Julia Evans

How do Ruby & Python profilers work?

Hello! As a precursor to writing a Ruby profiler I wanted to do a survey of how existing Ruby & Python profilers work. This also helps answer a question a lot of folks have been asking me, which is “How do you write a profiler?”

In this post, we’re just going to focus on CPU profilers (and not, say, memory/heap profilers). I’ll explain some basic general approaches to writing a profiler, give some code examples, and take a bunch of examples of popular Ruby & Python profilers and tell you how they work under the hood.

There are probably some mistakes in this post (as research for this post I read parts of the code for 14 different profiling libraries and most of those I hadn’t looked at before today), please let me know what they are!

2 kinds of profilers

There are 2 basic kinds of CPU profilers – sampling profilers and tracing profilers.

Tracing profilers record every function call your program makes and then print out a report at the end. Sampling profilers take a more statistical approach – they record your program’s stack every few milliseconds and then report the results.

The main reason to use a sampling profiler instead of a tracing profiler is that sampling profilers are lower overhead. If you just take 20 or 200 samples a second, that’s not very time consuming. And they’re pretty effective – if you’re having a serious performance problem (like 80% of your time is being spent in 1 slow function), 200 samples a second will often be enough to figure out which function to blame!

The profilers

Here’s a summary of the profilers we’ll be discussing in this post. (from this gist). I’ll explain the jargon in this table (setitimer, rb_add_event_hook, ptrace) a bit later on. The interesting thing here is that all profilers are implemented using a pretty small set of fundamental capabilities.

Python profilers

Name Kind How it works
cProfile Tracing PyEval_SetProfile
line_profiler Tracing PyEval_SetTrace
pyflame (blog post) Sampling ptrace + custom timing
stacksampler Sampling setitimer
statprof Sampling setitimer
vmprof Sampling setitimer
pyinstrument Sampling PyEval_SetProfile
gprof (greenlet) Tracing greenlet.settrace
python-flamegraph Sampling profiling thread + custom timing
gdb hacks Sampling ptrace

“gdb hacks” isn’t a Python profiler exactly – it links to website talking about how to implement a hacky profiler as a shell script wrapper around gdb. It’s relevant to Python because newer versions of gdb will actually unwind the Python stack for you. Kind of a poor man’s pyflame.

Ruby profilers

Name Kind How it works
stackprof by tmm1 Sampling setitimer
perftools.rb by tmm1 Sampling setitimer
rblineprof by tmm1 Tracing rb_add_event_hook
ruby-prof Tracing rb_add_event_hook
flamegraph Sampling stackprof gem

Almost all of these profilers live inside your process

Before we start getting into the details of these profilers there’s one really important thing – all of these profilers except pyflame run inside your Python/Ruby process. If you’re inside a Python/Ruby program you generally have pretty easy access to its stack. For example here’s a simple Python program that prints the stack of every running thread:

import sys
import traceback

def bar():

def foo():
    for _, frame in sys._current_frames().items():
        for line in traceback.extract_stack(frame):
            print line


Here’s the output. You can see that it has the function names from the stack, line numbers, filenames – everything you might want to know if you’re profiling.

('test2.py', 12, '<module>', 'bar()')
('test2.py', 5, 'bar', 'foo()')
('test2.py', 9, 'foo', 'for line in traceback.extract_stack(frame):')

In Ruby, it’s even easier: you can just puts caller to get the stack.

Most of these profilers are C extensions for performance reasons so they’re a little different but C extensions to Ruby/Python programs also have really easy access to the call stack.

How tracing profilers work

I did a survey of all the Ruby & Python tracing profilers in the tables above: rblineprof, ruby-prof, line_profiler, and cProfile. They all work basically the same way. All of them record all function calls and are written as C extensions to reduce overhead.

How do they work? Well, both Ruby and Python let you specify a callback that gets run when various interpreter events (like “calling a function” or “executing a line of code”) happen. When the callback gets called, it records the stack for later analysis.

I think it’s useful to look exactly where in the code these callbacks get set up so I’ll link to the relevant line of code on github for all of these.

In Python, you can set up that callback with PyEval_SetTrace or PyEval_SetProfile. It’s documented in this Profiling and Tracing section of the Python documentation. The docs say “PyEval_SetTrace is similar to PyEval_SetProfile, except the tracing function does receive line-number events.”

The code:

In Ruby, you can set up a callback with rb_add_event_hook. I couldn’t find any documentation for this but here’s how it gets called

      RUBY_EVENT_LINE, self);

The type signature of prof_event_hook is

static void
prof_event_hook(rb_event_flag_t event, VALUE data, VALUE self, ID mid, VALUE klass)

This seems pretty similar to Python’s PyEval_SetTrace, but more flexible – you can pick which events you want to be notified about (like “just function calls”).

