Host server CPU utilization in Amazon EC2 cloud

One potential benefit of using a public cloud, such as Amazon EC2, is that a cloud could be more efficient. In theory, a cloud can support many users, and it can potentially achieve a much higher server utilization through aggregating a large number of demands. But is it really the case in practice?  If you ask a cloud provider, they most likely would not tell you their CPU utilization. But this is a really good information to know. Besides settling the argument whether cloud is more efficient, it is very interesting from a research angle because it points out how much room we have in terms of improving server utilization.

To answer this question, we came up with a new technique that allows us to measure the CPU utilization in public clouds, such as Amazon EC2. The idea is that if a CPU is highly utilized, the CPU chip will get hot over time, and when the CPU is idle, it will be put into sleep mode more often, and thus, the chip will cool off over time. Obviously, we cannot just stick a thermometer into a cloud server, but luckily, most modern Intel and AMD CPUs are all equipped with an on-board thermal sensor already. Generally, there is one thermal sensor for each core (e.g., 4 sensors for a quad-core CPU) which can give us a pretty good picture of the chip temperature. In a couple of cloud providers, include Amazon EC2, we are able to successfully read these temperature sensors. To monitor CPU utilization, we launch a number of small probing virtual machines (also called instances in Amazon’s terminology), and we continuously monitor the temperature changes. Because of multi-tenancy, other virtual machines will be running on the same physical host. When those virtual machines use CPU, we will be able to observe temperature changes. Essentially, the probing virtual machine is monitoring all other virtual machines sitting on the same physical host. Of course, deducing CPU utilization from CPU temperature is non-trivial, but I won’t bore you with the technical details here. Instead, I refer interested readers to the research paper.

We have carried out the measurement methodology in Amazon EC2 using 30 probing instances (each runs on a separate physical host) for a whole week. Overall, the average CPU utilization is not as high as many have imagined. Among the servers we measured, the average CPU utilization in EC2 over the whole week is 7.3%. This is certainly lower than what an internal data center could achieve. In one of the virtualized internal data center we looked at, the average utilization is 26%, more than 3 times higher than what we observe in EC2.

Why is CPU utilization not higher? I believe it results from a key limitation of EC2, that is, EC2 caps the CPU allocation for any instance. Even if the underlying host has spare CPU capacity, EC2 would not allocate additional cycles to your instance. This is rational and necessary, because, as a public cloud provider, you must guarantee as much isolation as possible in a public infrastructure so that one greedy user could not make another nice user’s life miserable. However, the downsize of this limitation is that it is very difficult to increase the physical host’s CPU utilization. In order for the utilization to be high, all instances running on the same physical host have to use the CPU at the same time. This is often not possible. We have the first-hand experience of running a production web application in Amazon. We know we need the capacity at peak time, so we provisioned an m1.xlarge server. But we also know that we cannot use the allocated CPU 100% of the time. Unfortunately, we have no way of giving up the extra CPU so that other instances can use it. As a result, I am sure the underlying physical host is very underutilized.

One may argue that the instance’s owner should turn off the instance when s/he is not using it to free up resources, but in reality, because an instance is so cheap, people never turn it off. The following figure shows a physical host that we measured. The physical host gets busy consistently shortly before 7am UTC time (11pm PST) on Sunday through Thursday, and it stays busy for roughly 7 hours. The regularity has to come from the same instance, and given that the chance of landing a new instance on the same physical host is fairly low, you can be sure that the instance was on the whole time, even during the time it is not using the CPU. Our own experience with Steptacular — the production web application — also confirms that. We do not turn it off during off peak because there is so much state stored on the instance that it is big hassle to shut it down and turn it back on.


CPU utilization on one of the measured server


Compared to other cloud providers, Amazon does enjoy an advantage of having many customers; thus, it is in the best position to have a higher CPU utilization. The following figure shows the busiest physical host that we profiled. A couple of instances on this physical host are probably running a batch job, and they are very CPU hungry. On Monday, two or three of these instances get busy at the same time. As a result, the CPU utilization jumped really high. However, the overlapping period is only few hours during the week, and the average utilization come out to be only 16.9%. It is worth noting that this busiest host that we measured still has a lower CPU utilization than the average CPU utilization we observed in an internal data center.

CPU utilization of a busy EC2 server
You may walk away from this disappointed to know that public cloud does not have an efficiency advance. But, I think from a research stand point, this is actually a great news. It points out that there is a significant room to improve, and research in this direction can lead to a big impact on cloud provider’s bottom line.

How to run MapReduce in Amazon EC2 spot market

If you often run large-scale MapReduce/Hadoop jobs in Amazon EC2, you must have thought about using the spot market. EC2’s spot market price for a spot instance is typically 60+% less than that of an on-demand instance. For a large job, where you use many instances for many hours, a 60+% saving could be a substantial amount.

