"The Linux Gazette...making Linux just a little more fun!"

(?) The Answer Guy (!)

By James T. Dennis, linux-questions-only@ssc.com
LinuxCare, http://www.linuxcare.com/


(!)Greetings From Jim Dennis

(?)Hey answer guy!!!
(?)One more thing. --or--
Null Modems: Connecting MS-DOS to Linux as a Serial Terminal
(?)RedHat 5.2 Kernel 2.0.36 --or--
Upgrade Breaks Several Programs, /proc Problems, BogoMIPS Discrepancies
A visit to "Library Hell"
(?)Floppy/mount Problems: Disk Spins, Lights are on, No one's Home? --or--
Floppy Failure: mdir Works; mount Fails
Found the culprit!
(?)need your help --or--
Incompetance in Parenting
(?)bad clusters --or--
Try Linux ... and Grammar
(?)Duplicating / --or--
Out of Space....or Inodes? All Sparsity Lost?
(?)RAID 1 solutions --or--
Arco Duplidisk: Disk Mirroring
(?)Modem Help --or--
Searching for Days for a Linux Modem: The Daze Continues

(!) Greetings from Jim Dennis

So, my LG activity for this month is pretty sparse. Does that mean that I haven't been involved in any Linux activity? Does it mean that I'm not getting enough LG TAG e-mail?


However, my work at Linuxcare has been taking a pretty big bite out of my time. In addition the long drive up to the city (from my house in Campbell to Linuxcare's offices in San Francisco is about 50 miles) keeps me away from the keyboard for far too long. (Yes, I'm looking for cheap digs up in the city to keep my up there during the week).

Mostly I've been working with our training department, presenting classes on Linux Systems Administration to our customers and our new employees, and helping develop and refine the courseware around which the classes are built.

I've also been watching the Linux news on the 'net with my usual zeal.

The leading story this month seems to be "Mindcraft III --- The Return of the Benchmarkers." The results of the benchmarking tests aren't surprising. NT with IIS still fared better on this particular platform under these test conditions than the Linux+Apache+Samba combination. The Linux 2.2.9 kernel and The Apache 1.3.6 release seems to have closed almost half of the gap.

As I suggested last month, the most interesting lessons from this story have little to do with the programming and the numeric results. There were technical issues in the 2.2.5 kernel that were addressed by 2.2.9. I guess Apache was updated to use the sendfile() system call. These are relatively minor tweaks.

Microsoft and Mindcraft collaborated for a significant amount of time to find a set of conditions under which the Linux/Apache/ Samba combination would perform at a disadvantage to NT.

When MS and Mindcraft originally published their results the suite of tests and the processes employeed were thoroughly and quickly discredited. I've never seen such in-depth analysis about the value (or lack thereof) of benchmarking in the computing industry press.

Nonetheless, the developers of the involved open source packages shrugged, analyzed the results, did some profiling of their own, looked over their respective bits of code, devoted hours to coding tweaks, a few days worth to tests, and spent some time exchanging and debating different approaches to improving the code.

The important lessons from this are:

  1. Just because a criticism is discredited, biased, and possibly dishonest doesn't mean that we can't find some clues to lead to real improvements. These developers could have stuck their heads in the sand and dismissed the whole topic as unimportant. They could have felt that the PR and advocacy responses would suffice.
    That "ostrich" approach is more commonly found in corporate and government circles than among freeware programmers. This is largely due to management. A development manager at a large corporation will tend to put as much energy into internal PR and "spin control" as to any real improvement in the product. Programmers often find themselves at odds with their own management.
  2. When we choose to attend to criticisms, it's vital not to adopt their demonstration model as your objective. We must stay true to our own requirements.
    It would be easy to focus on "beating the Mindcraft benchmark" --- to insert special case code that exists solely to produce superior results under the specific conditions present in that suite of tests.
    This is referred to as "fraud."
    It would be technically easy for the kernel developers to write the code for this. However, it would be difficult to actually perpetrate this or any other fraud in any open source project (since the code is there for all to see --- and there are a number of people who actually read that code).
    So, the Linux, Apache, and Samba developers showed admirable focus on real improvements and seemed to have eschewed any temptation to commit fraud.
    (We can't know whether the competition has rigged their platform, since it is closed source and hasn't been thoroughly audited by reputable independents).

