Too Much Context Switching?

alex at alex at
Mon Jun 30 14:48:27 UTC 2008

First off, thanks for such a prompt response. :-)

> alex at wrote:
>> I'm the webmaster for, which is a FreeBSD 
>> 6.2-RELEASE box running on a dual-core AMD Opteron setup with 4GB of 
>> RAM. The box is reasonably busy, as it's the sole piece of hardware 
>> running web, database, and mail operations for the Mars Society, an 
>> international nonprofit group dedicated to space exploration. We 
>> regularly send out newsletters to ~10,000 members, and our web site 
>> is averaging ~50,000-100,000 hits/day.
>> The main portion of the web site is run via the Zope/Plone CMS 
>> system (Plone 2.5, for anyone who may care). Recently, it's been 
>> slowing down dramatically, and our Plone guy (not me -- I inherited 
>> the system and can't stand it) can't figure out why. I've been 
>> diving into OS-related issues, and in so doing, I ran across what 
>> appears to be a very high number of context switches going on. 
>> Here's some sample output from "vmstat 2":
> A few hundred or thousand context switches per second is trivial load.
> That is not your problem.  Modern CPUs can do hundreds of thousands per
> second before it starts to become a problem.

OK, well that's good to know.

> Note that your system is 50% idle and spending almost no time in the
> kernel.  This basically means that only one core is doing work, which
> might be because you're not giving it enough work to do.  There are only
> 1-2 running tasks for most of your trace, one of which is probably
> vmstat itself, so that means there is only one running server process
> (which can obviously only saturate at most 1 CPU).

Actually, I decided to run vmstat this morning for a little while after 
turning off Zope, and during the couple of minutes I had it going, the 
number of processes running (as indicated by the leftmost column of 
vmstat's output) was at 0 for all but one line worth of output, so I 
would guess that vmstat's not including itself in the number of 
processes there. Even so, though, your assessment about how saturated 
the CPU is is of course still valid, which leads me to a follow-up 
question: by default, can a multi-threaded app use both cores? Or would 
I need to have two instances of the process running (Zope is apparently 
able to handle multiple instances running reasonably well) in order to 
have it fully utilize the CPU?

> The trace suggests that your performance problems are either in
> userland, or elsewhere in your network or application stack, possibly
> due to interactions between components.  Try to look at why the system
> is not being given enough work to keep it saturated.

Any tips on tools I could use to check this out? I'll of course be 
looking at Zope profiling tools, to see if I can have them tell me 
where any bottlenecks are, but if there are any OS-level tools that I 
could use to profile a given process (or group thereof) for problems, 
I'd really appreciate hearing about them (simple links to man pages or 
the like would be fine, I don't mean to waste your time explaining how 
tools work when I can usually figure it out on my own).

Alex Kirk

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