Category Archives: Benchmarking

Buffering vs streaming benchmark: first results

My poor laptop’s had a busy weekend. It’s run 72 tests, rebooting between each test. Most of these tests have kept both the CPU and disk busy for a lot of the time. I expect to update this blog post with more numbers – and possibly more strategies – as time goes on, but I wanted to get the numbers out as quickly as possible. Graphs should be coming when I’ve got a decent network to experiment with Google graphing.

Source code and setup

While I don’t really expect anyone else to sacrifice their computer for the best part of 24 hours, it doesn’t take very much effort to get the tests running. This zip file contains the source code for three programs, a batch file to generate the test data, and a command file.

The CreateFiles executable creates input files based on its command line arguments. (This is run multiple times by the batch file.) EncryptFiles “encrypts” (I use the term loosely) all the files in a given directory, writing the results to another directory. The class design of EncryptFiles is a little bit funny, but it’s really tailored for these tests. It should be easy to write other strategies in the same way too.

ExecuteAndReboot is used to automate the testing. Basically it reads a command file (from a hard-coded directory; simplicity trumps flexibility here). If the file isn’t empty, it waits five minutes (so that after a reboot the computer has time to settle down after loading all its services) and runs the command specified in the first line of the file, appending the output to a results file. When the command has finished executing, ExecuteAndReboot rewrites the command file, removing the first line, and schedules a reboot. The idea is to drop ExecuteAndReboot into a Startup folder, set Windows to log in automatically, reboot once and then just let it go. If you want to use the computer, just wait until it’s in the “waiting five minutes” bit at the start of the cycle and kill ExecuteAndReboot. Next time you reboot it will start testing again.

That’s the general principle – if anyone does want to run the tests on their mail and needs a bit of help setting it up, just let me know.

Test environment and workload

I expect the details of the execution environment to affect the outcome significantly. For the sake of the record then, my laptop specs are:

Dell Inspiron 1720 (unlikely to be relevant, but…)
Intel Core 2 Duo T7250 2.0GHz
Vista Home Premium 32 bit
3 GB main memory, 32K L1 cache, 2048K L2 cache
2 disks, both 120GB (Fujitsu MHY2120BH, 5400RPM, 8MB cache)

Even though there are two drives in the system, the tests only ever read from and wrote to a single disk.

I created four sets of input data; I’ve presented the results for each one separately below, and included the description of the files along with the results. Basically in each case there’s a set of files where each file is the same size, consisting of a fixed number of fixed-length lines.

The “encryption” that is performed in each case (on the encoded version of the line) is just to XOR each byte with a value. This is repeated a specified number of times, and the XOR value on each pass is the current index, i.e. it first XORs with 0, then 1, then 2 etc. I’ve used work levels of 0 (the loop never runs), 100 and 1000. These were picked somewhat arbitrarily, but they give interesting results. At 0 the process is clearly IO-bound. At 1000 it’s clearly CPU-bound. At 100 it’s not pegging the CPU, but there’s significant activity. I may try 200 as well at some point.

For each scenario I tried using 1, 2 and 3 threads (and 4 for the big tests; I’ll go back and repeat earlier ones with 4 threads soon). The two strategies used are “streaming”: read a line, encrypt, write the line, repeat and “buffering”: read a whole file, encrypt it all, write it all out. After a thread has started, it needs no shared data at all – it’s given the complete list of files to encrypt at the very start.


For every table, the number of threads is shown by the leftmost column, and the work level is shown by the topmost row. The cells are of the form “x/y” where “x” is the time taken for the streaming strategy, and “y” is the time taken for the buffering strategy. All times are in seconds. For each column, I’ve highlighted the optimal test.

Small tests

There are 10000 test files. Each is 100 lines long, with 100 characters per line.

Threads/Work 0 100 1000
1 47/90 94/79 163/158
2 95/112 113/157 129/146
3 179/128 130/144 152/160
4 144/139 163/193 156/204

Medium tests (short lines)

There are 100 test files. Each is 500,000 lines long, with 20 characters per line.

Threads/Work 0 100 1000
1 138/157 219/267 1125/1205
2 196/238 259/263 604/691
3 292/250 312/236 624/676
4 302/291 321/281 602/666

Medium tests (long lines)

There are 100 test files. Each is 100 lines long, with 100,000 characters per line.