This leads us to a broader lesson. We can't properly evaluate any statistics (benchmark results are statistics, after all) without considering the source. What were the objectives (the requirements) of the people involved? Are the objectives of the people who took the measurements compatible with those of their audience. In large part any statistic "means" what the presenter intends it to "mean" (i.e. the number can only be applied to the situation that was measured).

Benchmarks are employed primarily by two groups of people: Software and hardware company marketeers, and computer periodical writers, editors and publishers. Occasionally sysadmins and IT people use statistics that are similar to benchmarks --- simulations results --- for their performance tuning and capacity planning work. Unfortunately these simulations are often confused with benchmarks.

Jim's first rule of requirements analysis is:

Identify the involved parties.

In this case we see two different producers of benchmarks and a common audience (the potential customers, and the readership are mostly the same). We also see that the real customers of most periodicals are the advertisers --- which work for the same corporations as the marketeers. This leads to a preference for benchmarks that is bred of familiarity.

Most real people on the street don't "use" benchmarks. They may be affected by them (as the opinions they form and get form others are partially swayed by overall reputations of the organizations that produce the benchmarks and those of the publications they read).

One of the best responses to the Mindcraft III results that I've read is by Christopher Lansdown. Basically it turns the question around.

Instead of interpreting the top of the graphs as "how fast does this go?" (a performance question) he looks at the bottom and the "baseline" system configurations (intended for comparison) and asks: "What is the most cost effective hardware and software combination which will provide the optimal capacity?"

This is an objective which matches that of most IT directors, sysadmins, webmasters and other people in the real world.

Let's consider the hypothetical question: Which is faster, an ostrich or a penguin? Which is faster UNDERWATER?

What Christopher points out is that a single processor PC with a couple hundred Mb of RAM and a single fast ethernet card is adequate for serving simple, static HTML pages to the web for any organization that has less than about 5 or 6 T1 (high speed) Internet lines. That is regardless of the demand/load (millions of hits per day) since the webserver will be idly waiting for the communications channels to clear whenever the demand exceeds the channel capacity.

The Mindcraft benchmarks clearly demonstrate this fact. You don't need NT with IIS and a 4 CPU SMP system with a Gigabyte of RAM and four 100Mbps ethernet cards to provide web services to the Internet. These results also suggest rather strongly that you don't need that platform for serving static HTML to your high speed Intranet.

Of course, the immediate retort is to question the applicability of these results to dynamic content. The Mindcraft benchmark design doesn't measure any form of dynamic content (but the c't magazine did - their article also has performance tuning hints for high-end hardware). Given the obvious objectives of the designers of this benchmark suite we can speculate that NT wouldn't fare as well in that scenario. Other empirical and anecdotal evidence supports that hypothesis; most users who have experience with Linux and NT webservers claim that the Linux systems "seem" more responsive and more robust; Microsoft uses about a half dozen separate NT webservers at their site (which still "feels" slow to many users).

This brings us back to our key lesson. Selection of hardware and software platforms should be based on requirements analysis. Benchmarks serve the requirements of the people who produce and disseminate them. Those requirements are unlikely to match those of the people who will be ultimately selecting software and hardware for real world deployment.

It is interesting to ask: "How does NT gain an advantage in this situation?" and "What could Linux do to perform better under those circumstances?"

From what I've read there are a few tricks that might help. Apparently one of the issues in this scenario is the fact that the system tested as four high speed ethernet cards.

Normally Linux (and other operating systems) are "interrupt-driven" --- activity on an interface generates an "interrupt" (a hardware event) which triggers some software activity (to schedule a handler). This is normally a efficient model. Most devices (network interfaces, hard disk controllers, serial ports, keyboards, etc) only need to be "serviced" occasionally (at rates that are glacial by comparison to modern processors).

Apparently NT has some sort of option to disable interrupts on (at least some) interfaces.

The other common model for handling I/O is called "polling." In this case the CPU checks for new data as frequently as its processing load allows. Polling is incredibly inefficient under most circumstances.

However, under the conditions present in the Mindcraft survey it can be more efficient and offer less latency than interrupt driven techniques.

It would be sheer idiocy for Linux to adopt a straight polling strategy for it's networking interfaces. However, it might be possible to have a hybrid. If the interrupt frequency on a given device exceeds one threshold the kernel might then switch to polling on that device. When the polling shows that the activity on that device as dropped back below another threshold it might be able to switch back to interrupt-driven mode.

I don't know if this is feasible. I don't even know if it's being considered by any Linux kernel developers. It might involve some significant retooling of each of the ethernet drivers. But, it is an interesting question. Other interesting questions: Will this be of benefit to any significant number of real world applications? Do those benefits outweigh the costs of implementation (larger more complex kernels, more opportunities for bugs, etc)?

