Introduction to Software Engineering/Tools/Profiling

In software engineering, program profiling, software profiling or simply profiling, a form of dynamic program analysis (as opposed to static code analysis), is the investigation of a program's behavior using information gathered as the program executes. The usual purpose of this analysis is to determine which sections of a program to optimize - to increase its overall speed, decrease its memory requirement or sometimes both.

  • A (code) profiler is a performance analysis tool that, most commonly, measures only the frequency and duration of function calls, but there are other specific types of profilers (e.g. memory profilers) in addition to more comprehensive profilers, capable of gathering extensive performance data.
  • An instruction set simulator which is also — by necessity — a profiler, can measure the totality of a program's behaviour from invocation to termination.

Gathering program events


Profilers use a wide variety of techniques to collect data, including hardware interrupts, code instrumentation, instruction set simulation, operating system hooks, and performance counters. The usage of profilers is 'called out' in the performance engineering process.

Use of profilers


Program analysis tools are extremely important for understanding program behavior. Computer architects need such tools to evaluate how well programs will perform on new architectures. Software writers need tools to analyze their programs and identify critical sections of code. Compiler writers often use such tools to find out how well their instruction scheduling or branch prediction algorithm is performing... (ATOM, PLDI, '94)

The output of a profiler may be:-

  • A statistical summary of the events observed (a profile)
Summary profile information is often shown annotated against the source code statements where the events occur, so the size of measurement data is linear to the code size of the program.
 /* ------------ source------------------------- count */             
 0001             IF X = "A"                     0055
 0002                THEN DO                       
 0003                  ADD 1 to XCOUNT           0032
 0004                ELSE
 0005             IF X = "B"                     0055
  • A stream of recorded events (a trace)
For sequential programs, a summary profile is usually sufficient, but performance problems in parallel programs (waiting for messages or synchronization issues) often depend on the time relationship of events, thus requiring a full trace to get an understanding of what is happening.
The size of a (full) trace is linear to the program's instruction path length, making it somewhat impractical. A trace may therefore be initiated at one point in a program and terminated at another point to limit the output.
  • An ongoing interaction with the hypervisor (continuous or periodic monitoring via on-screen display for instance)
This provides the opportunity to switch a trace on or off at any desired point during execution in addition to viewing on-going metrics about the (still executing) program. It also provides the opportunity to suspend asynchronous processes at critical points to examine interactions with other parallel processes in more detail.



Performance analysis tools existed on IBM/360 and IBM/370 platforms from the early 1970s, usually based on timer interrupts which recorded the Program status word (PSW) at set timer intervals to detect "hot spots" in executing code. This was an early example of sampling (see below). In early 1974, Instruction Set Simulators permitted full trace and other performance monitoring features.

Profiler-driven program analysis on Unix dates back to at least 1979, when Unix systems included a basic tool "prof" that listed each function and how much of program execution time it used. In 1982, gprof extended the concept to a complete call graph analysis [1]

In 1994, Amitabh Srivastava and Alan Eustace of Digital Equipment Corporation published a paper describing ATOM.[2] ATOM is a platform for converting a program into its own profiler. That is, at compile time, it inserts code into the program to be analyzed. That inserted code outputs analysis data. This technique - modifying a program to analyze itself - is known as "instrumentation".

In 2004, both the gprof and ATOM papers appeared on the list of the 50 most influential PLDI papers of all time.[3]

Profiler types based on output


Flat profiler


Flat profilers compute the average call times, from the calls, and do not break down the call times based on the callee or the context.

Call-graph profiler


Call graph profilers show the call times, and frequencies of the functions, and also the call-chains involved based on the callee. However context is not preserved.

Methods of data gathering


Event-based profilers


The programming languages listed here have event-based profilers:

  • Java: the JVMTI (JVM Tools Interface) API, formerly JVMPI (JVM Profiling Interface), provides hooks to profilers, for trapping events like calls, class-load, unload, thread enter leave.
  • .NET: Can attach a profiling agent as a COM server to the CLR. Like Java, the runtime then provides various callbacks into the agent, for trapping events like method JIT / enter / leave, object creation, etc. Particularly powerful in that the profiling agent can rewrite the target application's bytecode in arbitrary ways.
  • Python: Python profiling includes the profile module, hotshot (which is call-graph based), and using the 'sys.setprofile' function to trap events like c_{call,return,exception}, python_{call,return,exception}.
  • Ruby: Ruby also uses a similar interface like Python for profiling. Flat-profiler in profile.rb, module, and ruby-prof a C-extension are present.