Threads/Work 0 100 1000
1 203/213 249/286 1027/1107
2 283/264 311/296 602/696
3 319/284 314/278 608/618
4 360/300 336/297 607/598

Big tests

There are 20 files. Each file is 100,000 lines long, with 1000 characters per line.

Threads/Work 0 100 1000
1 190/246 349/441 2047/2165
2 365/375 392/473 1097/1387
3 456/379 484/399 1161/1296
4 517/442 521/431 1113/1214


I’m loathe to draw too many conclusions so far. After all, we’ve only got data for a single test environment. It would be interesting to see what would happen on a quad core machine. However, I think a few things can be said with reasonable confidence:

  • Sometimes the streaming strategy wins, sometimes the buffering strategy wins. The difference can be quite significant either way. For a given input and workload, the streaming solution almost always wins on my machine.
  • In ideal scenario, the bottlenecked resource should be busy for as much of the time as possible. For example, in a high-CPU task it makes little sense to have idle cores when you’ve already loaded data. Likewise in a disk-bound task we should always be fetching (or writing) data even if all our cores are momentarily busy. Personally I think this is the operating system’s pre-fetch systems’s job. We could do it ourselves, but it’s nicer if we don’t have to.
  • If we’re disk-bound, it makes sense to read (or write) one file at a time, to avoid seeking. This is obvious from the results – for work levels of 0 and 100, a single-thread solution is consistently best (and streaming usually works better buffering). Based on this assumption, I suspect a cleaner solution would be to have a single thread reading largish chunks (but not the whole file) and feeding the other threads – or to use async IO. However, this all gets very complicated. One nice aspect of both of the current solutions is that they’re really simple to implement safely. Reading line-by-line in an async manner is a pain. I’d quite like to write an async “execute for every line” helper at some time, but not just yet.
  • If we’re CPU bound, the buffering solution’s sweet spot is 3 threads (remember we’re using 2 cores) and the streaming solution works better with just 2 threads – introducing more threads will make both the IO and context switching less efficient.
  • The streaming strategy always uses less application memory than the buffering strategy. When running the buffering strategy against the “big” data set with 4 threads, the memory varied between 800MB and 1.8GB (as measured by the “Total bytes in all heaps” performance counter), vs around 165KB with the streaming strategy. (Obviously the process itself took more than 165KB, but that was the memory used in “normal” managed heap memory.) Using more memory to improve performance is a valid technique, but I’d say it’s only worth it when the improvement is very significant. Additionally, the streaming technique instantly scales to huge data files. While they’re not in the current requirements, it doesn’t hurt to get that ability for free.

Next steps…

I’ve included quite a few “I’m going to try to […]” points in this post. Just for reference, my plans are:

  • Turn off my virus checker! If this makes a significant difference, I’ll rerun all the current tests
  • Try to visualise the results with Google graphs – although I think it may get cluttered
  • Rerun big/buffering/1000 test – odd results
  • Rerun tests with a work level of 200 and keep an eye on CPU usage – I’d like to spot where we tip between CPU and IO being the bottleneck
  • Try to optimize the Stream/StreamReader being used – we should be able to skip the FileStream buffer completely, and specifying FileOptions.SequentialScan should give more hints to Windows about how we’re intending to read the data. I’ll try a few different buffer sizes, probably 4K, 8K and 64K, just to see what happens.

This is a really interesting little example problem, because it sounds so simple (and it is simple in terms of the implementation) but it has a lot of environment variables. Of course it would be nicer if we didn’t have to reboot the machine between test runs in order to get a fair result, but never mind…

Benchmarking IO: buffering vs streaming

I mentioned in my recent book review that I was concerned about a recommendation to load all of the data from an input file before processing all of it. This seems to me to be a bad idea in an age where Windows prefetch will anticipate what data you need next, etc – allowing you to process efficiently in a streaming fashion.

However, without any benchmarks I’m just guessing. I’d like to set up a benchmark to test this – it’s an interesting problem which I suspect has lots of nuances. This isn’t about trying to prove the book wrong – it’s about investigating a problem which sounds relatively simple, but could well not be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that in some cases the streaming solution is faster, and in other cases the buffered solution is faster.

