Bert's blog

Timing and performance management

An important part of developing code is making sure that your code performs efficiently. There are several reasons you should do this. First of all, there is the obvious reason that it is good for you as a code user, because an efficient code means shorter run times and less time spent waiting for results. Second, and probably equally important, an efficient code uses less resources. This means that you pay less electricity to run your computer while the simulation runs. This is something you probably don’t think about for small simulations on your own computer, but that is pretty important if you run large simulations on a large cluster. And if you are running on a large cluster, you are probably also sharing that cluster with many other users, all of which will appreciate it if you use less of the available computation time.

Measuring performance means several things. First of all, it means that you have to get some baseline idea of what the expected run time of your code should be: given the computations your code is performing and given the hardware specifications of a computer, how long do you expect the simulation to run? The second step is to measure how fast the simulation actually runs. It is very unlikely that these two numbers will match the first time you compare them; the actual run time is almost guaranteed to be longer than the expectation. To figure out why that is, you need to do something called profiling: you need to break down the simulation run into small parts and compare the time spent in each of those with your expectation. That will tell you how you can optimise your code.

Most hardware nowadays requires some level of parallelisation for optimal efficiency, as CPUs consist of many independent cores and (large) computers consists of many independent nodes that are independent computers that are linked up with a fast network. Efficient performance on these systems is measured in terms of scaling: a comparison of the run time of your simulations using various fractions of the parallel machine. The expected scaling is very easy to predict, but very hard to achieve, so again optimisations are usually required, based on a thorough analysis of your code.

Below, I will briefly outline the most important steps I mentioned here. I will start with the basic performance analysis of a serial code, and then move on to parallel code.

Serial code

Baseline predictions

Of all the topics I want to cover in this post, obtaining a baseline prediction for the expected run time of a bit of code is probably the hardest, as it is very hardware dependent. The question we need to answer is: given a piece of code, how long should it take to execute it? The only way to get a reasonable answer to this question is to go through the code and estimate the number of operations that needs to be performed for every step. Unfortunately, the former requires a lot of work, while the latter involves a lot of guessing, as the run time of an individual operation depends a lot on the specific hardware you are using, the optimisations carried out by the compiler (if your code was compiled) and even the layout in memory of the variables involved in the operation.

Despite this, you should be able to make some educated guess about the number of operations that you expect. You can assume that additions and subtractions take about one operation, while multiplications and divisions take more (some people advocate 5 as a good estimate). Loops multiply the number of iterations with the number iterations of that loop, etc. Once you have a rough number, you can try to obtain some hardware specific performance information: a CPU (or CPU core) running at 2.4 GHz (as advocated by the manufacturer) is expected to perform 2.4 billion operations per second. So if your code involves anything around that number of operations (this might sound like a lot, but if you have a few nested loops in your code, you can very quickly reach this), you can expect a run time of about 1 second. Or maybe 10 seconds. But definitely not an hour.

Lacking a very good estimate, it will probably be impossible to show that your code performs optimally. There are two ways to deal with this. The first way is to assume that your code never performs optimally, and to always carry out the profiling that I will discuss next. If your code is spending most of its time in the bits where you expect it to spend most of its time, then you have some confidence that performance is good. The second way is by learning from experience: a small bit of code that involves very little steps is more likely to run at near optimal speed and will give you some idea of the speed you can expect. A larger code usually consists of many small pieces, and the run time will be close to the sum of the run times for the individual pieces. So once you have enough experience with specific algorithms and computations, you will probably develop some feeling of what performance is good and what is not.

Execution measurement

Execution time can be measured in various ways. The easiest way is using an external tool like GNU time. You can simply prepend the time command to the command you want to run, and it will show you some performance measurements after the command finishes. This requires minimal effort and already gives you a rough idea of the total run time.

If you want more specific information, or you want to output timing information while the code is still running, then you will need to implement your own timers. Programming language usually have a timing function as part of their standard library that returns a time stamp whenever it is called (C++ has clock()). Operating systems usually offer their own versions of these that have better precision (Unix systems have sys/time.h and timeval with microsecond precision). And if you really want accurate results, you can even use the following bit of assembly code to get the CPU cycle counter straight from the CPU and store it in the provided 64-bit unsigned integer time_variable:

#define cpucycle_tick(time_variable)                                           \
  {                                                                            \
    unsigned int lo, hi;                                                       \
    __asm__ __volatile__("rdtsc" : "=a"(lo), "=d"(hi));                        \
    time_variable = ((unsigned long)hi << 32) | lo;                            \

Whichever function you choose to use, all of these can be used to get a unique time stamp at the start and end of a block of code that you want to time, and the difference between end and start gives you a measure for the elapsed time between those two points. You can insert as many timing commands in your code as you want, and add these values together to get specific measurements for different parts of the algorithm. In my personal opinion, this kind of instrumentation is a must for any serious bit of simulation code.

