Re: [patch 0/3] [Announcement] Performance Counters for Linux

From: stephane eranian
Date: Fri Dec 05 2008 - 21:36:56 EST


I have been reading all the threads after this unexpected announcement
of a competing proposal for an interface to access the performance counters.
I would like to respond to some of the things I have seen.

* ptrace: as Paul just pointed out, ptrace() is a limitation of the
current perfmon implementation. This is not a limitation of the
interface as has been insinuated earlier. In my mind, this does
not justify starting from scratch. There is nothing that precludes
removing ptrace and using the IPI to chase down the PMU state,
like you are doing. And in fact I believe we can do it more efficiently
because we would potentially collect multiple values in one IPI,
something your API cannot allow because it is single event oriented.

* There is more to perfmon than what you have looked at on LKML. There
is advanced sampling support with a kernel level buffer which is remapped
to user space. So there is no such thing as a couple of ptrace() calls per
sample. In fact, there is zero copy export to user space. In the
case of PEBS,
there is even zero-copy from HW to user space.

* The proposed API exposes events as individual entities. To measure N
events, you need N file descriptors. There is no coordination of actions
between the various events. If you want to start/stop all events, it seems
you have to close the file descriptors and start over. That is not
how people
use this, especially people doing self monitoring. They want to start/stop
around critical loops or functions and they want this to be fast.

* To read N events you need N syscalls and potentially N IPIs. There
is no guarantee of atomicity between the reads. The argument of raising
the priority to prevent preemption is bogus and unrealistic. We want regular
users to be able to measure their own applications without having to have
special privileges. This is especially unpractical when you want to read from
another thread. It is important to get a view of the counters that
is as consistent
as possible and for that you want to read the registers are closely
as possible
from each other.

* As mentioned by Paul, Corey, the API inevitably forces the kernel to
know about
ALL the events and how they map onto counters. People who have been doing this
in userland, and I am one of them, can tell you that this is a very
hard problem.
Looking at it just on the Intel and AMD x86 is misleading. It is not
the number of
events that matters, even it contributes to the kernel bloat, it is
managing the constraints
between events (event A and B cannot be measured together, if event
A uses counter X
then B cannot be measured on counter Y). Sometimes, the value of a
config register depends
on which register you load it on. With the proposed API, all this
complexity would have to go in
the kernel. I don't think it belongs here and it will leads to
maintenance problems, and longer
delays to enable support of new hardware. The argument for doing
this was that it would
facilitate writing tools. But all that complexity does not belong in
the tools but in a user library.
This is what libpfm is designed for and it has worked nicely so far.
The role of the kernel
is to control access to the PMU resource and to make sure incorrect
programming of the registers
cannot crash the kernel. If you do this, then providing support for
new hardware is for the most part
simply exposing the registers. Something which can even be
discovered automatically on newer
processors, e.g., ones supporting Intel architectural perfmon.

* Tools usually manage monitoring as a session. There was criticism
about the perfmon context abstraction and vectors. A context is merely
a synonym for session. I believe having a file descriptor per session is
a natural thing to have. Vectors are used to access multiple registers in
one syscall. Vector have variable sizes, it depends on what you want to
access. The size is not mandated by the number of registers of the
underlying hardware.

* As mentioned by Paul, with certain PMUs, it is not possible to solve
the event -> counter problem without having a global view
of all the events. Your API being single-event oriented, it is not
clear to me how this can be solved.

* It is not because you run a per thread session, that you should be
limited to measuring at priv level 3.

* Modern PMU, including AMD Barcelona. Itanium2, expose more than
counters. Any API than assumes PMU export only
counters is going to be limited, e.g. Oprofile. Perfmon does not
make that mistake, the interface does not know anything
about counters nor sampling periods. It sees registers with values
you can read or write. That has allowed us to support
advanced features such as Itanium2 Opcode filter, Itanium2
Code/Data range restrictions (hosted in debug regs), AMD
Barcelona IBS which has no event associated with it, Itanium2
BranchTraceBuffer, Intel Core 2 LBR, Intel Core i7 uncore PMU.
Some of those features have no ties with counters, they do not even
overflow (e.g., LBR). They must be used in combination with
counters, e.g., LBRs. I don't think you will be able to do this
with your API.

* With regards to sampling, advanced users have long been collecting
more than just the IP. They want to collect the values of other
PMU registers or even values of other non-PMU resources. With your
API, it seems for every new need, you'd have to create a new
perf_record_type, which translates into a kernel patch. This is not
what people want. With perfmon, you have a choice of doing user
level sampling (users gets notification for each sample) but you can
also use a kernel sampling buffer. In that case, you can express
what you want recorded in the buffer using simple bitmasks of PMU
registers. There is no predefined set, no kernel patch.
To make this even more flexible the buffer format is not part of the
interface, you can define your own and record whatever you want
in whatever format you want. All is provided by kernel modules. You
want double-buffer, cyclic buffer, just add your kernel module. It
seems this feature has been overlooked by LKML reviewers but it is
really powerful.

* It is not clear to me how you would add a sampling buffer and
remapping using your API given the number of file descriptors you will
end up using and the fact that you do not have the notion of a session.

* When sampling, you want to freeze the counters on overflow to get an
as consistent as possible view. There is no such guarantee in
your API nor implementation. On some hardware platforms, e.g.,
Itanium, you have no choice this is the behavior.

* Multiple counters can overflow at the same time and generate a
single interrupt. With your approach, if two counters overflow
simultaneously, then you need to enqueue two messages, yet only
one SIGIO wil be generated, it seems. Wonder how that works when

In summary, although the idea of simplifying tools by moving the
complexity elsewhere is legitimate, pushing it down to the kernel
is the wrong approach in my opinion, perfmon has avoided that as much
as possible for good reasons. We have shown , with libpfm,
that a large part of complexity can easily be encapsulated into a user
library. I also don't think the approach of managing events
independently of each others works for all processors. As pointed out
by others, there are other factors at stake and they may not
even be on the same core.

S. Eranian
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