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Linux kernel profiling with perf



Perf is a profiler tool for Linux 2.6+ based systems that abstracts away CPU hardware differences in Linux performance measurements and presents a simple commandline interface. Perf is based on the perf_events interface exported by recent versions of the Linux kernel. This article demonstrates the perf tool through example runs. Output was obtained on a Ubuntu 11.04 system with kernel 2.6.38-8-generic results running on an HP 6710b with dual-core Intel Core2 T7100 CPU). For readability, some output is abbreviated using ellipsis ([...]).


The perf tool offers a rich set of commands to collect and analyze performance and trace data. The command line usage is reminiscent of git in that there is a generic tool, perf, which implements a set of commands: stat, record, report, [...]

The list of supported commands:


  usage: perf [--version] [--help] [OPTIONS] COMMAND [ARGS]

 The most commonly used perf commands are:
   annotate        Read perf.data (created by perf record) and display annotated code
   archive         Create archive with object files with build-ids found in perf.data file
   bench           General framework for benchmark suites
   buildid-cache   Manage build-id cache.
   buildid-list    List the buildids in a perf.data file
   c2c             Shared Data C2C/HITM Analyzer.
   config          Get and set variables in a configuration file.
   daemon          Run record sessions on background
   data            Data file related processing
   diff            Read perf.data files and display the differential profile
   evlist          List the event names in a perf.data file
   ftrace          simple wrapper for kernel's ftrace functionality
   inject          Filter to augment the events stream with additional information
   iostat          Show I/O performance metrics
   kallsyms        Searches running kernel for symbols
   kvm             Tool to trace/measure kvm guest os
   list            List all symbolic event types
   mem             Profile memory accesses
   record          Run a command and record its profile into perf.data
   report          Read perf.data (created by perf record) and display the profile
   script          Read perf.data (created by perf record) and display trace output
   stat            Run a command and gather performance counter statistics
   test            Runs sanity tests.
   top             System profiling tool.
   version         display the version of perf binary
   probe           Define new dynamic tracepoints

 See 'perf help COMMAND' for more information on a specific command.

Certain commands require special support in the kernel and may not be available. To obtain the list of options for each command, simply type the command name followed by -h:

perf stat -h

 usage: perf stat [<options>] [<command>]

    -e, --event <event>   event selector. use 'perf list' to list available events
    -i, --no-inherit      child tasks do not inherit counters
    -p, --pid <n>         stat events on existing process id
    -t, --tid <n>         stat events on existing thread id
    -a, --all-cpus        system-wide collection from all CPUs
    -c, --scale           scale/normalize counters
    -v, --verbose         be more verbose (show counter open errors, etc)
    -r, --repeat <n>      repeat command and print average + stddev (max: 100)
    -n, --null            null run - dont start any counters
    -B, --big-num         print large numbers with thousands' separators


The perf tool supports a list of measurable events. The tool and underlying kernel interface can measure events coming from different sources. For instance, some event are pure kernel counters, in this case they are called software events. Examples include: context-switches, minor-faults.

Another source of events is the processor itself and its Performance Monitoring Unit (PMU). It provides a list of events to measure micro-architectural events such as the number of cycles, instructions retired, L1 cache misses and so on. Those events are called PMU hardware events or hardware events for short. They vary with each processor type and model.

The perf_events interface also provides a small set of common hardware events monikers. On each processor, those events get mapped onto an actual events provided by the CPU, if they exists, otherwise the event cannot be used. Somewhat confusingly, these are also called hardware events and hardware cache events.

Finally, there are also tracepoint events which are implemented by the kernel ftrace infrastructure. Those are only available with the 2.6.3x and newer kernels.

To obtain a list of supported events:

perf list

List of pre-defined events (to be used in -e):

 cpu-cycles OR cycles                       [Hardware event]
 instructions                               [Hardware event]
 cache-references                           [Hardware event]
 cache-misses                               [Hardware event]
 branch-instructions OR branches            [Hardware event]
 branch-misses                              [Hardware event]
 bus-cycles                                 [Hardware event]
 ref-cycles                                 [Hardware event]

 cpu-clock                                  [Software event]
 task-clock                                 [Software event]
 page-faults OR faults                      [Software event]
 minor-faults                               [Software event]
 major-faults                               [Software event]
 context-switches OR cs                     [Software event]
 cpu-migrations OR migrations               [Software event]
 alignment-faults                           [Software event]
 emulation-faults                           [Software event]
 bpf-output                                 [Software event]
 cgroup-switches                            [Software event]
 dummy                                      [Software event]

 L1-dcache-loads                            [Hardware cache event]
 L1-dcache-load-misses                      [Hardware cache event]
 L1-dcache-stores                           [Hardware cache event]
 L1-dcache-store-misses                     [Hardware cache event]
 L1-dcache-prefetches                       [Hardware cache event]
 L1-dcache-prefetch-misses                  [Hardware cache event]
 L1-icache-loads                            [Hardware cache event]
 L1-icache-load-misses                      [Hardware cache event]
 L1-icache-prefetches                       [Hardware cache event]
 L1-icache-prefetch-misses                  [Hardware cache event]
 LLC-loads                                  [Hardware cache event]
 LLC-load-misses                            [Hardware cache event]
 LLC-stores                                 [Hardware cache event]
 LLC-store-misses                           [Hardware cache event]

 LLC-prefetch-misses                        [Hardware cache event]
 dTLB-loads                                 [Hardware cache event]
 dTLB-load-misses                           [Hardware cache event]
 dTLB-stores                                [Hardware cache event]
 dTLB-store-misses                          [Hardware cache event]
 dTLB-prefetches                            [Hardware cache event]
 dTLB-prefetch-misses                       [Hardware cache event]
 iTLB-loads                                 [Hardware cache event]
 iTLB-load-misses                           [Hardware cache event]
 branch-loads                               [Hardware cache event]
 branch-load-misses                         [Hardware cache event]

 rNNN (see 'perf list --help' on how to encode it) [Raw hardware event descriptor]

 mem:<addr>[:access]                        [Hardware breakpoint]

 kvmmmu:kvm_mmu_pagetable_walk              [Tracepoint event]


 sched:sched_stat_runtime                   [Tracepoint event]
 sched:sched_pi_setprio                     [Tracepoint event]
 syscalls:sys_enter_socket                  [Tracepoint event]
 syscalls:sys_exit_socket                   [Tracepoint event]


An event can have sub-events (or unit masks). On some processors and for some events, it may be possible to combine unit masks and measure when either sub-event occurs. Finally, an event can have modifiers, i.e., filters which alter when or how the event is counted.

