How can this 'top' command output make sense? Load over 7 and total CPU use ~5%

Matthew Seaman m.seaman at
Sun May 24 09:07:34 UTC 2009

Glen Barber wrote:
> Hi, Matthew
> On Sun, May 24, 2009 at 3:46 AM, Matthew Seaman
> <m.seaman at> wrote:
>> Yuri wrote:
> [snip]
>> Sure. This is not an uncommon occurrence really.  The load average is
>> the number of processes in the queue for a CPU time slice averaged over
>> 5, 10 or 15 minutes.  For multi-core systems the LA is scaled by the number
>> of cores so a LA of 1.0 means all cores have active processes pretty much
>> continually.
> I thought, if it was a dual-core for example, a load average of 1.00
> would indicate 50% CPU utilization overall (1 process using only 1
> core)[1].  2.00 on a dual-core would be 100%, 3.00 on a dual-core
> would be 100% utilization, and always 1 process in the wait queue, and
> so on.

It seems both ways have been used in different OSes, which is confusing.
A quick test of a single threaded process that will spin one CPU on a
multi-core FreeBSD box shows the value is /not/ scaled by the number of cores.

Which means that the LA the OP was talking about is actually a lot less alarming
than it originally appears.  It's clear from the top output that his machine
has at least 8 cores, so a LA of 7 is really not very heavily loaded.

>> Now, you might think that an active process will take the CPU utilisation
>> to 100%, but that is not necessarily so.  Some numerical applications can
>> do that, but purely CPU bound processes are relatively uncommon in everyday
>> usage.  In actuality what happens is that the processor will need to
>> retrieve
>> data from somewhere to operate on.  There's a hierarchy of data stores of
>> various speeds (latency, rather than bandwidth):
>>  L1 Cache > L2 Cache > L3 Cache > Main RAM > Disk > Network
> Does this affect the load average though?  My understanding was that
> if the CPU cannot immediately process data, the data gets put into the
> wait queue until L2 Cache (then RAM, etc, etc) returns the data to be
> processed.

Yes it does: when a process is on the CPU and blocked waiting for IO
it does not necessarily yield the CPU to another process.  It depends on
timescales -- obviously if the CPU will have to wait milliseconds for data
it makes no sense to block other processes.  Waiting a few microseconds is
a different matter though: it might take that long to load up L2/L3 cache
with that processes' working data, so yielding the CPU for that sort of delay
would mean the process never got run, which is counter productive...  It
helps if the working set is already in the L3 cache -- so having the correct
amount[*] of cache RAM available is an important design criterion.  It's something
that Intel was shown to have got wrong with some of the Pentium series chips
when a low powered Pentium M designed for mobile use smoked a much higher
clock speed Pentium chip designed for all-out server use simply because it had
about 4x as much cache.



[*] ie. as much as possible.

Dr Matthew J Seaman MA, D.Phil.                   7 Priory Courtyard
                                                  Flat 3
PGP:     Ramsgate
                                                  Kent, CT11 9PW

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