Another obvious criticism of the whole Mindcraft scenario is the use of Apache. The Apache team's priorities relate to correctness (conformance to published standards), portability (the Apache web server and related tools run on almost all forms of UNIX, not just Linux; they even run on NT and its ilk), and features (support for the many modules and forms of dynamic content, etc). Note that performance isn't in the top three on this list.

Apache isn't the only web server available for Linux. It also isn't the "vendor preferred" web server (whatever that would mean!) So the primary justification for using it in these benchmarks is that it is the dominant web server in the Linux market. In fact Apache is the dominant web server on the Internet as a whole. Over half of all publicly accessible web servers run Apache or some derivative. (We might be tempted to draw a conclusion from this. It might be that some features are more important to more web masters than sheer performance speeds and latencies. Of course that might be an erroneous conclusion --- the dominance of Apache could be due to other factors. The dominance of MS Windows is primarily and artifact of the PC purchasing process --- MS Windows comes pre-installed, as did MS-DOS before it).

So, what if we switch out Apache for some other web server.

Zeus (http://www.zeustech.net/products/zeus3/), a commercial offering for Linux and other forms of UNIX, is probably the fastest in existence.

thttpd (http://www.acme.com/software/thttpd/) is probably the fastest in the "free" world. It's about as fast as the experimental kHTTPd (an implementation of a web server that runs directly in the kernel -- like the kNFSd that's available for Linux 2.2.x).

Under many conditions thttpd (and probably kHTTPd) are a few times faster than Apache. So they might beat NT + IIS by about 100 to 200 per cent. Of course, performance analysis is not that simple. If the kernel really is tied up in interrupt processing for a major portion of it's time in the Mindcraft scenario --- then the fast lightweight web server might offer only marginal improvement FOR THAT TEST.

For us back in the real world the implication is clear, however. If all you want to do is serve static pages with as little load and delay as possible --- consider using a lightweight httpd.

Also back in the real world we get back to other questions. How much does the hardware for a Mindcraft configuration cost? How much would it cost for a normal corporation to purchase/license the NT+IIS configuration that would be required for that configuration? (If I recall correctly, Microsoft still charges user licensing fees based on the desired capacity of concurrent IIS processes/threads/connections. I don't know the details, but I get the impression that you'd have to add a few grand to the $900 copy of NT server to legally support a "Mindcraft" configuration).

It's likely that a different test --- one whose objectives were stated to more closely simulate a "real world" market might give much different results.

Consider this:

Objective: Build/configure a web service out of standard commercially/freely available hardware and software components such that the total cost of the installation/deployment would be cost a typical customer less than $3000 outlay and no more than $1000 per year of recurring expenses (not counting bandwidth and ISP charges).
Participants will be free to bring any software and hardware that conforms to these requirements and to perform any tuning or optimizations they wish before and between scheduled executions of the test suite.
Results: The competing configurations will be tested with a mixture various sorts of common requests. The required responses will include static and dynamic pages which will be checked for correctness against a published baseline. Configurations generating more than X errors will be disqualified. Response times will be measured and graphed over a range of simulated loads. Any service failures will be noted on the graph where they occur. The graphs for each configuration will be computed based on the averages over Y runs through the test suite.
The graphs will be published as the final results.

The whole test could be redone for $5000 and $10000 price points to give an overview of the scalability of each configuration.

Note that this proposed benchmark idea (it's not a complete specification) doesn't generate a simple number. The graphs of the entire performance are the result. This allows the potential customer to gauge the configurations against their anticipated requirements.

How would a team of Linux/Apache and Samba enthusiasts approach this sort of contest? I'll save that question for next month.

Meanwhile, if you're enough of a glutton for my writing (an odd form of PUNishment I'll admit) and my paltry selection of answers, rants and ramblings for this month isn't enough then take a look at a couple of my "Open Letters" (http://www.starshine.org/jimd/openletters). By next month I hope that my book (Linux Systems Administration) will be off to the printers and my work at Linuxcare will have reached a level where I can do MORE ANSWER GUY QUESTIONS!

[ But not quite as many as January, ok? -- Heather ]

Copyright © 1999, James T. Dennis
Published in The Linux Gazette Issue 43 July 1999
HTML transformation by Heather Stern of Starshine Techinical Services, http://www.starshine.org/

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