Hardware events

PMU hardware events are CPU specific and documented by the CPU vendor. The perf tool, if linked against the libpfm4 the library provides some short description of the events. For a listing of PMU hardware events for Intel and AMD processors, see

  • Intel PMU event tables: Appendix A of manual here
  • AMD PMU event table: section 3.14 of manual here

Counting with perf stat

For any of the supported events, perf can keep a running count during process execution. In counting modes, the occurrences of events are simply aggregated and presented on standard output at the end of an application run. To generate these statistics, use the stat command of perf. For instance:

perf stat -B dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=1000000

1000000+0 records in
1000000+0 records out
512000000 bytes (512 MB) copied, 0.956217 s, 535 MB/s

 Performance counter stats for 'dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=1000000':

            5,099 cache-misses             #      0.005 M/sec (scaled from 66.58%)
          235,384 cache-references         #      0.246 M/sec (scaled from 66.56%)
        9,281,660 branch-misses            #      3.858 %     (scaled from 33.50%)
      240,609,766 branches                 #    251.559 M/sec (scaled from 33.66%)
    1,403,561,257 instructions             #      0.679 IPC   (scaled from 50.23%)
    2,066,201,729 cycles                   #   2160.227 M/sec (scaled from 66.67%)
              217 page-faults              #      0.000 M/sec
                3 CPU-migrations           #      0.000 M/sec
               83 context-switches         #      0.000 M/sec
       956.474238 task-clock-msecs         #      0.999 CPUs

       0.957617512  seconds time elapsed

With no events specified, perf stat collects the common events listed above. Some are software events, such as context-switches, others are generic hardware events such as cycles. After the hash sign, derived metrics may be presented, such as 'IPC' (instructions per cycle).

Options controlling event selection

It is possible to measure one or more events per run of the perf tool. Events are designated using their symbolic names followed by optional unit masks and modifiers. Event names, unit masks, and modifiers are case insensitive.

By default, events are measured at both user and kernel levels:

perf stat -e cycles dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=100000

To measure only at the user level, it is necessary to pass a modifier:

perf stat -e cycles:u dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=100000

To measure both user and kernel (explicitly):

perf stat -e cycles:uk dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=100000


Events can optionally have a modifier by appending a colon and one or more modifiers. Modifiers allow the user to restrict when events are counted.

To measure a PMU event and pass modifiers:

perf stat -e instructions:u dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=100000

In this example, we are measuring the number of instructions at the user level. Note that for actual events, the modifiers depends on the underlying PMU model. All modifiers can be combined at will. Here is a simple table to summarize the most common modifiers for Intel and AMD x86 processors.

Modifiers Description Example
u monitor at priv level 3, 2, 1 (user) event:u
k monitor at priv level 0 (kernel) event:k
h monitor hypervisor events on a virtualization environment event:h
H monitor host machine on a virtualization environment event:H
G monitor guest machine on a virtualization environment event:G

All modifiers above are considered as a boolean (flag).

Hardware events

To measure an actual PMU as provided by the HW vendor documentation, pass the hexadecimal parameter code:

perf stat -e r1a8 -a sleep 1

Performance counter stats for 'sleep 1':

            210,140 raw 0x1a8
       1.001213705  seconds time elapsed

multiple events

To measure more than one event, simply provide a comma-separated list with no space:

perf stat -e cycles,instructions,cache-misses [...]

There is no theoretical limit in terms of the number of events that can be provided. If there are more events than there are actual hw counters, the kernel will automatically multiplex them. There is no limit of the number of software events. It is possible to simultaneously measure events coming from different sources.

However, given that there is one file descriptor used per event and either per-thread (per-thread mode) or per-cpu (system-wide), it is possible to reach the maximum number of open file descriptor per process as imposed by the kernel. In that case, perf will report an error. See the troubleshooting section for help with this matter.

multiplexing and scaling events

If there are more events than counters, the kernel uses time multiplexing (switch frequency = HZ, generally 100 or 1000) to give each event a chance to access the monitoring hardware. Multiplexing only applies to PMU events. With multiplexing, an event is not measured all the time. At the end of the run, the tool scales the count based on total time enabled vs time running. The actual formula is:

final_count = raw_count * time_enabled/time_running

This provides an estimate of what the count would have been, had the event been measured during the entire run. It is very important to understand this is an estimate not an actual count. Depending on the workload, there will be blind spots which can introduce errors during scaling.

Events are currently managed in round-robin fashion. Therefore each event will eventually get a chance to run. If there are N counters, then up to the first N events on the round-robin list are programmed into the PMU. In certain situations it may be less than that because some events may not be measured together or they compete for the same counter. Furthermore, the perf_events interface allows multiple tools to measure the same thread or CPU at the same time. Each event is added to the same round-robin list. There is no guarantee that all events of a tool are stored sequentially in the list.

To avoid scaling (in the presence of only one active perf_event user), one can try and reduce the number of events. The following table provides the number of counters for a few common processors:

Processor Generic counters Fixed counters
Intel Core 2 3
Intel Nehalem 4 3

Generic counters can measure any events. Fixed counters can only measure one event. Some counters may be reserved for special purposes, such as a watchdog timer.