Apart from dedicated timers, it is probably also a good idea to provide some time information in the output that your code generates at run time. It is very easy to use the same functions mentioned above to obtain a time stamp that can be prepended to every line of output your code writes to the terminal window. This information is very helpful to estimate the progress of the code from the terminal output alone.


Dedicated timers are incredibly useful, but they require manual intervention: you need to instrument the code by inserting timer instructions for the bits of the code you want to analyse. This inevitably means that you are limited in the amount of information you can gather by the number of timer instructions you are willing to add. Profilers are tools that improve on this by automatically instrumenting your code, either at compilation time or at run time (the latter is less common). By adding additional instructions they can measure the amount of time spent in various parts of the code, how many times a specific line of code was executed… Some profilers even allow you to measure the amount of memory that is in use throughout the code execution.

Profilers usually go hand in hand with a specific compiler. And just like the most powerful compilers that are specifically designed to run on specific hardware, they are usually not freely available. Free software alternatives like GNU gprof are less powerful and impose a significant overhead. Powerful free tools like scalasca look promising, but are complex and hard to learn. Generally, profilers perform better in code that is not optimised (in that they provide more useful output), which unfortunately means that their output might not always be very representative for optimised code.

Despite all these issues, profilers can be incredibly useful to find hidden bottlenecks. If your code is efficient, then most of its time should be spent in those parts of the code that perform most of the required operations. If your profiler on the other hand shows that a significant fraction of the time is being spent elsewhere, then this might indicate that something does not quite work as you expected it to. For C++ programs, you might for example discover that a lot of time is being spent in the constructors and destructors of classes, which could indicate that you are not reusing objects in an efficient way. Or you might discover that an unreasonable fraction of time is being spent inside a function that you thought was very computationally cheap, because you wrote some incredibly inefficient code in that function.

Apart from exposing hidden bottlenecks, profilers also provide a good overview of where optimisations will be most beneficial. A function that is called only once does not have to be as efficient as a function that is called twice during each iteration of a long loop; shaving off a fraction of the run time for the latter will gain you much more than the same optimisation for the former.

Parallel code

The general idea of parallelisation is to use multiple computing units simultaneously to perform a simulation in order to speed up the simulation. Ideally, using twice as many computing units should half the execution time, while it should also allow you to double the size of the simulation (whatever that means) and still run it in the same amount of time. These two ideas are called strong and weak scaling, and I will detail them below.

Strong scaling

Strong scaling represents the idea that the total computation time can be distributed uniformly among the available computing units, so that the total time for each unit (and since they work simultaneously, the total run time for the parallel simulation) equals . It can be measured very easily in terms of the speed up: if is the serial run time of the code (using a single computing unit) and is the total run time of the code using computing units, then the speed up is

Ideally, the speed up should be , but this is never true in practice. The reason for this is that every piece of code contains some serial fraction, i.e. code that cannot be executed in parallel, or that needs to be executed by all computing units and hence cannot be distributed. This serial fraction encompasses the code necessary to initialise the parallel environment and to set up basic variables, but also code that cannot be executed in parallel because that would lead to conflicts, e.g. two computing units that try to write to the same file at the same time.

As a result of this serial fraction, there will be a strict limit on the maximum speed up that can be achieved. This is quantified in terms of the parallel efficiency , given by

The parallel efficiency usually decreases with increasing , because conflicts become harder to avoid when more computing units are used.

A strong scaling curve consists of a measurement of the total simulation run time for a range of different values for , all using exactly the same size of simulation (i.e. the same number of computations). Extrapolation of the curve allows you to estimate the minimum run time of a simulation using a given number of computing units. It also gives you an idea of what values of are reasonable to use: if the difference in speed up between and is very small, then it probably does not make sense to use the latter number, as you will be wasting most of the power of the additional 32 computing units.

Weak scaling

Strong scaling is usually very hard to achieve, as it requires a very small serial fraction and a good way of dealing with or avoiding conflicts. Weak scaling is less problematic, and represents the idea that more resources allow you to perform more work.

In a weak scaling test, a series of measurements is performed as above, but now both the number of computing units and the amount of work are incremented: if represents the amount of work on computing units, then the simulation size for computing units should be set to . Ideally, the run time in this case should be the same for each value of , but again this ideal case is never achieved in practice. The main reason in this case is the overhead of a parallel run: using more computing units leads to the creation of additional work that was not present in the original serial simulation.

Apart from overhead, the weak scaling is also affected by the precise choice of work value . Ideally, this value should have some clear meaning in terms of scientific size of the simulation; it could for example represent the resolution of your simulation. In this case, the overhead can also be caused by the algorithm itself; if parts of your algorithm do not depend linearly on the resolution, then an increase in your resolution can also lead to a more than linear increase in amount of work.

With a weak scaling curve, you can extrapolate a small simulation to a larger simulation and assess how many computing units you need to use to run this simulation in a reasonable amount of time. When you apply for computing time on a large system, you will usually need to show a weak scaling curve for your specific problem, to show that the simulation you plan to run can actually run on the requested resources.

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