The Task

The situation presented is like this:

  • We have a bunch of input files, either locally or on the network (I’m probably just going to test locally for now)
  • Each file is less than 100MB
  • We need to encrypt each line of text in each input file, writing it to a corresponding output file

The method suggested in the book is for each thread to:

  1. Load a file into a List<string>
  2. Encrypt every line (replacing it in the list)
  3. Save to a new file

My alternative option is:

  1. Open a TextReader and a TextWriter for the input/output
  2. Repeatedly read a line, encrypt, write the encrypted line until we’ve exhausted the input file
  3. Close both the reader and the writer

These are the two implementations I want to test. I strongly suspect that the optimal solution would involve async IO, but doing an async version of ReadLine is a real pain for various reasons. I’m going to keep it simple – using plain threading, no TPL etc.

I haven’t written any code yet. This is where you come in – not to write the code for me, but to make sure I test in a useful way.

Environmental variations

My plan of attack is to first write a small program to generate the input files. These will just be random text files, and the program will have a few command line parameters:

  • Directory to put files under (one per test variation, basically)
  • Number of files to create
  • Number of lines per file
  • Number of characters per line

I’ll probably test a high and a low number for each of the last three parameters, possibly omitting a few variations for practical reasons.

In an ideal world I’d test on several different computers, locally and networked, but that just isn’t practical. In particular I’d be interested to see how much difference an SSD (low seek time) makes to this test. I’ll be using my normal laptop, which is a dual core Core Duo with two normal laptop disks. I may well try using different drives for reading and writing to see how much difference that makes.


The benchmark program will also have a few command line parameters:

  • Directory to read files from
  • Directory to write files to
  • Number of threads to use (in some cases I suspect that more threads than cores will be useful, to avoid cores idling while data is read for a blocking thread)
  • Strategy to use (buffered or streaming)
  • Encryption work level

The first three parameters here are pretty self-explanatory, but the encryption work level isn’t. Basically I want to be able to vary the difficulty of the task, which will vary whether it ends up being CPU-bound or IO-bound (I expect). So, for a particular line I will:

  • Convert to binary (using Encoding.ASCII – I’ll generate just ASCII files)
  • Encrypt the binary data
  • Encrypt the encrypted binary data
  • Encrypt the encrypted encrypted […] etc until we’ve hit the number given by the encryption work level
  • Base64 encode the result – this will be the output line

So with an encryption work level of 1 I’ll just encrypt once. With a work level of 2 I’ll encrypt twice, etc. This is purely for the sake of giving the computer something to do. I’ll use AES unless anyone has a better suggestion. (Another option would be to just use an XOR or something else incredibly simple.) The key/IV will be fixed for all tests, just in case that has a bearing on anything.

The benchmarking program is going to be as simple as I can possibly make it:

  • Start a stopwatch
  • Read the names of all the files in the directory
  • Create a list of files for each thread to encrypt
  • Create and start the threads
  • Use Thread.Join on all the threads
  • Stop the stopwatch and report the time taken

No rendezvous required at all, which certainly simplifies things. By creating the work list before the thread, I don’t need to worry about memory model issues. It should all just be fine.

In the absence of a better way of emptying all the file read caches (at the Windows and disk levels) I plan to reboot my computer between test runs (which makes it pretty expensive in terms of time spent – hence omitting some variations). I wasn’t planning on shutting services etc down: I really hope that Vista won’t do anything silly like trying to index the disk while I’ve got a heavy load going. Obviously I won’t run any other applications at the same time.

If anyone has any suggested changes, I’d be very glad to hear them. Have I missed anything? Should I run a test where the file sizes vary? Is there a better way of flushing all caches than rebooting?

I don’t know exactly when I’m going to find time to do all of this, but I’ll get there eventually :)

Benchmarking: designing an API with unusual goals

In a couple of recent posts I’ve written about a benchmarking framework and the results it produced for using for vs foreach in loops. I’m pleased with what I’ve done so far, but I don’t think I’ve gone far enough yet. In particular, while it’s good at testing multiple algorithms against a single input, it’s not good at trying several different inputs to demonstrate the complexity vs input size. I wanted to rethink the design at three levels – what the framework would be capable of, how developers would use it, and then the fine-grained level of what the API would look like in terms of types, methods etc. These may all sound quite similar on the face of it, but this project is somewhat different to a lot of other coding I’ve done, mostly because I want to lower the barrier to entry as far as humanly possible.

Before any of this is meaningful, however, I really needed an idea of the fundamental goal. Why was I writing yet another benchmarking framework anyway? While I normally cringe at mission statements because they’re so badly formulated and used, I figured this time it would be helpful.

Minibench makes it easy for developers to write and share tests to investigate and measure code performance.