The following examples show the effect of scaling:

perf stat -B -e cycles,cycles ./noploop 1

 Performance counter stats for './noploop 1':

    2,812,305,464 cycles
    2,812,304,340 cycles

       1.302481065  seconds time elapsed

Here, there is no multiplexing and thus no scaling. Let's add one more event:

perf stat -B -e cycles,cycles,cycles ./noploop 1

 Performance counter stats for './noploop 1':

    2,809,725,593 cycles                    (scaled from 74.98%)
    2,810,797,044 cycles                    (scaled from 74.97%)
    2,809,315,647 cycles                    (scaled from 75.09%)

       1.295007067  seconds time elapsed

There was multiplexing and thus scaling. It can be interesting to try and pack events in a way that guarantees that event A and B are always measured together. Although the perf_events kernel interface provides support for event grouping, the current perf tool does not.

Repeated measurement

It is possible to use perf stat to run the same test workload multiple times and get for each count, the standard deviation from the mean.

perf stat -r 5 sleep 1

 Performance counter stats for 'sleep 1' (5 runs):

    <not counted> cache-misses
           20,676 cache-references         #     13.046 M/sec   ( +-   0.658% )
            6,229 branch-misses            #      0.000 %       ( +-  40.825% )
    <not counted> branches
    <not counted> instructions
    <not counted> cycles
              144 page-faults              #      0.091 M/sec   ( +-   0.139% )
                0 CPU-migrations           #      0.000 M/sec   ( +-    -nan% )
                1 context-switches         #      0.001 M/sec   ( +-   0.000% )
         1.584872 task-clock-msecs         #      0.002 CPUs    ( +-  12.480% )

       1.002251432  seconds time elapsed   ( +-   0.025% )

Here, sleep is run 5 times and the mean count for each event, along with ratio of std-dev/mean is printed.

Options controlling environment selection

The perf tool can be used to count events on a per-thread, per-process, per-cpu or system-wide basis. In per-thread mode, the counter only monitors the execution of a designated thread. When the thread is scheduled out, monitoring stops. When a thread migrated from one processor to another, counters are saved on the current processor and are restored on the new one.

The per-process mode is a variant of per-thread where all threads of the process are monitored. Counts and samples are aggregated at the process level. The perf_events interface allows for automatic inheritance on fork() and pthread_create(). By default, the perf tool activates inheritance.

In per-cpu mode, all threads running on the designated processors are monitored. Counts and samples are thus aggregated per CPU. An event is only monitoring one CPU at a time. To monitor across multiple processors, it is necessary to create multiple events. The perf tool can aggregate counts and samples across multiple processors. It can also monitor only a subset of the processors.

Counting and inheritance

By default, perf stat counts for all threads of the process and subsequent child processes and threads. This can be altered using the -i option. It is not possible to obtain a count breakdown per-thread or per-process.

Processor-wide mode

By default, perf stat counts in per-thread mode. To count on a per-cpu basis pass the -a option. When it is specified by itself, all online processors are monitored and counts are aggregated. For instance:

perf stat -B -ecycles:u,instructions:u -a dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=2000000

2000000+0 records in
2000000+0 records out
1024000000 bytes (1.0 GB) copied, 1.91559 s, 535 MB/s

 Performance counter stats for 'dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=2000000':

    1,993,541,603 cycles
      764,086,803 instructions             #      0.383 IPC

       1.916930613  seconds time elapsed

This measurement collects events cycles and instructions across all CPUs. The duration of the measurement is determined by the execution of dd. In other words, this measurement captures execution of the dd process and anything else than runs at the user level on all CPUs.

To time the duration of the measurement without actively consuming cycles, it is possible to use the =/usr/bin/sleep= command:

perf stat -B -ecycles:u,instructions:u -a sleep 5

 Performance counter stats for 'sleep 5':

      766,271,289 cycles
      596,796,091 instructions             #      0.779 IPC

       5.001191353  seconds time elapsed

It is possible to restrict monitoring to a subset of the CPUS using the -C option. A list of CPUs to monitor can be passed. For instance, to measure on CPU0, CPU2 and CPU3:

perf stat -B -e cycles:u,instructions:u -a -C 0,2-3 sleep 5

The demonstration machine has only two CPUs, but we can limit to CPU 1.

perf stat -B -e cycles:u,instructions:u -a -C 1 sleep 5

 Performance counter stats for 'sleep 5':

      301,141,166 cycles
      225,595,284 instructions             #      0.749 IPC

       5.002125198  seconds time elapsed

Counts are aggregated across all the monitored CPUs. Notice how the number of counted cycles and instructions are both halved when measuring a single CPU.

Attaching to a running process

It is possible to use perf to attach to an already running thread or process. This requires the permission to attach along with the thread or process ID. To attach to a process, the -p option must be the process ID. To attach to the sshd service that is commonly running on many Linux machines, issue:

ps ax | fgrep sshd

 2262 ?        Ss     0:00 /usr/sbin/sshd -D
 2787 pts/0    S+     0:00 fgrep --color=auto sshd

perf stat -e cycles -p 2262 sleep 2

 Performance counter stats for process id '2262':

    <not counted> cycles

       2.001263149  seconds time elapsed

What determines the duration of the measurement is the command to execute. Even though we are attaching to a process, we can still pass the name of a command. It is used to time the measurement. Without it, perf monitors until it is killed. Also note that when attaching to a process, all threads of the process are monitored. Furthermore, given that inheritance is on by default, child processes or threads will also be monitored. To turn this off, you must use the -i option. It is possible to attach a specific thread within a process. By thread, we mean kernel visible thread. In other words, a thread visible by the ps or top commands. To attach to a thread, the -t option must be used. We look at rsyslogd, because it always runs on Ubuntu 11.04, with multiple threads.

ps -L ax | fgrep rsyslogd | head -5

 889   889 ?        Sl     0:00 rsyslogd -c4
 889   932 ?        Sl     0:00 rsyslogd -c4
 889   933 ?        Sl     0:00 rsyslogd -c4
 2796  2796 pts/0    S+     0:00 fgrep --color=auto rsyslogd

perf stat -e cycles -t 932 sleep 2

 Performance counter stats for thread id '932':

    <not counted> cycles

       2.001037289  seconds time elapsed

In this example, the thread 932 did not run during the 2s of the measurement. Otherwise, we would see a count value. Attaching to kernel threads is possible, though not really recommended. Given that kernel threads tend to be pinned to a specific CPU, it is best to use the cpu-wide mode.