The code:

Disadvantages of tracing profilers

The main disadvantage of tracing profilers implemented in this way is that they introduce a fixed amount for every function call / line of code executed. This can cause you to make incorrect decisions! For example, if you have 2 implementations of something – one with a lot of function calls and one without, which take the same amount of time, the one with a lot of function calls will appear to be slower when profiled.

To test this a tiny bit, I made a small file called test.py with the following contents and compared the running time of python -mcProfile test.py and python test.py. python test.py ran in about 0.6s and python -mcProfile test.py ran in about 1s. So for this particular pathological example cProfile introduced an extra ~60% overhead.

def recur(n):
    if n == 0:

for i in range(5000):

The documentation for cProfile says:

the interpreted nature of Python tends to add so much overhead to execution, that deterministic profiling tends to only add small processing overhead in typical applications

This seems like a pretty reasonable assertion – the example program earlier (which does 3.5 million function calls and nothing else) obviously isn’t a typical Python program, and almost any other program would have less overhead.

I didn’t test ruby-prof (a Ruby tracing profiler)’s overhead, but its README says:

Most programs will run approximately twice as slow while highly recursive programs (like the fibonacci series test) will run three times slower.

How sampling profilers mostly work: setitimer

Time to talk about the second kind of profiler: sampling profilers!

Most Ruby & Python sampling profilers are implemented using the setitimer system call. What’s that?

Well – let’s say you want to get a snapshot of a program’s stack 50 times a second. A way to do that is:

  • Ask the Linux kernel to send you a signal every 20 milliseconds (using the setitimer system call)
  • Register a signal handler to record the stack every time you get a signal.
  • When you’re done profiling, ask Linux to stop sending you signals and print the output!

If you want to see a practical example of setitimer being used to implement a sampling profiler, I think stacksampler.py is the best example – it’s a useful, working, profiler, and it’s only about 100 lines of Python. So cool!

A reason stacksampler.py is only 100 lines in Python is – when you register a Python function as a signal handler, the function gets passed in the current stack of your Python program. So the signal handler stacksampler.py registers is really simple:

def _sample(self, signum, frame):
   stack = []
   while frame is not None:
       frame = frame.f_back

   stack = ';'.join(reversed(stack))
   self._stack_counts[stack] += 1

It just gets the stack out of the frame and increases the number of times that particular stack has been seen by one. Very simple! Very cool!

Let’s go through all the rest of our profilers that use setitimer and find where in their code they call setitimer:

One important thing about setitimer is that you need to decide how to count time. Do you want 20ms of real “wall clock” time? 20ms of user CPU time? 20 ms of user + system CPU time? If you look closely at the call sites above you’ll notice that these profilers actually make different choices about how to setitimer – sometimes it’s configurable, and sometimes it’s not. The setitimer man page is short and worth reading to understand all the options.

@mgedmin on twitter pointed out one interesting downside of using setitimer. this issue and this issue have a bit more detail.

One INTERESTING downside of setitimer-based profilers is that the timers cause signals! Signals sometimes interrupt system calls! System calls sometimes take a few milliseconds! If you sample too frequently, you can make your program keep retrying the same syscall forever!

Sampling profilers that don’t use setitimer

There are a few sampling profilers that doesn’t use setitimer:

  • pyinstrument uses PyEval_SetProfile (so it’s sort of a tracing profiler in a way), but it doesn’t always collect stack samples when its tracing callback is called. Here’s the code that chooses when to sample a stack trace See this blog post for more on that decision. (basically: setitimer only lets you profile the main thread in Python)
  • pyflame profiles Python code from outside of the process using the ptrace system call. It basically just does a loop where it grabs samples, sleeps, and repeats. Here’s the call to sleep.
  • python-flamegraph takes a similar approach where it starts a new thread in your Python process and basically grabs stack traces, sleeps, and repats. Here’s the call to sleep.

All 3 of these profilers sample using wall clock timing.

pyflame blog posts

I spent almost all my time in this post on profilers other than pyflame but pyflame is actually the one I’m the most interested in because it profiles your Python program from a separate process, and that’s how I want my Ruby profiler to work too.

There’s a lot more to how it does that. I won’t get into it here but Evan Klitzke has written a lot of really good blog posts about it:

and there’s more at https://eklitzke.org/. All really interesting stuff that I’m going to read more carefully – maybe ptrace is a better approach than process_vm_readv for implementing a Ruby profiler! process_vm_readv is lower overhead because it doesn’t stop the process, but it also can give you an inconsistent snapshot because it doesn’t stop the process :). In my experiments getting inconstistent snapshots wasn’t too big of a problem but I think I’ll do some experimentation here.

That’s all for now!

There are a lot of important subtleties I didn’t get into in this post – for example I basically said vmprof and stacksampler are the same (they’re not – vmprof supports line profiling and profiling of Python functions written in C, which I believe introduces more complexity into the profiler). But some of the fundamentals are the same and so I think this survey is a good starting point.