Computing. They report an average 41% speedup on a 4 core system. They also report an average 31% improvement in bandwidth when applying TSX to a user space TCP stack.

Hay explored lock elision for improving Parallel Discrete Event Simulations. He reports a speed ups of up to 28%.

Data structures

Lock elision has been used widely to speed up parallel data structures. Normally applying lock elision to an existing data structure is very simple — elide the lock protecting it — but some tweaking of the data structure can often give better performance. Dementiev explores TSX for general fast scalable hash tables. Li uses TSX to implement scalable Cuckoo hash tables. Using TSX for hash tables is generally very straight forward. For tree data structures one need to be careful that tree rebalancing does not overwhelm the write set capacity of the hardware transactions., Repetti uses TSX to scale Patricia Tries. Siakavas explores TSX usage for scalable Red-Black Trees, similar in this paper. Bonnichsen uses HTM to improve BT Trees, reporting a speed up of 2x to 3x compared to earlier implementations. The database papers described above describe the rules needed to successfully elide BTrees.

Calciu uses TSX to implement a more scalable priority queue based on skip list and reports increased parallelism.

Memory allocation and Garbage Collection

One challenge with using garbage collection is that the worst case “stop the world” pauses from parallel garbage collectors limit the total heap size that can be supported in copying garbage collectors. The Chihuahua GC paper implements a prototype TSX based collector for the Jikes research java VM. They report upto 101% speedup in concurrent copying speed, and show that a simple parallel garbage collector can be implemented with limited efforts.

Another dog-themed GC, the Collie garbage collector (original paper predates TSX) presents a production quality parallel collector that minimizes pauses and allows scaling to large heaps. Opdahl has another description of the Collie algorithm It is presumably deployed now for TSX in Azul’s commercial ZING JVM product which claims to scale upto 2TB of heap memory.

StackTrack is an efficient algorithm to do automatic memory reclaim for parallel data structures using hardware transactions, out performing existing techniques such as hazard pointers. It requires recompiling the program with a special patched gcc compiler, and automatically creates variable-length transactions for functions freeing memory. The technique could be potentially used even without special compilers.

Kuzmaul uses TSX to implement a scalable SuperMalloc and reports good performance combined with relatively simple code. Dice et all report how an cache index aware malloc can improve TSX performance by improving utilization of the L1 cache.

Other usages

Peters use lock elision to parallelize a micro kernel For a micro kernel a big lock is fine and finds that RTM lock elision outperforms fine grained locking due to less single thread overhead.

Written by therapsid

May 30th, 2016 at 4:40 am

Overview of Last Branch Records (LBRs) on Intel CPUs

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I wrote a two part article on theory and practice of Last Branch
Records using Linux perf. They were published on LWN.

This includes the background (what is a last branch record and why
branch sampling), what you can use it for in perf, like hot path
profiling, frame pointerless callgraphs, or automatic micro benchmarks,
and also other uses like continuous compiler feedback.

The articles are now freely available:

Part 1: Introduction of Last Branch Records
Part 2: Advanced uses of Last Branch Records

Written by therapsid

April 7th, 2016 at 2:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized,kernel

Announcing simple-pt — A simple Processor Trace implementation

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Modern Intel Core CPUs (5th and 6th generation) have a Intel Processor Trace (PT) feature to trace branch execution with low overhead. This is useful for performance analysis and debugging.

simple-pt is a simple standalone driver and decoder tool to implement PT on Linux.

Starting with Linux 4.1 Linux already has a integrated PT implementation in perf (see ). simple-pt is an alternative implementation. It has many disadvantages over the perf PT implementation, such as:
- needs to run as root
- no long term tracing or sampling with interrupts
- no support for interactive debugging (use gdb 7.10 on perf for that)
- no support for histograms
- somewhat experimental
- not as well supported as perf

On the positive side simple-pt is:
- simple
- standalone. No kernel changes needed. Could be ported to older kernels or other operating systems
- easy to modify and experiment with
- more ftrace like decoding tool
- support for kprobes based triggers
- modular “unix style” design with simple tools that do only one thing each
- BSD licensed

Example output:

        % sptcmd  -c tcall taskset -c 0 ./tcall
        cpu   0 offset 1027688,  1003 KB, writing to ptout.0
        Wrote sideband to ptout.sideband
        % sptdecode --sideband ptout.sideband --pt ptout.0 | less
        frequency 32
        0        [+0]     [+   1] _dl_aux_init+436
                          [+   6] __libc_start_main+455 -> _dl_discover_osversion
                          [+  13] __libc_start_main+446 -> main
                          [+   9]     main+22 -> f1
                          [+   4]             f1+9 -> f2
                          [+   2]             f1+19 -> f2
                          [+   5]     main+22 -> f1
                          [+   4]             f1+9 -> f2
                          [+   2]             f1+19 -> f2
                          [+   5]     main+22 -> f1

Available from

Written by therapsid

August 17th, 2015 at 4:27 am

Posted in kernel,pt

Generating Flame graphs with Processor Trace

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How to generate a FlameGraph with Processor Trace. Everybody loves Flame Graphs.

Processor trace allows to do as very exact histograms of a program’s run time. Normal sampling has shadow effects, which can hide some details. Processor traces every branch, so it can be much more accurate than normal sampling.

You need a Intel Broadwell or Skylake CPU.
Running at 4.1 or later Linux kernel where perf supports PT.
You can verify the kernel supports pt with

ls /sys/devices/intel_pt

You need perf user tools built from
(this should soon be fixed when the user tools code is merged into Linux mainline)

Build perf with PT support

# set up https_proxy as needed
git clone
cd linux-perf/tools/perf

Copy the resulting perf binary to where you want to run it

Get the flamegraph code

git clone

Collect data from the workload. Best to not collect too long traces as they take much longer to process and may need too much disk space.

perf record -e intel_pt// workload (or -a sleep 1 to collect 1s globally)

Decode the data. This may take quite some time

perf script --itrace=i100usg | /path/to/FlameGraph/ | > workload.folded

The i100us means the trace decoder samples an instruction every 100us. This can be made more accurate (down to 1ns), at the cost of longer decoding time. The ‘g’ tells the decoder to add callgraphs.

Then generate the Flamegraph with

/path/to/FlameGraph/ workloaded.folded > workload.svg

Then view the resulting SVG in a SVG viewer, such as google chrome

google-chrome workload.svg

It is possible to click around.

Here’s a larger svg example from a gcc build (2.5MB). May need chrome or firefox to view.

In principle the trace also has support for more information not in normal sampling, such as determining the exact run time of individual functions from the trace. This is unfortunately not (yet?) supported by the Flame Graph tools.

Written by therapsid

August 5th, 2015 at 11:13 pm

Energy efficient servers book review

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Energy efficient servers – Blue prints for data center optimization from Gough/Steiner/Sanders is a new book on power tuning on servers that was recently published at Apress. I got my copy a few weeks ago and read it and it is great.

Disclaimer: I contributed a few pages to the book, but have no financial interest in its success.

As you probably already know power efficiency is very important for modern computing. It matters to mobile devices to extend battery time, it matters to desktops and servers to avoid exceeding the thermal/power capacity and lower energy costs.

Modern chips cannot run all their transistors at full speed at the same time due to the dark silicon problem. This results in the somewhat paradoxical situation that power management is needed, even if energy costs don’t matter, just to give the best performance (such as the highest Turbo frequencies)

Power management in modern systems is quite complex, with many different moving parts, hardware, operating systems, drivers, firmware, embedded micro-controllers working together to be as efficient as possible. I’m not aware of any good overview of all of this.

There is some lore around — for example you may have heard of race to idle, that is running as fast as possible to go idle again — but nothing really that puts it all into a larger context. BTW race-to-idle is not always a good idea, as the book explains.

The new book makes an attempt to explain all of this together for Intel servers (the basic concepts are similar on other systems and also on client systems).

It starts with a (short) introduction of the underlying physical principles and then moves on to the basic CPU and platform power management techniques, such as frequency scaling and idle state and thermal management. It has a discussion on modern memory subsystems and describes the trade offs between different DIMM configurations. It describes the power management differences between larger servers and micro servers. And there is a overview of thermal management and power supply, such as energy efficient power supplies and voltage regulators.