Options controlling output

perf stat can modify output to suit different needs.

Pretty printing large numbers

For most people, it is hard to read large numbers. With perf stat, it is possible to print large numbers using the comma separator for thousands (US-style). For that the -B option and the correct locale for LC_NUMERIC must be set. As the above example showed, Ubuntu already sets the locale information correctly. An explicit call looks as follows:

LC_NUMERIC=en_US.UTF8 perf stat -B -e cycles:u,instructions:u dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=10000000

100000+0 records in
100000+0 records out
51200000 bytes (51 MB) copied, 0.0971547 s, 527 MB/s

 Performance counter stats for 'dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=100000':

       96,551,461 cycles
       38,176,009 instructions             #      0.395 IPC

       0.098556460  seconds time elapsed

Machine readable output

perf stat can also print counts in a format that can easily be imported into a spreadsheet or parsed by scripts. The -x option alters the format of the output and allows users to pass a field delimiter. This makes is easy to produce CSV-style output:

perf stat  -x, date

Thu May 26 21:11:07 EDT 2011
<not counted>,branch-misses
<not counted>,branches
<not counted>,instructions
<not counted>,cycles

Note that the -x option is not compatible with -B.

Sampling with perf record

The perf tool can be used to collect profiles on per-thread, per-process and per-cpu basis.

There are several commands associated with sampling: record, report, annotate. You must first collect the samples using perf record. This generates an output file called perf.data. That file can then be analyzed, possibly on another machine, using the perf report and perf annotate commands. The model is fairly similar to that of OProfile.

Event-based sampling overview

Perf_events is based on event-based sampling. The period is expressed as the number of occurrences of an event, not the number of timer ticks. A sample is recorded when the sampling counter overflows, i.e., wraps from 2^64 back to 0. No PMU implements 64-bit hardware counters, but perf_events emulates such counters in software.

The way perf_events emulates 64-bit counter is limited to expressing sampling periods using the number of bits in the actual hardware counters. If this is smaller than 64, the kernel silently truncates the period in this case. Therefore, it is best if the period is always smaller than 2^31 if running on 32-bit systems.

On counter overflow, the kernel records information, i.e., a sample, about the execution of the program. What gets recorded depends on the type of measurement. This is all specified by the user and the tool. But the key information that is common in all samples is the instruction pointer, i.e. where was the program when it was interrupted.

Interrupt-based sampling introduces skids on modern processors. That means that the instruction pointer stored in each sample designates the place where the program was interrupted to process the PMU interrupt, not the place where the counter actually overflows, i.e., where it was at the end of the sampling period. In some case, the distance between those two points may be several dozen instructions or more if there were taken branches. When the program cannot make forward progress, those two locations are indeed identical. For this reason, care must be taken when interpreting profiles.

Default event: cycle counting

By default, perf record uses the cycles event as the sampling event. This is a generic hardware event that is mapped to a hardware-specific PMU event by the kernel. For Intel, it is mapped to UNHALTED_CORE_CYCLES. This event does not maintain a constant correlation to time in the presence of CPU frequency scaling. Intel provides another event, called UNHALTED_REFERENCE_CYCLES but this event is NOT currently available with perf_events.

On AMD systems, the event is mapped to CPU_CLK_UNHALTED and this event is also subject to frequency scaling. On any Intel or AMD processor, the cycle event does not count when the processor is idle, i.e., when it calls mwait().

Period and rate

The perf_events interface allows two modes to express the sampling period:

  • the number of occurrences of the event (period)
  • the average rate of samples/sec (frequency)

The perf tool defaults to the average rate. It is set to 1000Hz, or 1000 samples/sec. That means that the kernel is dynamically adjusting the sampling period to achieve the target average rate. The adjustment in period is reported in the raw profile data. In contrast, with the other mode, the sampling period is set by the user and does not vary between samples. There is currently no support for sampling period randomization.

Collecting samples

By default, perf record operates in per-thread mode, with inherit mode enabled. The simplest mode looks as follows, when executing a simple program that busy loops:

perf record ./noploop 1

[ perf record: Woken up 1 times to write data ]
[ perf record: Captured and wrote 0.002 MB perf.data (~89 samples) ]

The example above collects samples for event cycles at an average target rate of 1000Hz. The resulting samples are saved into the perf.data file. If the file already existed, you may be prompted to pass -f to overwrite it. To put the results in a specific file, use the -o option.

WARNING: The number of reported samples is only an estimate. It does not reflect the actual number of samples collected. The estimate is based on the number of bytes written to the perf.data file and the minimal sample size. But the size of each sample depends on the type of measurement. Some samples are generated by the counters themselves but others are recorded to support symbol correlation during post-processing, e.g., mmap() information.

