Improving mod_perl Driven Site's Performance -- Part I: Choosing Operating System and Hardware Page 7

How much RAM do you need? Nowadays, chances are that you will hear: ''Memory is cheap, the more you buy the better''. But how much is enough? The answer is pretty straightforward: you do not want your machine to swap. When the CPU needs to write something into memory, but memory is already full, it takes the least frequently used memory pages and swaps them out to disk. This means you have to bear the time penalty of writing the data to disk. If another process then references some of the data which happens to be on one of the pages that has just been swapped out, the CPU swaps it back in again, probably swapping out some other data that will be needed very shortly by some other process. Carried to the extreme, the CPU and disk start to thrash hopelessly in circles, without getting any real work done. The less RAM there is, the more often this scenario arises. Worse, you can exhaust swap space as well, and then your troubles really start...

How do you make a decision? You know the highest rate at which your server expects to serve pages and how long it takes on average to serve one. Now you can calculate how many server processes you need. If you know the maximum size your servers can grow to, you know how much memory you need. If your OS supports memory sharing, you can make best use of this feature by preloading the modules and scripts at server startup, and so you will need less memory than you have calculated.

Do not forget that other essential system processes need memory as well, so you should plan not only for the Web server, but also take into account the other players. Remember that requests can be queued, so you can afford to let your client wait for a few moments until a server is available to serve it. Most of the time your server will not have the maximum load, but you should be ready to bear the peaks. You need to reserve at least 20% of free memory for peak situations. Many sites have crashed a few moments after a big scoop about them was posted and an unexpected number of requests suddenly came in (like Slashdot effect). If you are about to announce something cool, be aware of the possible consequences.

Getting a Fault-Tolerant CPU

Make sure that the CPU is operating within its specifications. Many boxes are shipped with incorrect settings for CPU clock speed, power supply voltage etc. Sometimes a cooling fan is not fitted. It may be ineffective because a cable assembly fouls the fan blades. Like faulty RAM, an overheating processor can cause all kinds of strange and unpredictable things to happen. Some CPUs are known to have bugs which can be serious in certain circumstances. Try not to get one of them.

Detecting and Avoiding Bottlenecks

You might use the most expensive components, but still get bad performance. Why? Let me introduce an annoying word: bottleneck.

A machine is an aggregate of many components. Almost any one of them may become a bottleneck.

If you have a fast processor but a small amount of RAM, the RAM will probably be the bottleneck. The processor will be under-utilized, usually it will be waiting for the kernel to swap the memory pages in and out, because memory is too small to hold the busiest pages.

If you have a lot of memory, a fast processor, a fast disk, but a slow disk controller, the disk controller will be the bottleneck. The performance will still be bad, and you will have wasted money.

A slow NIC can cause a bottleneck as well and make the whole service running slow. This is a most important component, since webservers are much more often network-bound than they are disk-bound (i.e. having more network traffic than disk utilization)

This article was originally published on Dec 7, 2000

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