10 Habits of Great Server Performance Tuners

I have been working as a full-time performance engineer at Intel for 6 years. I started by benchmarking server products for performance validation and now I focus on the TPC-C and TPC-E OLTP server benchmarks. I have used a variety of workloads in this job and spent time optimizing each level of the performance hierarchy: application, system, and processor. I, like many of you, have learned the "tricks of the trade" the hard way: by trial, error, and success. I'm sharing now, so you can all benefit from the things I've picked up along the way.

Let's start with some general methodologies to follow when tuning performance, whether you do it full-time, as a hobby, or just in your spare cycles after getting your "regular work" done. I will follow up with a more detailed post on each habit individually.

1. Ask the right question: Why are you tuning your platform? What level of performance are you hoping to achieve? What do you (or your users) care most about: raw performance, cost/performance, performance/watt, or something else?

2. Start at the top: The first and easiest part of your application server to tune is the hardware itself. Move on to the software and workload only after you feel confident that you have removed any system-level bottlenecks.

3. Know your Platform: This should be where you begin your system (hardware) tuning. The first thing, which I can't stress enough, is to get a block diagram of your platform. Then study it!

4. Know your BIOS: Server BIOSes these days come with more and more options. Be sure to give your new platform's BIOS a once-over. Pay particular attention to options relating to performance and power.

5. Know your Workload: To quantify performance, you need a workload! Some examples: web server response time, boot time, frames rendered per second, simultaneous connections supported, etc. Understand as much as possible about how the work gets done.

6. Try one thing at a time: Little changes that seem harmless can significantly alter the behavior of your system. Or worse, they can interact with each other to wreak havoc. Always try one change at a time, and for goodness' sake, do habit number 7.

7. Document and Archive: When you change something, log it! For each experiment you do, store your hardware and software configuration, performance level, and any collected data.

8. Use the right tool for the job: There are free data collection tools out there for various levels of the tuning process. System tuning tools include such as Performance Monitor for Windows or Sar for Linux. Application-level tools include Intel ® VTuneTM for both Windows and Linux.

9. Don't break the law: Amdahl's Law, that is. Amdahl's Law tells us the maximum amount of performance improvement we will get from a particular enhancement. Amdahl can help you set your expectations properly and clue you in to when you should be suspicious.

10. Compare apples to apples: Todd Christ reminds us of this habit in the last paragraph of this post. Don't compare the performance of mis-matched systems. If you must do it, know exactly what the differences are: the processor, memory type/speed/vendor, a software component, chipset, etc. Dig into the configuration details!

So now you have the high-level list! Stay tuned to The Server Room for more information about each habit in the coming weeks.