To get an accurate number of samples for the perf.data file, it is possible to use the perf report command:

perf record ./noploop 1

[ perf record: Woken up 1 times to write data ]
[ perf record: Captured and wrote 0.058 MB perf.data (~2526 samples) ]
perf report -D -i perf.data | fgrep RECORD_SAMPLE | wc -l


To specify a custom rate, it is necessary to use the -F option. For instance, to sample on event instructions only at the user level and

at an average rate of 250 samples/sec:
perf record -e instructions:u -F 250 ./noploop 4

[ perf record: Woken up 1 times to write data ]
[ perf record: Captured and wrote 0.049 MB perf.data (~2160 samples) ]

To specify a sampling period, instead, the -c option must be used. For instance, to collect a sample every 2000 occurrences of event instructions only at the user level only:

perf record -e retired_instructions:u -c 2000 ./noploop 4

[ perf record: Woken up 55 times to write data ]
[ perf record: Captured and wrote 13.514 MB perf.data (~590431 samples) ]

Processor-wide mode

In per-cpu mode mode, samples are collected for all threads executing on the monitored CPU. To switch perf record in per-cpu mode, the -a option must be used. By default in this mode, ALL online CPUs are monitored. It is possible to restrict to the a subset of CPUs using the -C option, as explained with perf stat above.

To sample on cycles at both user and kernel levels for 5s on all CPUS with an average target rate of 1000 samples/sec:

perf record -a -F 1000 sleep 5

[ perf record: Woken up 1 times to write data ]
[ perf record: Captured and wrote 0.523 MB perf.data (~22870 samples) ]

Flame Graph

FlameGraphs are a popular way to visualize stack traces and break down execution time. The perf tool supports natively generating flame graphs using the perf script report flamegraph command.

perf record -a -g -F 99 sleep 60
perf script report flamegraph
google-chrome flamegraph.html

By default this creates a flamegraph.html file and the google-chrome command will load the file into your web browser. The visualization uses d3 and the relevant d3 files may need to be installed or downloaded on demand. If downloading is necessary then a prompt will appear to ensure perf doesn't create unprompted network traffic. The prompt can be disabled with the --allow-download option.

Firefox Profiler

Firefox profiler is a powerful tool developed by Mozilla to analyze and optimize the performance of web applications and websites. It allows developers to gain deep insights into the behaviour of their code and identify performance bottlenecks, making it an invaluable asset for web development and debugging. Here is the matrix channel for Firefox profiler discussion, you can reach out in case any doubt or issue arise. One of the key components of the Firefox Profiler is the Gecko format. It is a specialized data format used to store performance data collected during the profiling process. The Gecko format is particularly beneficial because it offers a comprehensive and structured representation of performance data, enabling developers to visualize and interpret complex metrics in a more manageable way. Here is the sample_gecko_output generated by the gecko script. The gecko script is available under scripts/python directory:

perf script report gecko -h
usage: perf script gecko [<options>] [<command>]
[--user-colour]			Color for user category
[--kernel-colour]		Color for kernel category
[--save-only]  			Save the output to a file


perf script gecko -a sleep 60


perf record -a -g -F 99 sleep 60
perf script report gecko 

NOTE: If you want to use command line args for gecko script then you need to use it as "perf script report gecko [<options>]"

If you're seeking to visualize the behaviour for a particular process, you have a couple of options:

perf record -p <pid>
perf script report gecko


1. Run perf report
2. Identify and select the specific process you're interested in.
3. Opt to run a script for either the chosen process or all processes.

Sample analysis with perf report

Samples collected by perf record are saved into a binary file called, by default, perf.data. The perf report command reads this file and generates a concise execution profile. By default, samples are sorted by functions with the most samples first. It is possible to customize the sorting order and therefore to view the data differently.

perf report

# Events: 1K cycles
# Overhead          Command                   Shared Object  Symbol
# ........  ...............  ..............................  .....................................
    28.15%      firefox-bin  libxul.so                       [.] 0xd10b45
     4.45%          swapper  [kernel.kallsyms]               [k] mwait_idle_with_hints
     4.26%          swapper  [kernel.kallsyms]               [k] read_hpet
     2.13%      firefox-bin  firefox-bin                     [.] 0x1e3d
     1.40%  unity-panel-ser  libglib-2.0.so.0.2800.6         [.] 0x886f1

The column 'Overhead' indicates the percentage of the overall samples collected in the corresponding function. The second column reports the process from which the samples were collected. In per-thread/per-process mode, this is always the name of the monitored command. But in cpu-wide mode, the command can vary. The third column shows the name of the ELF image where the samples came from. If a program is dynamically linked, then this may show the name of a shared library. When the samples come from the kernel, then the pseudo ELF image name [kernel.kallsyms] is used. The fourth column indicates the privilege level at which the sample was taken, i.e. when the program was running when it was interrupted:

  • [.] : user level
  • [k]: kernel level
  • [g]: guest kernel level (virtualization)
  • [u]: guest os user space
  • [H]: hypervisor

The final column shows the symbol name.

There are many different ways samples can be presented, i.e., sorted. To sort by shared objects, i.e., dsos:

perf report --sort=dso

# Events: 1K cycles
# Overhead                   Shared Object
# ........  ..............................
    38.08%  [kernel.kallsyms]
    28.23%  libxul.so
     3.97%  libglib-2.0.so.0.2800.6
     3.72%  libc-2.13.so
     3.46%  libpthread-2.13.so
     2.13%  firefox-bin
     1.51%  libdrm_intel.so.1.0.0
     1.38%  dbus-daemon
     1.36%  [drm]

Options controlling output

To make the output easier to parse, it is possible to change the column separator to a single character:

perf report -t

Options controlling kernel reporting

The perf tool does not know how to extract symbols form compressed kernel images (vmlinuz). Therefore, users must pass the path of the uncompressed kernel using the -k option:

perf report -k /tmp/vmlinux

Of course, this works only if the kernel is compiled to with debug symbols.

