What You Don’t Know About A Meter

Most people make a lot of assumptions when they are looking at performance data that can get them into trouble if they are not careful.


Article Summary  – The more precisely you understand what a given meter is telling you, the more useful that data is. Here we look at some IO related data and focus on what we don’t know to drive home the things you should know (and why you need to know them) before you begin working with any metering data. This is an excerpt (with modifications) from: The Every Computer Performance Book a short, practical, and occasionally funny book I wrote on doing computer performance work.

This article is excerpted (with modifications) from the following book by Bob Wescott (LinkedIn) – The Every Computer Performance Book : A practical and occasionally funny book on doing computer performance work that works on ANY collection of computers. It covers the things that are always true about performance metering, capacity planning, load testing, modeling and presenting performance results.


What You Need To Know About a Meter – For any meter you collect you need to know four things about it or it tells you almost nothing. Imagine you get a piece of data that states: The application did 3000 writes. Here are the four things you don’t know about it and why you care.

1) The Time The Meter Was Taken – First and foremost, you need to know when the data was collected because no meter is an island. It is almost never the case that all possible metering data comes from one source. You’ll have to dig into various sources and coordinate with other people. The way you link them together is time. Since time is usually easy to collect and takes up very little space, I always try to record the time starting with the year and going down to the second. 2012-10-23 12:34:23. You may not need that precision for the current question, but someday you may need it to answer a different question. Adding the time can tell you: The application reported 3000 writes at 3:05:10PM EST on June 19, 2012. You can now compare and contrast this data with all other data sources.

2) The Sample Length of The Meter – Any meter that gives you an averaged value has to average the results over a period of time. The most common averaged value is a utilization number. The two graphs below show exactly the same data with the only difference being the sample length of the meter. In the chart below the data was averaged every minute. Notice the very impressive spike in utilization in the middle of the graph. During this spike this resource had little left to give.

In the chart below the same data was averaged every 10-minutes.Notice that the spike almost disappears as the samples were taken at such times that part of the spike was averaged into different samples. Adjusting the sample length can dramatically change the story.  Some meters just report a count, and you’ve got to know when that count gets reset to zero or rolls over because the value is too big for the variable to hold. Some values start incrementing at system boot, some at process birth.

Some meters calculate the average periodically on their own schedule, and you just sample the current results when you ask for the data. For example, a key utilization meter is calculated once every 60 seconds and, no matter what is going on, the system reports exactly the same utilization figure for the entire 60 seconds. This may sound like a picky detail to you now, but when you need to understand what’s happening in the first 30 seconds of market open, these little details matter.

Now, adding the sample length to what we already know about this meter, can tell you: The application reported 3000 writes between 3:00-3:05:10PM EST on June 19, 2012.

3) What’s Exactly being Metered – As the old saying goes: “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.” Here we have two undefined terms: application and writes.

An “application” is usually many processes that can be spread over many computers. So we need a little more precision here. Where did those 3000 writes come from?  Just one process? All processes on a given system? All processes on all systems?

“Writes” can be measured in bytes, file records, database updates, disk blocks, etc. Some of these have much bigger performance impacts than others.

Even within a given metering tool, it is common to see the same word mean several different things in different places. Consistency is not a strong point in humans. So don’t assume. Ask, investigate, test and double check until you know what these labels mean. The more precisely you understand what the meter measures, the more cool things you can do with it.

Now, adding the specifics about what is being metered can tell you: All application processes on computer X reported 3000 blocks written to disk Y between 3:00-3:05:10PM EST on June 19, 2012.

4) Units Used in the Meter – Lastly, pay attention to units. When working with data from multiple sources it is really easy to confuse the units of speed (milliseconds, microseconds), size (bits vs. bytes), and throughput (things per second or minute) and end up with garbage. It is best to try to standardize your units and use the same ones in all calculations.

Since 5 minutes is 300 seconds, we can calculate the application was doing 10 writes/second = 3000 writes / 300 seconds.

So finally we can tell you that: All application processes on computer X wrote an average of 10 blocks per second to disk Y between 3:00-3:05:10PM EST on June 19, 2012.

In Conclusion – Now we really know something about what’s going on, when it happened, and have data specified in a common unit we can compare and contrast with other metering data. With this information we can ask better questions and understand how work is flowing though this part of the system.

Here is a brief example illustrating how important correct use of units can be. I know of one company that had to give away about Five Million Dollars worth of hardware on a fixed price bid due to a single metering mistake by the technical sales team where kilobytes were confused with megabytes. Ouch.


About the Author : Bob Wescott’s (LinkedIn),  is semi-retired after a 30 year career in high tech that was mostly focused on computer performance work. Bob has done professional services work in the field of computer performance analysis, including: capacity planning, load testing, simulation modeling, and web performance. He has even written a book on the subject: The Every Computer Performance Book.

This short, occasionally funny, book covers Performance Monitoring, Capacity Planning, Load Testing, and Modeling. It works for any application running on collection of computers you have.  It teaches you how to discover more about your meters than the documentation reveals. It only requires the simplest math on your part, yet it allows you to easily use fairly advanced techniques. It is relentlessly practical, buzzword free, and written in a conversational style.

Bob’s fundamental skill is explaining complex things clearly. He has developed and joyfully taught customer courses at four computer companies and I’ve been a featured speaker at large conferences. Bob’s goal is to be of service, explain things clearly, teach with joy, and lead an honorable life.  His goal, at this stage of the game, is to pass on what we’ve learned to the next generation.

As always do Send us an email with your input, comments, feedback and suggestions. If you think you’ve got the the talent, are keen on sharing your knowledge / experiences and are keen to help us grow the community here at Practical Performance Analyst please reach out to us Over email.

Every Computer Performance Book

Price: $19.99

4.4 out of 5 stars (31 customer reviews)

22 used & new available from $16.00

Related Posts

  • How To Catch A Problem How To Catch A Problem Article Summary  - I spent many years traveling to different companies solving computer (mostly performance) problems. At almost every company there were people there who were unsure how to begin metering in order to catch a problem.  Here is my take on how to begin, how often to […]
  • Three Simple Tricks: Hints to ensure success when presenting your resultsThree Simple Tricks: Hints to ensure success when presenting your results This article is excerpted (with modifications) from the following book by Bob Wescott (LinkedIn) - The Every Computer Performance Book : A practical and occasionally funny book on doing computer performance work that works on ANY collection of computers. It covers the things that are […]
  • How To Collect Workload Data With Performance MetersHow To Collect Workload Data With Performance Meters Many performance meters in your computing world will tell you how busy things are. That’s nice, but to make sense of that data, you also need to know how much work the system is being asked to handle. With workload data you see the performance meters with fresh eyes, as now you can […]
  • The Four Numbers of Capacity Planning The Four Numbers of Capacity Planning Article Summary:  Capacity planning for any computing resource is essentially multiplying three numbers together and then comparing that number with the max utilization for a give resource. Here we will examine those four numbers and how you find them. This article is excerpted […]
  • Varun

    You are repeating the same content for the last two steps Units Used in the Meter &
    Metering at the Right Frequency.

    • tw37

      Thanks VJ. Much appreciated. It cropped up during the transition from the older website to the new one. Hope you like the content and see you again soon.

      Cheers,
      Trevor