X-ray: Automating Root-Cause Diagnosis of Performance Anomalies in Production Software

Mona Attariyan, Michael Chow, and Jason Flinn


Troubleshooting the performance of production software is challenging. Most existing tools, such as profiling, tracing, and logging systems, reveal what events occurred during performance anomalies. However, users of such tools must infer why these events occurred; e.g., that their execution was due to a root cause such as a specific input request or configuration setting. Such inference often requires source code and detailed application knowledge that is beyond system administrators and end users.

This paper introduces performance summarization, a technique for automatically diagnosing the root causes of performance problems. Performance summarization instruments binaries as applications execute. It first attributes performance costs to each basic block. It then uses dynamic information flow tracking to estimate the likelihood that a block was executed due to each potential root cause. Finally, it summarizes the overall cost of each potential root cause by summing the per-block cost multiplied by the cause-specific likelihood over all basic blocks. Performance summarization can also be performed differentially to explain performance differences between two similar activities. X-ray is a tool that implements performance summarization. Our results show that X-ray accurately diagnoses 17 performance issues in Apache, lighttpd, Postfix, and PostgreSQL, while adding 2.3% average runtime overhead.