Unfortunately, using spot market has not been trivial. In exchange for the lower price, Amazon has your explicit agreement that they can terminate you at any time. This is a problem since you may lose all your work. A research paper from HotCloud last year showed that even adding more spot instances (not replacing existing nodes) could be detrimental to a running MapReduce job. In other words, you add more resources to your cluster, but your running time could actually be longer.

Beyond lengthening your computation, spot market could even make you lose your data. Existing MapReduce implementations, such as Google’s internal implementation or Hadoop, are designed with failure in mind already. However, the assumed scenario is a hardware failure, i.e., a small fraction of nodes may go down at any time. This assumption is not true in the spot market environment, where all nodes of a cluster may fail at the same time. You not only can lose all your states (when the master nodes go down), but you can also lose all your data (when nodes holding replicas for a piece of data all go down).

What about bidding for a really high price for your spot instances, and hoping that Amazon never increases the price that high? Unfortunately there is no guarantee on how high the spot market price could be. There are several occasions last year where the spot instances price actually exceeded the on-demand instances. This is likely because some guys were bidding at a high-than-on-demand-instance price, and Amazon really needed to kill those instances to free up capacity.

While the naive approach of bidding at a high price may not work, I am happy to report that there is a new technique that can help you leverage spot market to save money. We recently developed a MapReduce implementation that could tolerate large-scale node failures (e.g., when your bid price is below Amazon’s spot price). Even if all nodes in your cluster are terminated, we can guarantee that no state is lost, and that you can continue make forward progress when your cluster comes back online (e.g., when your bid price is higher than Amazon’s spot price).

Our implementation leverages two key things. First, when Amazon terminates your instance, it is not a hard power off. Instead, it is a soft OS shutdown, where you have a couple of minutes to execute your shutdown script. We modified our shutdown script where we save the current progress and generate a new task for the remaining work so that another node can take over in the future. In other words, we use on-demand checkpointing to save states only when needed.

Second, we constantly save intermediate data in order to minimize the volume of state we have to save in the shutdown phase. Our solution is built on Cloud MapReduce, which constantly streams intermediate data out of the local node. In comparison, other MapReduce implementations, such as Hadoop, save all intermediate data locally before a task finishes. This could result in too large a dataset to save during the short shutdown window.

I would not belabor the details of our implementation, except mentioning that it was published last week at USENIX HotCloud conference. You can read the Spot Cloud MapReduce paper for the full details.

Amazon’s physical hardware and EC2 compute unit

Ever wonder what hardware is running behind Amazon’s EC2? Why would you even care? Well, there are at least a couple of reasons.

  1. Side-by-side comparisons. Amazon express their machine power in terms of EC2 compute units (ECU) and other cloud providers just express it in terms of number of cores. Either case, it is vague and you cannot perform economical comparison between different cloud offerings, and with owning-your-own-hardware approach. Knowing how much a EC2 computing unit is in terms of hardware raw power allows you to perform apple-to-apple comparison.
  2. Physical isolation. In many enterprise clients’ mind, security is the number one concern. Even though hypervisor isolation is robust, they feel more comfortable if there is a physical separation, i.e., they do not want their VM to sit on the same physical hardware right next to a hacker’s VM. Knowing the hardware computing power and the largest VM’s computing power, one can determine whether there is enough room left to host a hacker’s VM.

The observation below is only based on what we see in the N. Virginia data center, and the underlying hardware may very well be very different in other data centers (i.e., Ireland, N. California and Singapore). If you are curious, feel free to use the methodology that we will describe to see what is going on in other data centers.

Our observation is based on a combination of “hints” from several different tools and methods, including the following:


The “cpuid” instruction is supported by all x86 CPU manufacturers, and it is designed to report the capabilities of the CPU. This instruction is non-trapping, meaning that you can execute it in user mode without triggering protection trap. In the Xen paravirtualized hypervisor (what Amazon uses), it means that the hypervisor would not be able to intercept the instruction, and change the result that it returns. Therefore, the output from “cpuid” is the real output from the physical CPU.

We look at several fields in the “cpuid” output. First and foremost, we look at the branding string, which identifies the CPU’s model number. We also look at “local APIC physical ID” in (1/ebx). The “APIC ID” is unique for a physical core. By enumerating all “APIC ID”s, we know how many physical cores are there. Lastly, we look at “Logical CPU cores” in (0x80000008/ecx). It is supposed to show how many hyper-thread cores are on a physical core.

Intel processor specifications

With the model numbers reported by “cpuid”, we could look up their data sheet to determine the exact specification of a processor, including how many cores per socket, how many sockets per system, and its cache size etc.


