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RAM is the new disk – and how to measure its performance – Part 3 – CPU Instructions & Cycles

If you haven’t read the previous parts of this series yet, here are the links: [ Part 1 | Part 2 ].

A Refresher

In the first part of this series I said that RAM access is the slow component of a modern in-memory database engine and for performance you’d want to reduce RAM access as much as possible. Reduced memory traffic thanks to the new columnar data formats is the most important enabler for the awesome In-Memory processing performance and SIMD is just icing on the cake.

In the second part I also showed how to measure the CPU efficiency of your (Oracle) process using a Linux perf stat command. How well your applications actually utilize your CPU execution units depends on many factors. The biggest factor is your process’es cache efficiency that depends on the CPU cache size and your application’s memory access patterns. Regardless of what the OS CPU accounting tools like top or vmstat may show you, your “100% busy” CPUs may actually spend a significant amount of their cycles internally idle, with a stalled pipeline, waiting for some event (like a memory line arrival from RAM) to happen.

Luckily there are plenty of tools for measuring what’s actually going on inside the CPUs, thanks to modern processors having CPU Performance Counters (CPC) built in to them.

A key derived metric for understanding CPU-efficiency is the IPC (instructions per cycle). Years ago people were actually talking about the inverse metric CPI (cycles per instruction) as on average it took more than one CPU cycle to complete an instruction’s execution (again, due to the abovementioned reasons like memory stalls). However, thanks to today’s superscalar processors with out-of-order execution on a modern CPU’s multiple execution units – and with large CPU caches – a well-optimized application can execute multiple instructions per a single CPU cycle, thus it’s more natural to use the IPC (instructions-per-cycle) metric. With IPC, higher is better.