Profiling with perf

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perf is a utility set added to Linux kernel 2.6.31. A quick example showing what perf output looks like is at Using Performance Counters for Linux.


How to profile

perf offers two major modes: record then report, or real-time "top" mode. Both are useful in different situations.

TIP: On many systems where -g is shown below, you may have to write --call-graph dwarf instead to get working stack traces.

Record then report

Recording data

To profile the system for a specific length of time, for example 60 seconds:

 perf record -a -g -s sleep 60

To profile the system for the duration of a command:

 perf record -a -g -s -- pg_ctl -D pgdata start

To profile the system until cancelled, just omit any command:

 perf record -a -g

By default perf record will generate a file in the current working directory.

See "what to record" for ways to narrow what you record.


By default perf report will look for in the current working directory.

 perf report -n

You can include call-graph output, if captured, with:

 perf report -g

and a variety of options are available to sort, filter and aggregate the output; see the documentation for perf.

In real time

To profile system-wide in real time:

 perf top

To profile in real time without accumulating stats, i.e. instantaneous profiling:

 perf top -z

You can use the usual target-selection options with perf top, but it's most commonly used for system wide profiling with perf top -a.


Many systems will produce incomplete call-graphs with only the top stack entry when -g is used, if the PostgreSQL binaries are built with -fomit-frame-pointer. That's the default on x64. To work around this, you may be able to use --call-graph dwarf on a new enough perf with libunwind support. Otherwise you'll need to recompile PostgreSQL with -fno-omit-frame-pointer.

What to profile

perf lets you choose what to profile in a variety of ways, the most useful of which are:

 -a          whole system, all CPUs
 -p pid      one process ID
 -u user     processes for one user, e.g. "postgres"

You can use these commands with perf record and perf top.

Including user-space stacks

Newer perf releases support capturing the whole user-space call stack, not just the top function on the stack. This lets it provide extremely useful call graphs. Use the -g dwarf option to perf record to enable this, and the -g option to perf report to display the results.

On x64 hosts, you must either rebuild PostgreSQL with ./configure CFLAGS="-fno-omit-frame-pointer -ggdb" ... or use a version of perf built with libunwind support.

More detail in Tracing PostgreSQL with perf.


perf is not limited to cpu call sampling.

It can also trace syscalls, dynamic userspace probes, and more. See sudo perf list for events and look for the tracepoint events.

You can observe things like kernel block layer activity via this interface. For example, this event:

 syscalls:sys_enter_fsync                           [Tracepoint event]

can be used to trace fsyncs, e.g.

 perf top -e syscalls:sys_enter_fsync
 perf record -e syscalls:sys_enter_fsync -u postgres
 perf record -e syscalls:sys_enter_fsync -p $SOME_PID


You can use wildcards in events, and you can use multiple comma-separated events or separate -e arguments.

PostgreSQL pre-defined tracepoint events

PostgreSQL predefines some handy perf events via the SDT (statically defined tracepoint) interface, like dtrace. This lets you see critical PostgreSQL performance innards, e.g.

 sdt_postgresql:buffer__sync__done                  [SDT event]
 sdt_postgresql:buffer__sync__start                 [SDT event]
 sdt_postgresql:checkpoint__done                    [SDT event]
 sdt_postgresql:checkpoint__start                   [SDT event]

If you don't see these in perf list, see static probe points and perf-buildid-cache.

Also: Internally PostgreSQL generates these using systemtap on Linux, so you must have had systemtap installed at build time and passed --enable-dtrace to configure to get these tracepoints. They're enabled by default in the PGDG binary builds.

You must initialize sdt events with perf probe before using them. perf probe may report multiple event names, as in the example below.