This is a file in the Linux file system. It lists the cache hierarchy including which cores share a particular cache. This is used as a validation to match against the cache hierarchy specified in the CPU data sheet. However, this is not used to reach any conclusion, as we have seen it reporting wrong information in some cases.

Performance benchmark

We use PassMark-CPU Mark — a performance benchmark — to compare the CPU performance with other systems with the same CPU configuration. A matching performance number would confirm our observation.

System statistics

A variety of tools, such as “mpstat” and “top”, can report on the system’s performance statistics, including the CPU and memory usage. In particular, on a Xen-hypervisor, a VM can get the steal cycle statistics — time that is stolen from the VM to run other things, including other VMs. The documentation states that steal cycle counts the amount of time that your VM is ready to run but could not due to others competing for the CPU. Thus, if you keep your VM busy, you will see all the CPU cycle stolen from you. For example, on an m1.small VM, you will see the steal cycle to be roughly 60% and you can keep your CPU busy at most up to 40%. This is a hard cap Amazon puts on to limit you to one EC2 compute unit.

Now that the methodology is clear, we can dive into the observations. Amazon infrastructure runs on three set of distinct hardware.

High-memory instances

The high-memory instances (m2.xlarge, m2.2xlarge, m2.4xlarge) run on systems with dual-socket Intel Xeon X5550 (Nahelem) 2.66GHz processors. Intel Xeon X5550 processor has 4 cores, and each core is capable of hyper-threading, i.e., there could be 8 cores from the software’s point of view. However, Amazon disable hyper-threading, because “cpuid” 0x80000008/ecx reports that there is only one logical core. Further, the APIC IDs are 1, 3, 5, 7, 17, 19, 21, 23. The missing IDs (9, 11, 13, 15) are probably reserved for the hyper-threading cores and they are not used. The m2.4xlarge instance occupies the whole physical hardware. An m2.4xlarge instance’s Passmark-CPU mark is 10,052.6, on par with other dual-socket X5550 systems (average is 10,853). Furthermore, we never observe steal cycle beyond 1 or 2%.

High-CPU instances

The high-CPU instances (c1.medium, c1.xlarge) run on systems with dual-socket Intel Xeon E5410 2.33GHz processors. It is dual-socket because we see APIC IDs 0 to 7, and E5410 only has 4 cores. A c1.xlarge instance almost takes up the whole physical machine. However, we frequently observe steal cycle on a c1.xlarge instance ranging from 0% to 25% with an average of about 10%. The amount of steal cycle is not enough to host another smaller VM, i.e., a c1.medium. Maybe those steal cycles are used to run Amazon’s software firewall (security group). On Passmark-CPU mark, a c1.xlarge machine achieves 7,962.6, actually higher than an average dual-sock E5410 system is able to achieve (average is 6,903).

Standard instances

The standard instances (m1.small, m1.large, m1.xlarge) run on systems with a single socket Intel Xeon E5430 4 core 2.66GHz processor. A m1.small instance may occasionally run on a system consisting of an AMD Dual-Core Opteron 2218 HE Processor, but that system is rare to find (<10%), so we would not focus on it here. The Xeon E5430 platform is single socket because we only see APIC IDs 0,1,2,3.

By simple deduction, we can reason that an m1.xlarge instance does not take up the whole physical machine. Since a c1.xlarge instance is 20 ECUs (8 cores at 2.5 ECU each), we can reason that an E5410 processor is at least 10 ECU. Thus an E5430 would have roughly 11.4 ECU since its clock frequency is a little higher than that of an E5410 (2.66GHz vs. 2.33GHz). Since an m1.xlarge instance has only 8 ECU (4 cores at 2 ECU each), there is room for at least 3 more m1.small instances. This is an example where knowing the physical hardware configuration helps us reason about the CPU power allocated. In addition to reasoning by hardware configuration, we also observe large steal cycles on an m1.xlarge instance, which ranges from 0% to 75% with an average of about 30%.

A m1.xlarge instance achieves PassMark-CPU Mark score of 3,627.8. We cannot find other single-socket E5430 systems in PassMark’s database, but the score is less than half of what a c1.xlarge instance is able to achieve. This again confirms a large steal cycle.

In conclusion, we believe that a c1.xlarge and an m2.4xlarge instances occupy their own physical hardware. For people that are security conscious, they should choose those instances to avoid co-location hacking. In addition, an Intel Xeon X5550 has 13 ECU, an Intel Xeon E5430 has about 11 ECU, and an Intel Xeon E5410 has 10 ECU, where an ECU is roughly equivalent to a PassMark-CPU Mark score of 400. Using this information, you can perform economical comparison between cloud and your favorite alternative approach.