StackProf: The Holy Grail of Rails Profiling

Our Stackprof-inspired profiler, ScoutProf, is now in BETA. See our docs to get started.


The holy grail of performance profiling is finding a tool that's safe to run in production. A tool that identifies slow code as it works "in the wild".

Profiling code locally is never as good as production profiling: the load is small, hardware specs are different, and I'd need to pull down a huge chunk of data to simulate things.

Enter StackProf, the production safe*, holy grail of Ruby profiling tools.


First, and most importantly, StackProf requires Ruby 2.1+. My sample application is using 2.2, so with that requirement met, it's a simple matter of adding StackProf to my gem file.

gem 'stackprof', '~> 0.2.7'

After running bundle install and I'm halfway there.

I'll use the middleware implementation for a Rails application and add this to myconfig/application.rb file:

class Application < Rails::Application
  config.middleware.use(StackProf::Middleware, enabled:true, mode: :wall, interval: 1000, save_every: 5)

Next, I'll restart my server. As I click around in a local version of my app, I see that StackProf has started populating data as .dump files in the tmp directory.

StackProf in Action

To validate StackProf, I'm going to add some latency to my application. Outside services (e.g. DBs, External API Calls) are frequent bottlenecks, so I'll use pg_sleep to simulate a slow DB request.

def slow
  ActiveRecord::Base.connection.execute "select pg_sleep(2)"

After running, stackprof tmp/stackprof-wall-*.dump, I get this:

  Mode: wall(200)
  Samples: 20248 (0.35% miss rate)
  GC: 18 (0.09%)
     TOTAL    (pct)     SAMPLES    (pct)     FRAME
     19996  (98.8%)       19996  (98.8%)     block in ActiveRecord::ConnectionAdapters::PostgreSQL::DatabaseStatements#execute
        15   (0.1%)          15   (0.1%)     block in ActiveRecord::ConnectionAdapters::PostgreSQLAdapter#exec_no_cache
        10   (0.0%)          10   (0.0%)     block in ActiveRecord::ConnectionAdapters::PostgreSQL::DatabaseStatements#query
        90   (0.4%)           7   (0.0%)     block in ActiveSupport::Dependencies#load_file

Boom! Almost all of the samples are from PostgreSQL::DatabaseStatements#execute. The application is spending all of it's time processing the slow PostgreSQL call.

Interpreting results

For each sample, StackProf is going to collect N stack frames and metadata about each frame:

At the top of the output, you'll see the mode used, and the number of samples collected.

Below the header, method calls are represented with the respective number of samples seen.

It's important to note, in the output above - samples do not represent timing information. They simply refer to the number of times a method was on top of the stack. Using this relative weighting, my slow method was at the top of the stack 98.8% of the time.

Wall Time Vs. CPU Time?

Let's start by talking about the parameters I used to configure StackProf.

As a refresher, I added this line:

config.middleware.use(StackProf::Middleware, enabled:true, mode: :wall, interval: 1000, save_every: 5)

First up: Mode. :wall is going to refer to wall clock, with the interval defining how long to measure. In my sample configuration, I setup StackProf to measure every second (1000 ms).

The save_every parameter refers to how many samples are taken before writing to disk.

To illustrate what a dramatic effect the mode can have, I'll change the mode from :wall to :cpu. Here's what I get:

  Mode: cpu(1000)
  Samples: 660 (0.30% miss rate)
  GC: 29 (4.39%)
     TOTAL    (pct)     SAMPLES    (pct)     FRAME
       263  (39.8%)         263  (39.8%)     Sprockets::PathUtils#stat
       182  (27.6%)         178  (27.0%)     Sprockets::PathUtils#entries
        55   (8.3%)          45   (6.8%)     Sprockets::Cache::FileStore#safe_open
        10   (1.5%)          10   (1.5%)     Sprockets::PathUtils#path_extnames
        10   (1.5%)          10   (1.5%)     URI::RFC3986_Parser#split
        17   (2.6%)           9   (1.4%)     ActionView::PathResolver#find_template_paths
         3   (0.5%)           3   (0.5%)     block in ActiveRecord::ConnectionAdapters::PostgreSQL::DatabaseStatements#execute

With CPU measuring, my slow DB query moved way down the list. In thinking about it, this makes sense. The CPU is simply waiting for a result to come back - it's not processing anything.

Is CPU time helpful for Rails apps? No.

CPU time doesn't paint the whole performance picture: the main choke points in web applications are frequently external services. As this example shows, by using the :wall measurement and looking at where the application is spending time vs. what the CPU is doing - I've got a clear picture of my application's bottleneck - the database.

In terms of speed and overall load, the interval and save_every parameters are the ones to tweak. I've found that an interval of 2000 and save setting of 5 have struck the right balance - but YMMV.

How can I peer thru the StackProf noise?

In the output above, Stackprof points to DatabaseStatements#execute as the culprit for my slow code. While technically correct, the framework isn't slow - it's my slow query that's bad. I'd rather have the sample count "bubble up" to point to the line in my controller that's running the slow query.

There's a couple of things I can do to find the line-of-code I wrote causing the slowness.

From the command line, I can run:

stackprof tmp/stackprof-wall-*.dump --method "<name of slow method>"

StackProf will report the callers and callees for the method.

I can do that over & over to dive deeper and deeper - but there's actually a better way. With a bit of ruby code, we can actually look at the source .dump files:

data = Marshal.load("tmp/stackprof-wall-XXXX-XXXXXXXXXXX.dump"))

My data variable is now a Hash that I can parse for the caller/callee information. Once I pretty print data, I get a better view:

     :lines=>{171=>[1, 1], 157=>[1, 0]}},

I get the name of the file being processed in the profiler. Edges refer to the methods called from this frame. Lines represent the samples per line number in this frame. If I traverse the tree, I'll eventually get to the line-of-code in my controller that is running the slow query.

More special Stackprof sauce?

UPDATE: Our Stackprof-inspired profiler, ScoutProf, is now in BETA. See our docs.

The approaches above to find my slow custom code are still involved. We do this work for you in our new application monitoring service. Rather than seeing a mess of framework calls, you'll just see output like this:


It's a big upgrade over traditional app monitoring services that only provide performance metrics on what you instrument.

Using Stackprof, we're able to gain visibility into uninstrumented, production code: a holy grail for performance work.

Sign up for our early access list to sample the goods.