The words in bold (or for the semantically inclined, the strong words) are the real meat of it. It’s quite scary that even within a single sentence there are seven key points to address. Some are quite simple, others cause grief. Now let’s look at each of the areas of design in turn.

Each element of the design should either clearly contribute to the mission statement or help in a non-functional way (e.g. make the project feasible in a reasonable timeframe, avoid legal issues etc). I’m aware that with the length of this post, it sounds like I’m engaging in "big upfront design" but I’d like to think that it’s at least informed by my recent attempt, and that the design criteria here are statements of intent rather than implementation commitments. (Aargh, buzzword bingo… please persevere!)

What can it do?

As we’ve already said, it’s got to be able to measure code performance. That’s a pretty vague definition, however, so I’m going to restrict it a bit – the design is as much about saying what isn’t included as what is.

  • Each test will take the form of a single piece of code which is executed many times by the framework. It will have an input and an expected output. (Operations with no natural output can return a constant; I’m not going to make any special allowance for them.)
  • The framework should take the tedium out of testing. In particular I don’t want to have to run it several times to get a reasonable number of iterations. I suspect it won’t be feasible to get the framework to guess appropriate inputs, but that would be lovely if possible.
  • Only wall time is measured. There are loads of different metrics which could be applied: CPU execution time, memory usage, IO usage, lock contention – all kinds of things. Wall time (i.e. actual time elapsed, as measured by a clock on the wall) is by far the simplest to understand and capture, and it’s the one most frequently cited in newsgroup and forum questions in my experience.
  • The benchmark is uninstrumented. I’m not going to start rewriting your code dynamically. Frankly this is for reasons of laziness. A really professional benchmarking system might take your IL and wrap it in a timing loop within a single method, somehow enforcing that the result of each iteration is used. I don’t believe that’s worth my time and energy, as well as quite possibly being beyond my capabilities.
  • As a result of the previous bullet, the piece of code to be run lots of times needs to be non-trivial. The reality is that it’ll end up being called as a delegate. This is pretty quick, but if you’re just testing "is adding two doubles faster or slower than adding two floats" then you’ll need to put a bit more work in (e.g. having a loop in your own code as well).
  • As well as the use case of "which of these algorithms performs the best with this input?" I want to support "how does the performance vary as a function of the input?" This should support multiple algorithms at the same time as multiple inputs.
  • The output should be flexible but easy to describe in code. For single-input tests simple text output is fine (although the exact figures to produce can be interesting); for multiple inputs against multiple tests a graph would often be ideal. If I don’t have the energy to write a graphing output I should at least support writing to CSV or TSV so that a spreadsheet or graphing tool can do the heavy lifting.
  • The output should be useful – it should make it easy to compare the performance of different algorithms and/or inputs. It’s clear from the previous post here that just including the scaled score doesn’t give an obvious meaning. Some careful wording in the output, as well as labeled columns, may be required. This is emphatically not a dig at anyone confused by the last post – any confusion was my own fault.

Okay, that doesn’t sound too unreasonable. The next area is much harder, in my view.

How does a developer use it?

Possibly the most important word in the mission statement is share. The reason I started this project at all is that I was fed up with spending ages writing timing loops for benchmarks which I’d then post on newsgroups or Stack Overflow. That means there are two (overlapping) categories of user:

  • A developer writing a test. This needs to be easy, but that’s an aspect of design that I’m reasonably familiar with. I’m not saying I’m good at it, but at least I have some prior experience.
  • A developer reading a newsgroup/forum post, and wanting to run the benchark for themselves. This distribution aspect is the hard bit – or at least the bit requiring imagination. I want the barrier to running the code to be really, really low. I suspect that there’ll be a "fear of the unknown" to start with which is hard to conquer, but if the framework becomes widely used I want the reader’s reaction to be: "Ah, there’s a MiniBench for this. I’m confident that I can download and run this code with almost no effort."