Statistical profilers


Some profilers operate by sampling. A sampling profiler probes the target program's program counter at regular intervals using operating system interrupts. Sampling profiles are typically less numerically accurate and specific, but allow the target program to run at near full speed.

The resulting data are not exact, but a statistical approximation. The actual amount of error is usually more than one sampling period. In fact, if a value is n times the sampling period, the expected error in it is the square-root of n sampling periods. [4]

In practice, sampling profilers can often provide a more accurate picture of the target program's execution than other approaches, as they are not as intrusive to the target program, and thus don't have as many side effects (such as on memory caches or instruction decoding pipelines). Also since they don't affect the execution speed as much, they can detect issues that would otherwise be hidden. They are also relatively immune to over-evaluating the cost of small, frequently called routines or 'tight' loops. They can show the relative amount of time spent in user mode versus interruptible kernel mode such as system call processing.

Still, kernel code to handle the interrupts entails a minor loss of CPU cycles, diverted cache usage, and is unable to distinguish the various tasks occurring in uninterruptible kernel code (microsecond-range activity).

Dedicated hardware can go beyond this: some recent MIPS processors JTAG interface have a PCSAMPLE register, which samples the program counter in a truly undetectable manner.

Some of the most commonly used statistical profilers are AMD CodeAnalyst, Apple Inc. Shark, gprof, Intel VTune and Parallel Amplifier (part of Intel Parallel Studio).

Instrumenting profilers


Some profilers instrument the target program with additional instructions to collect the required information.

Instrumenting the program can cause changes in the performance of the program, potentially causing inaccurate results and heisenbugs. Instrumenting will always have some impact on the program execution, typically always slowing it. However, instrumentation can be very specific and be carefully controlled to have a minimal impact. The impact on a particular program depends on the placement of instrumentation points and the mechanism used to capture the trace. Hardware support for trace capture means that on some targets, instrumentation can be on just one machine instruction. The impact of instrumentation can often be deducted (i.e. eliminated by subtraction) from the results.

gprof is an example of a profiler that uses both instrumentation and sampling. Instrumentation is used to gather caller information and the actual timing values are obtained by statistical sampling.


  • Manual: Performed by the programmer, e.g. by adding instructions to explicitly calculate runtimes, simply count events or calls to measurement APIs such as the Application Response Measurement standard.
  • Automatic source level: instrumentation added to the source code by an automatic tool according to an instrumentation policy.
  • Compiler assisted: Example: "gcc -pg ..." for gprof, "quantify g++ ..." for Quantify
  • Binary translation: The tool adds instrumentation to a compiled binary. Example: ATOM
  • Runtime instrumentation: Directly before execution the code is instrumented. The program run is fully supervised and controlled by the tool. Examples: Pin, Valgrind
  • Runtime injection: More lightweight than runtime instrumentation. Code is modified at runtime to have jumps to helper functions. Example: DynInst

Interpreter instrumentation

  • Interpreter debug options can enable the collection of performance metrics as the interpreter encounters each target statement. A bytecode, control table or JIT interpreters are three examples that usually have complete control over execution of the target code, thus enabling extremely comprehensive data collection opportunities.


  • Hypervisor: Data are collected by running the (usually) unmodified program under a hypervisor. Example: SIMMON
  • Simulator and Hypervisor: Data collected interactively and selectively by running the unmodified program under an Instruction Set Simulator. Examples: SIMON (Batch Interactive test/debug) and IBM OLIVER (CICS interactive test/debug).


  • Dunlavey, “Performance tuning with instruction-level cost derived from call-stack sampling”, ACM SIGPLAN Notices 42, 8 (August, 2007), pp. 4–8.
  • Dunlavey, “Performance Tuning: Slugging It Out!”, Dr. Dobb's Journal, Vol 18, #12, November 1993, pp 18–26.