CPU Terminology

The utilization of a CPU is largely dependent on what resource is attempting to access it. The kernel has a scheduler that is responsible for scheduling two kinds of resources: threads (single or multi) and interrupts. The scheduler gives different priorities to the different resources. The following list outlines the priorities from highest to lowest:

Hardware Interrupts – These are requests made by hardware on the system to process data. For example, a disk may signal an interrupt when it has completed and IO transaction or a NIC may signal that a packet has been received.

Soft Interrupts – These are kernel software interrupts that have to do with maintenance of the kernel. For example, the kernel clock tick thread is a soft interrupt. It checks to make sure a process has not passed its allotted time on a processor.

Real Time Threads – Real time threads have more priority than the kernel itself. A real time process may come on the CPU and preempt (or “kick off) the kernel. The Linux 2.4 kernel is NOT a fully preemptable kernel, making it not ideal for real time application programming.

Kernel Threads – All kernel processing is handled at this level of priority.

User Threads – This space is often referred to as “userland”. All software applications run in the user space. This space has the lowest priority in the kernel scheduling mechanism.

In order to understand how the kernel manages these different resources, a few key concepts need to be introduced. The following sections introduce context switches, run queues, and utilization.

1. Context Switches:

Most modern processors can only run one process (single threaded) or thread at time. The n-way Hyper threaded processors have the ability to run n threads at a time. Still, the Linux kernel views each processor core on a dual core chip as an independent processor. For example, a system with one dual core processor is reported as two individual processors by the Linux kernel. A standard Linux kernel can run anywhere from 50 to 50,000 process threads at once. With only one CPU, the kernel has to schedule and balance these process threads. Each thread has an allotted time quantum to spend on the processor. Once a thread has either passed the time quantum or has been preempted by something with a higher priority (a hardware interrupt, for example), that thread is place back into a queue while the higher priority thread is placed on the processor. This switching of threads is referred to as a context switch. Every time the kernel conducts a context switch, resources are devoted to moving that thread off of the CPU registers and into a queue. The higher the volume of context switches on a system, the more work the kernel has to do in order to manage the scheduling of processes.

2. The Run Queue:

Each CPU maintains a run queue of threads. Ideally, the scheduler should be constantly running and executing threads. Process threads are either in a sleep state (blocked and waiting on IO) or they are runnable. If the CPU sub-system is heavily utilized, then it is possible that the kernel scheduler can’t keep up with the demand of the system. As a result, runnable processes start to fill up a run queue. The larger the run queue, the longer it will take for process threads to execute. A very popular term called “load” is often used to describe the state of the run queue. The system load is a combination of the amount of process threads currently executing along with the amount of threads in the CPU run queue. If two threads were executing on a dual core system and 4 were in the run queue, then the load would be 6. Utilities such as top report load averages over the course of 1, 5, and 15 minutes.

3. CPU Utilization:

CPU utilization is defined as the percentage of usage of a CPU. How a CPU is utilized is an important metric for measuring system. Most performance monitoring tools categorize CPU utilization into the following categories:

User Time: The percentage of time a CPU spends executing process threads in the user space.

System Time: The percentage of time the CPU spends executing kernel threads and interrupts.

Wait IO: The percentage of time a CPU spends idle because ALL process threads are blocked waiting for IO requests to complete.

Idle: The percentage of time a processor spends in a completely idle state.

4. Time Slicing:

The timeslice2 is the numeric value that represents how long a task can run until it is preempted. The scheduler policy must dictate a default timeslice, which is not simple. A timeslice that is too long will cause the system to have poor interactive performance; the system will no longer feel as if applications are being concurrently executed. A timeslice that is too short will cause significant amounts of processor time to be wasted on the overhead of switching processes, as a significant percentage of the system’s time will be spent switching from one process with a short timeslice to the next. Furthermore, the conflicting goals of I/O-bound versus processor-bound processes again arise; I/O-bound processes do not need longer timeslices, whereas processor-bound processes crave long timeslices (to keep their caches hot, for example).

5. Priorities:

A common type of scheduling algorithm is priority-based scheduling. The idea is to rank processes based on their worth and need for processor time. Processes with a higher priority will run before those with a lower priority, while processes with the same priority are scheduled round-robin (one after the next, repeating). On some systems, Linux included, processes with a higher priority also receive a longer timeslice. The runnable process with timeslice remaining and the highest priority always runs. Both the user and the system may set a processes priority to influence the scheduling behavior of the system.


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