Processor-wide mode

In per-cpu mode, samples are recorded from all threads running on the monitored CPUs. As as result, samples from many different processes may be collected. For instance, if we monitor across all CPUs for 5s:

perf record -a sleep 5
perf report

# Events: 354  cycles
# Overhead          Command               Shared Object  Symbol
# ........  ...............  ..........................  ......................................
    13.20%          swapper  [kernel.kallsyms]           [k] read_hpet
     7.53%          swapper  [kernel.kallsyms]           [k] mwait_idle_with_hints
     4.40%    perf_2.6.38-8  [kernel.kallsyms]           [k] _raw_spin_unlock_irqrestore
     4.07%    perf_2.6.38-8  perf_2.6.38-8               [.] 0x34e1b
     3.88%    perf_2.6.38-8  [kernel.kallsyms]           [k] format_decode

When the symbol is printed as an hexadecimal address, this is because the ELF image does not have a symbol table. This happens when binaries are stripped. We can sort by cpu as well. This could be useful to determine if the workload is well balanced:

perf report --sort=cpu

# Events: 354  cycles
# Overhead  CPU
# ........  ...
   65.85%  1
   34.15%  0

Overhead calculation

The overhead can be shown in two columns as 'Children' and 'Self' when perf collects callchains. The 'self' overhead is simply calculated by adding all period values of the entry - usually a function (symbol). This is the value that perf shows traditionally and sum of all the 'self' overhead values should be 100%.

The 'children' overhead is calculated by adding all period values of the child functions so that it can show the total overhead of the higher level functions even if they don't directly execute much. 'Children' here means functions that are called from another (parent) function.

It might be confusing that the sum of all the 'children' overhead values exceeds 100% since each of them is already an accumulation of 'self' overhead of its child functions. But with this enabled, users can find which function has the most overhead even if samples are spread over the children.

Consider the following example; there are three functions like below.

void foo(void) {
    /* do something */

void bar(void) {
    /* do something */

int main(void) {
    return 0;

In this case 'foo' is a child of 'bar', and 'bar' is an immediate child of 'main' so 'foo' also is a child of 'main'. In other words, 'main' is a parent of 'foo' and 'bar', and 'bar' is a parent of 'foo'.

Suppose all samples are recorded in 'foo' and 'bar' only. When it's recorded with callchains the output will show something like below in the usual (self-overhead-only) output of perf report:

Overhead  Symbol
........  .....................
  60.00%  foo
          --- foo

  40.00%  bar
          --- bar

When the --children option is enabled, the 'self' overhead values of child functions (i.e. 'foo' and 'bar') are added to the parents to calculate the 'children' overhead. In this case the report could be displayed as:

Children      Self  Symbol
........  ........  ....................
 100.00%     0.00%  __libc_start_main
          --- __libc_start_main

 100.00%     0.00%  main
          --- main

 100.00%    40.00%  bar
          --- bar

  60.00%    60.00%  foo
          --- foo

In the above output, the 'self' overhead of 'foo' (60%) was add to the 'children' overhead of 'bar', 'main' and '__libc_start_main'. Likewise, the 'self' overhead of 'bar' (40%) was added to the 'children' overhead of 'main' and '__libc_start_main'.

So '__libc_start_main' and 'main' are shown first since they have same (100%) 'children' overhead (even though they have zero 'self' overhead) and they are the parents of 'foo' and 'bar'.

Since v3.16 the 'children' overhead is shown by default and the output is sorted by its values. The 'children' overhead is disabled by specifying --no-children option on the command line or by adding 'report.children = false' or 'top.children = false' in the perf config file.

Source level analysis with perf annotate

It is possible to drill down to the instruction level with perf annotate. For that, you need to invoke perf annotate with the name of the command to annotate. All the functions with samples will be disassembled and each instruction will have its relative percentage of samples reported:

perf record ./noploop 5
perf annotate -d ./noploop

 Percent |   Source code & Disassembly of noploop.noggdb
         :   Disassembly of section .text:
         :   08048484 <main>:
    0.00 :    8048484:       55                      push   %ebp
    0.00 :    8048485:       89 e5                   mov    %esp,%ebp
    0.00 :    8048530:       eb 0b                   jmp    804853d <main+0xb9>
   15.08 :    8048532:       8b 44 24 2c             mov    0x2c(%esp),%eax
    0.00 :    8048536:       83 c0 01                add    $0x1,%eax
   14.52 :    8048539:       89 44 24 2c             mov    %eax,0x2c(%esp)
   14.27 :    804853d:       8b 44 24 2c             mov    0x2c(%esp),%eax
   56.13 :    8048541:       3d ff e0 f5 05          cmp    $0x5f5e0ff,%eax
    0.00 :    8048546:       76 ea                   jbe    8048532 <main+0xae>

The first column reports the percentage of samples for function ==noploop()== captured for at that instruction. As explained earlier, you should interpret this information carefully.

perf annotate can generate sourcecode level information if the application is compiled with -ggdb. The following snippet shows the much more informative output for the same execution of noploop when compiled with this debugging information.

 Percent |   Source code & Disassembly of noploop
         :   Disassembly of section .text:
         :   08048484 <main>:
         :   #include <string.h>
         :   #include <unistd.h>
         :   #include <sys/time.h>
         :   int main(int argc, char **argv)
         :   {
    0.00 :    8048484:       55                      push   %ebp
    0.00 :    8048485:       89 e5                   mov    %esp,%ebp
    0.00 :    8048530:       eb 0b                   jmp    804853d <main+0xb9>
         :                           count++;
   14.22 :    8048532:       8b 44 24 2c             mov    0x2c(%esp),%eax
    0.00 :    8048536:       83 c0 01                add    $0x1,%eax
   14.78 :    8048539:       89 44 24 2c             mov    %eax,0x2c(%esp)
         :           memcpy(&tv_end, &tv_now, sizeof(tv_now));
         :           tv_end.tv_sec += strtol(argv[1], NULL, 10);
         :           while (tv_now.tv_sec < tv_end.tv_sec ||
         :                  tv_now.tv_usec < tv_end.tv_usec) {
         :                   count = 0;
         :                   while (count < 100000000UL)
   14.78 :    804853d:       8b 44 24 2c             mov    0x2c(%esp),%eax
   56.23 :    8048541:       3d ff e0 f5 05          cmp    $0x5f5e0ff,%eax
    0.00 :    8048546:       76 ea                   jbe    8048532 <main+0xae>

Using perf annotate on kernel code

The perf tool does not know how to extract symbols from compressed kernel images (vmlinuz). As in the case of perf report, users must pass the path of the uncompressed kernel using the -k option:

perf annotate -k /tmp/vmlinux -d symbol

Again, this only works if the kernel is compiled to with debug symbols.