 # perf probe sdt_postgresql:query__execute__start
 Added new events:
   sdt_postgresql:query__execute__start (on %query__execute__start in /usr/pgsql-9.5/bin/postgres)
   sdt_postgresql:query__execute__start_1 (on %query__execute__start in /usr/pgsql-9.5/bin/postgres)
 You can now use it in all perf tools, such as:
 	perf record -e sdt_postgresql:query__execute__start_1 -aR sleep 1
 # perf record -e sdt_postgresql:query__execute__start,sdt_postgresql:query__execute__start_1 -a
 ^C[ perf record: Woken up 1 times to write data ]
 [ perf record: Captured and wrote 2.211 MB (2 samples) ]
 # perf script
       postgres 19995 [000] 430223.752970: sdt_postgresql:query__execute__start_1: (6c42e7)
       postgres 20003 [002] 430227.276924: sdt_postgresql:query__execute__start_1: (6c42e7)

Dynamic tracepoints

Often there isn't a SDT event for just what you want. But that's OK. If you have debug symbols and a vaguely recent perf (tested: Linux 4.4) you can inject dynamic tracepoints where you want them, and even capture function arguments!

e.g. if you want to see the rate at which queries are executed you might inject a tracepoint into standard_ExecutorStart:

 perf probe -x /usr/lib/postgresql/10/bin/postgres standard_ExecutorStart

This will then be available as the perf event probe_postgres:standard_ExecutorStart for use in perf record etc.

Probing extensions

Extensions are valid probe targets too. Just specify them as the executable, e.g. to see the lsn of every 100th change processed by pglogical's logical decoding output plugin as it examines it, you could:

 perf probe -x /usr/lib/postgresql/10/lib/ pg_decode_change 'change->lsn'
 perf record -e probe_pglogical:pg_decode_change -aR -o - | perf script -i - -F event,trace | awk 'NR%100==0' -

Less common reports

Annotated source code, from a recorded session:

 perf annotate -l -P

Trace output, from a recorded session:

 perf script -L

Benchmarking and statistics

If you're interested in particular tracepoints or statistics, the perf stat command is also useful. For example, the following will count fsync and write calls, and block device activity, during a command. It will run the command five times and summarize the results.

 sudo perf stat -e block:block_rq_*,syscalls:sys_enter_write,syscalls:sys_enter_fsync -a -r 5 -- psql -q -U postgres postgres -c "drop table if exists x; create table x as select a FROM generate_series(1,1000000) a;";

To learn more about using perf for tracing see tracing PostgreSQL with perf.

Availability of perf

The perf tool is available on recent Linux distributions such as:

  • RedHat Linux Enterprise 6: perf package
  • Debian Squeeze: add the linux-tools package.

It may be built and installed from the linux source code in the tools/perf subdirectory. You must use a perf that matches your running kernel version.

Advanced: Viewing and capturing function arguments

Lets say you want to collect information on the kinds of queries that are run. You can capture the CmdType operation field of the QueryDesc passed to standard_ExecutorStart with perf!. No patching postgres, no gdb.

 perf probe -x /usr/lib/postgresql/10/bin/postgres standard_ExecutorStart 'queryDesc->operation'

You can capture multiple arguments. To get strings as c-strings not pointer values append :string to the argument defintion. e.g.

 perf probe -x /usr/lib/postgresql/10/bin/postgres standard_ExecutorStart 'queryDesc->operation' 'queryDesc->sourceText:string'

The overhead of perf and size of traces is greatly increased by capturing arguments in probes, so only do it if you need to.

perf report doesn't seem to do anything with captured tracepoint arguments right now, but perf script can show them, and you can filter the results through its perl/python interpreters (if enabled) or via a pipe to another tool/script.

e.g. if you want to see every planned query run in realtime, you might set up the tracepoint above, then

 perf record -e probe_postgres:standard_ExecutorStart -u postgres -o - | perf script -i -

(Some perf versions don't seem to play well with stdio, in which case you may need to use separate record and script steps. If you get empty output, try it.)

You should see results like

       postgres 19499 [002] 429675.072758: probe_postgres:standard_ExecutorStart: (5bd2c0) operation=0x1 sourceText="SELECT 1;"
       postgres 19499 [002] 429675.399764: probe_postgres:standard_ExecutorStart: (5bd2c0) operation=0x1 sourceText="SELECT 2;"

Of course this is a bit of a silly example since you'd just enable query logging, and it ignores unplanned queries (utility statements) but it illustrates the methods required for capturing data with probes.


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