This second bullet is the one that my friend Douglas and I have been discussing over the weekend, in some ways playing a game of one-upmanship: "I can think of an idea which is even easier than yours." It’s a really fun game to play. Things we’ve thought about so far:

  • A web page which lets you upload a full program (without the framework) and spits out a URL which can be posted onto Stack Overflow etc. The user would then choose from the following formats:
    • Single .cs file containing the whole program – just compile and run. (This would also be shown on the download page.)
    • Test code only – for those whole already have the framework
    • Batch file – just run it to extract/build/run the C# code.
    • NAnt project file containing the C# code embedded in it – just run NAnt
    • MSBuild project file – ditto but with msbuild.
    • Zipped project – open the project to load the test in one file and the framework code in other (possibly separate) .cs files
    • Zipped solution – open to load two projects: the test code in one and the framework in the other
  • A web page which which lets you upload your results and browse the results of others

Nothing’s finalised here, but I like the general idea. I’ve managed (fairly easily) to write a "self-building" batch file, but I haven’t tried with NAnt/MSBuild yet. I can’t imagine it’s that hard – but then I’m not sure how much value there is either. What I do want to try to aim for is users running the tests properly, first time, without much effort. Again, looking back at the last post, I want to make it obvious to users if they’re running under a debugger, which is almost always the wrong thing to be doing. (I’m pretty sure there’s an API for this somewhere, and if there’s not I’m sure I can work out an evil way of detecting it anyway.)

The main thing is the ease of downloading and running the benchmark. I can’t see how it could be much easier than "follow link; choose format and download; run batch file" – unless the link itself was to the batch file, of course. (That would make it harder to use for people who wanted to get the source in a more normal format, of course.)

Going back to the point of view of the developer writing the test, I need to make sure it’s easy enough for me to use from home, work and on the train. That may mean a web page where I can just type in code, the input and expected output, and let it fill in the rest of the code for me. It may mean compiling a source file against a library from the command line. It may mean compiling a source file against the source code of the framework from the command line, with the framework code all in one file. It may mean building in Visual Studio. I’d like to make all of these cases as simple as possible – which is likely to make it simple for other developers as well. I’m not planning on optimising the experience when it comes to writing a benchmark on my mobile though – that might be a step too far!

What should the API look like?

When we get down to the nitty-gritty of types and methods, I think what I’ve got is a good starting point. There are still a few things to think about though:

  • We nearly have the functionality required for running a suite with different inputs already – the only problem is that we’re specifying the input (and expected output) in the constructor rather than as parameters to the RunTests method. I could change that… but then we lose the benefit of type inference when creating the suite. I haven’t resolved this to my satisfaction yet :(
  • The idea of having the suite automatically set up using attributed methods appeals, although we’d still need a Main method to create the suite and format the output. The suite creation can be simplified, but the chances of magically picking the most appropriate output are fairly slim. I suppose it could go for the "scale to best by number of iterations and show all columns" option by default… that still leaves the input and expected output, of course. I’m sure I’ll have something like this as an option, but I don’t know how far it will go.
  • The "configuration" side of it is expressed as a couple of constants at the moment. These control the minimum amount of time to run tests for before we believe we’ll be able to guess how many iterations we’ll need to get close to the target time, and the target time itself. These are currently set at 2 seconds and 30 seconds respectively – but when running tests just to check that you’ve got the right output format etc, that’s far too long. I suspect I should make a test suite have a configuration, and default to those constants but allow them to be specified on the command line as well, or explicitly in code.
  • Why do we need to set the expected output? In many cases you can be pretty confident that at least one of the test cases will be correct – so it’s probably simpler just to run each test once and check that the results are the same for all of them, and take that as the expected output. If you don’t have to specify the expected output, it becomes easier to specify a sequence of inputs to test.
  • Currently BenchmarkResult is nongeneric. This makes things simpler internally – but should a result know the input that it was derived from? Or should the ResultSuite (which is also nongeneric) know the input that has been applied to all its functions? The information will certainly need to be somewhere so that it can be output appropriately in the multiple input case.

My main points of design focus around three areas:

  • Is it easy to pick up? The more flexible it is, with lots of options, the more daunting it may seem.
  • Is it flexible enough to be useful in a variety of situations? I don’t know what users will want to benchmark – and I don’t build the right tool, it will be worthless to them.
  • Is the resulting test code easy and brief enough to include in a forum post, with a link to the full program? Will readers understand it?

As you can see, these are aimed at three slightly different people: the first time test writer, the veteran test writer, and the first time test reader. Getting the balance between the three is tricky.

What’s next?

I haven’t started rewriting the framework yet, but will probably do so soon. This time I hope to do it in a rather more test-driven way, although of course the timing-specific elements will be tricky unless I start using a programmatic clock etc. I’d really like comments around this whole process:

  • Is this worth doing?
  • Am I asking the right questions?
  • Are my answers so far headed in the right direction?
  • What else haven’t I thought of?