Live analysis with perf top

The perf tool can operate in a mode similar to the Linux top tool, printing sampled functions in real time. The default sampling event is cycles and default order is descending number of samples per symbol, thus perf top shows the functions where most of the time is spent. By default, perf top operates in processor-wide mode, monitoring all online CPUs at both user and kernel levels. It is possible to monitor only a subset of the CPUS using the -C option.

perf top
  PerfTop:     260 irqs/sec  kernel:61.5%  exact:  0.0% [1000Hz
cycles],  (all, 2 CPUs)

            samples  pcnt function                       DSO
            _______ _____ ______________________________ ___________________________________________________________

              80.00 23.7% read_hpet                      [kernel.kallsyms]
              14.00  4.2% system_call                    [kernel.kallsyms]
              14.00  4.2% __ticket_spin_lock             [kernel.kallsyms]
              14.00  4.2% __ticket_spin_unlock           [kernel.kallsyms]
               8.00  2.4% hpet_legacy_next_event         [kernel.kallsyms]
               7.00  2.1% i8042_interrupt                [kernel.kallsyms]
               7.00  2.1% strcmp                         [kernel.kallsyms]
               6.00  1.8% _raw_spin_unlock_irqrestore    [kernel.kallsyms]
               6.00  1.8% pthread_mutex_lock             /lib/i386-linux-gnu/libpthread-2.13.so
               6.00  1.8% fget_light                     [kernel.kallsyms]
               6.00  1.8% __pthread_mutex_unlock_usercnt /lib/i386-linux-gnu/libpthread-2.13.so
               5.00  1.5% native_sched_clock             [kernel.kallsyms]
               5.00  1.5% drm_addbufs_sg                 /lib/modules/2.6.38-8-generic/kernel/drivers/gpu/drm/drm.ko

By default, the first column shows the aggregated number of samples since the beginning of the run. By pressing the 'Z' key, this can be changed to print the number of samples since the last refresh. Recall that the cycle event counts CPU cycles when the processor is not in halted state, i.e. not idle. Therefore this is not equivalent to wall clock time. Furthermore, the event is also subject to frequency scaling.

It is also possible to drill down into single functions to see which instructions have the most samples. To drill down into a specify function, press the 's' key and enter the name of the function. Here we selected the top function noploop (not shown above):

   PerfTop:    2090 irqs/sec  kernel:50.4%  exact:  0.0% [1000Hz cycles],  (all, 16 CPUs)
Showing cycles for noploop
  Events  Pcnt (>=5%)
       0  0.0%   00000000004003a1 <noploop>:
       0  0.0%     4003a1:   55                      push   %rbp
       0  0.0%     4003a2:   48 89 e5                mov    %rsp,%rbp
    3550 100.0%    4003a5:   eb fe                   jmp    4003a5 <noploop+0x4>

Benchmarking with perf bench

The perf bench command includes a number of multi-threaded microbenchmarks to exercise different subsystems in the Linux kernel and system calls. This allows hackers to easily stress and measure the impact of changes, and therefore help mitigate performance regressions.

It also serves as a general benchmark framework, enabling developers to easily create test cases and transparently integrate and make use of the rich perf tool subsystem.

sched: Scheduler benchmarks

Measures pipe(2) and socketpair(2) operations between multiple tasks. Allows the measurement of thread versus process context switch performance.

$perf bench sched messaging -g 64
# Running 'sched/messaging' benchmark:
# 20 sender and receiver processes per group
# 64 groups == 2560 processes run

     Total time: 1.549 [sec]

mem: Memory access benchmarks

numa: NUMA scheduling and MM benchmarks

futex: Futex stressing benchmarks

Deals with finer grained aspects of the kernel's implementation of futexes. It is mostly useful for kernel hacking. It currently supports wakeup and requeue/wait operations, as well as stressing the hashing scheme for both private and shared futexes. An example run for nCPU threads, each handling 1024 futexes measuring the hashing logic:

$ perf bench futex hash
# Running 'futex/hash' benchmark:
Run summary [PID 17428]: 4 threads, each operating on 1024 [private] futexes for 10 secs.

[thread  0] futexes: 0x2775700 ... 0x27766fc [ 3343462 ops/sec ]
[thread  1] futexes: 0x2776920 ... 0x277791c [ 3679539 ops/sec ]
[thread  2] futexes: 0x2777ab0 ... 0x2778aac [ 3589836 ops/sec ]
[thread  3] futexes: 0x2778c40 ... 0x2779c3c [ 3563827 ops/sec ]

Averaged 3544166 operations/sec (+- 2.01%), total secs = 10

Troubleshooting and Tips

This section lists a number of tips to avoid common pitfalls when using perf.

Open file limits

The design of the perf_event kernel interface which is used by the perf tool, is such that it uses one file descriptor per event per-thread or per-cpu.

On a 16-way system, when you do:

perf stat -e cycles sleep 1

You are effectively creating 16 events, and thus consuming 16 file descriptors.