Then it moves on to an overview of the software involved in power management, including firmware, rack level power management software, and operating systems. Then there is an extensive chapter how to instrument and measure power management

Finally (and perhaps most valuable) the book lays out a systematic power tuning methodology, starting with measurements and then concrete steps to optimize existing workloads for the best power efficiency.

The book is written not as an academic text book, but intended for people who solve concrete problems on shipping systems. It is quite readable, explaining any complicated concepts. You can clearly tell the authors have deep knowledge on the topic. While the details are intended for Intel servers, I would expect the book to be useful even to people working on clients or also other architectures.

One possible issue with the book is that it may be too specific for today’s systems. We’ll see how well it ages to future systems. But right now, as it just came out, it it very up-to-date and a good guide. It has some descriptions of data center design (such as efficient cooling), but these parts are quite short and are clearly not the main focus.

The ebook version is currently available as a free download both at the the publisher after registration, or at amazon as free kindle edition, or as reasonable priced paperback.

Written by therapsid

July 27th, 2015 at 6:14 am

Posted in kernel,power,tuning

Speeding up less

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Often when doing performance analysis or debugging, it boils down to stare at long text trace files with the less text viewer. Yes you can do a lot of analysis with custom scripts, but at some point it’s usually needed to also look at the raw data.

The first annoyance in less when opening a large file is the time it takes to count lines (less counts lines at the beginning to show you the current position as a percentage). The line counting has the easy workaround of hitting Ctrl-C or using less -n to disable percentage. But it would be still better if that wasn’t needed.

Nicolai Haenle speeded the process by about 20x in his less repository.

One thing that always bothered me was that searching in less is so slow. If you’re browsing a tens to hundreds of MB file file it can easily take minutes to search for a string. When browsing log and trace files searching over longer distances is often very important.

And there is no good workaround. Running grep on the file is much faster, but you can’t easily transfer the file position from grep to the less session.

Some profiling with perf shows that most of the time searching is spent converting each line. Less internally cleans up the line, convert it to canonical case, remove backspace bold, and some other changes. The conversion loop processes each character in a inefficient way. Most of the time this is not needed, so I replaced that with a quick check if the line contains any backspaces using the optimized strchr() from the standard C library. For case conversion the string search functions (either regular expression or fixed string search) can also handle case insensitive search directly, so we don’t need an extra conversion step. The default fixed string search (when the search string contains no regular expression meta characters) can be also done using the optimized C library functions.

The resulting less version searches ~85% faster on my benchmarks. I tried to submit the patch to the less maintainer, but it was ignored unfortunately. The less version in the repository also includes Nicolai’s speedup patches for the initial line counting.

One side effect of the patch is that less now defaults to case sensitive searches. The original less had a feature (or bug) to default to case-insensitive even without the -i option. To get case insensitive searches now “less -i” needs to be used.

[Edit: Fix typos]

Written by therapsid

July 10th, 2015 at 8:26 pm

toplev tutorial and manual

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toplev, part of pmu-tools is a tool to determine the CPU bottleneck of workloads. Now finally there is a tutorial and manual available for toplev.,

Written by therapsid

July 9th, 2015 at 5:57 pm

Adding Processor Trace support to Linux

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I published an article at LWN: Adding processor trace to Linux. It describes the Linux perf support for the Intel Processor Trace feature on Intel Broadwell and other CPUs. Processor Trace allows fine grained tracing of program control flow.

Written by therapsid

July 9th, 2015 at 5:51 pm

Posted in kernel

TSX anti patterns

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I published a new article on TSX anti patterns: Common mistakes that people make when implementing TSX lock libraries or writing papers about them. Make sure you don’t fall into the same traps. Enjoy!

Written by therapsid

March 27th, 2014 at 4:24 am

Scaling existing lock-based applications with lock elision

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I published an introductory article on practical lock elision with Intel TSX at ACM Queue/CACM: Scaling existing lock-based applications with lock elision. Enjoy!

Written by therapsid

February 12th, 2014 at 4:01 am

Posted in kernel,tsx,tuning