In per-thread mode, when you are sampling a process with 100 threads on the same 16-way system:

perf record -e cycles my_hundred_thread_process

Then, once all the threads are created, you end up with 100 * 1 (event) * 16 (cpus) = 1600 file descriptors. Perf creates one instance of the event on each CPU. Only when the thread executes on that CPU does the event effectively measure. This approach enforces sampling buffer locality and thus mitigates sampling overhead. At the end of the run, the tool aggregates all the samples into a single output file.

In case perf aborts with 'too many open files' error, there are a few solutions:

  • increase the number of per-process open files using ulimit -n. Caveat: you must be root
  • limit the number of events you measure in one run
  • limit the number of CPU you are measuring

increasing open file limit

The superuser can override the per-process open file limit using the ulimit shell builtin command:

ulimit -a
open files                      (-n) 1024

ulimit -n 2048
ulimit -a
open files                      (-n) 2048

Binary identification with build-id

The perf record command saves in the perf.data unique identifiers for all ELF images relevant to the measurement. In per-thread mode, this includes all the ELF images of the monitored processes. In cpu-wide mode, it includes all running processes running on the system. Those unique identifiers are generated by the linker if the -Wl,--build-id option is used. Thus, they are called build-id. The build-id are a helpful tool when correlating instruction addresses to ELF images. To extract all build-id entries used in a perf.data file, issue:

perf buildid-list -i perf.data

06cb68e95cceef1ff4e80a3663ad339d9d6f0e43 [kernel.kallsyms]
e445a2c74bc98ac0c355180a8d770cd35deb7674 /lib/modules/2.6.38-8-generic/kernel/drivers/gpu/drm/i915/i915.ko
83c362c95642c3013196739902b0360d5cbb13c6 /lib/modules/2.6.38-8-generic/kernel/drivers/net/wireless/iwlwifi/iwlcore.ko
1b71b1dd65a7734e7aa960efbde449c430bc4478 /lib/modules/2.6.38-8-generic/kernel/net/mac80211/mac80211.ko
ae4d6ec2977472f40b6871fb641e45efd408fa85 /lib/modules/2.6.38-8-generic/kernel/drivers/gpu/drm/drm.ko
fafad827c43e34b538aea792cc98ecfd8d387e2f /lib/i386-linux-gnu/ld-2.13.so
0776add23cf3b95b4681e4e875ba17d62d30c7ae /lib/i386-linux-gnu/libdbus-1.so.3.5.4
f22f8e683907b95384c5799b40daa455e44e4076 /lib/i386-linux-gnu/libc-2.13.so

The build-id cache

At the end of each run, the perf record command updates a build-id cache, with new entries for ELF images with samples. The cache contains:

  • build-id for ELF images with samples
  • copies of the ELF images with samples

Given that build-id are immutable, they uniquely identify a binary. If a binary is recompiled, a new build-id is generated and a new copy of the ELF images is saved in the cache. The cache is saved on disk in a directory which is by default $HOME/.debug. There is a global configuration file ==/etc/perfconfig== which can be used by sysadmin to specify an alternate global directory for the cache:

$ cat /etc/perfconfig
dir = /var/tmp/.debug

In certain situations it may be beneficial to turn off the build-id cache updates altogether. For that, you must pass the -N option to perf record

perf record -N dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null count=100000

Access Control

For some events, it is necessary to be root to invoke the perf tool. This document assumes that the user has root privileges. If you try to run perf with insufficient privileges, it will report

No permission to collect system-wide stats.

Other Scenarios

Profiling sleep times

This feature shows where and how long a program is sleeping or waiting something.

The first step is collecting data. We need to collect sched_stat and sched_switch events. Sched_stat events are not enough, because they are generated in the context of a task, which wakes up a target task (e.g. releases a lock). We need the same event but with a call-chain of the target task. This call-chain can be extracted from a previous sched_switch event.

The second step is merging sched_start and sched_switch events. It can be done with help of "perf inject -s".

$ ./perf record -e sched:sched_stat_sleep -e sched:sched_switch  -e sched:sched_process_exit -g -o ~/perf.data.raw ~/foo
$ ./perf inject -v -s -i ~/perf.data.raw -o ~/perf.data
$ ./perf report --stdio --show-total-period -i ~/perf.data
# Overhead        Period  Command      Shared Object          Symbol
# ........  ............  .......  .................  ..............
  100.00%     502408738      foo  [kernel.kallsyms]  [k] __schedule
               --- __schedule
                  |--79.85%-- schedule_hrtimeout_range_clock
                  |          schedule_hrtimeout_range
                  |          poll_schedule_timeout
                  |          do_select
                  |          core_sys_select
                  |          sys_select
                  |          system_call_fastpath
                  |          __select
                  |          __libc_start_main
                   --20.15%-- do_nanosleep
$cat foo.c
          for (i = 0; i <  10; i++) {
                  ts1.tv_sec = 0;
                  ts1.tv_nsec = 10000000;
                  nanosleep(&ts1, NULL);

                  tv1.tv_sec = 0;
                  tv1.tv_usec = 40000;
                  select(0, NULL, NULL, NULL,&tv1);

Other Resources

Linux sourcecode

The perf tools sourcecode lives in the Linux kernel tree under /tools/perf. You will find much more documentation in /tools/perf/Documentation. To build manpages, info pages and more, install these tools:

  • asciidoc
  • tetex-fonts
  • tetex-dvips
  • dialog
  • tetex
  • tetex-latex
  • xmltex
  • passivetex
  • w3m
  • xmlto

and issue a make install-man from /tools/perf. This step is also required to be able to run perf help <command>.

This guide is adapted from a tutorial by Stephane Eranian at Google, with contributions from Eric Gouriou, Tipp Moseley and Willem de Bruijn. The original content imported into wiki.perf.google.com is made available under the CreativeCommons attribution sharealike 3.0 license.

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