February 8, 2009

Rails performance options on Phusion Passenger

Tags: Rails, Technical

I run a couple of Rails websites (queuesaurus & past weather forecasts), both on a small 256MB virtual host at Slicehost. As such I don’t have a great deal of computing resources available to support two resouce hogging apps. If you have visited either of those sites, you will know that the first page view can take seemingly ages, but that after that it speeds up. As I use Phusion Passenger (modrails) to serve the apps through Apache, I investigated some of the config options and how they affected performance.


My setup is a virtualised server with 256MB RAM running Apache2 with Phusion Passenger 2.0.6. I have 2 Rails apps installed on the slice, but for the purposes of this investigation I will only be using one. I tested performance by running the same script a number of times for each config options. Website response time was measured using the unix time command on a wget call and memory usage was measured with the passenger-memory-stats command. The config options changed were (all other settings were left with their defaults):

  • PassengerPoolIdleTime: this is set in /etc/apache2/apache2.conf and is the maximum number of seconds an app can be idle before being shut down.
  • FRAMEWORK_SPAWNER_MAX_IDLE_TIME in /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/constants.rb, is the number of seconds the framework spawner can be idle
  • APP_SPAWNER_MAX_IDLE_TIME in /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/constants.rb, is the number of seconds the app spawner can be idle

How the system seems to work

Firstly there seems to be an issue with the online non-official documentation. This webpage seems to suggest that the RailsFrameworkSpawnerIdleTime & RailsAppSpawnerIdleTime config options can be set inside the apache config file. I could not get this to work. If I tried setting them anywhere other than the constants.rb file then I got errors on starting Apache. The same documentation also suggests that setting these values to 0 means they will not timeout. In my tests this was definitely not the situation - set to 0 they timed out immediately! Instead I set them to 999999 when I didn’t want them to timeout. Beware non-official online documentation.

Passenger seems to have a Passenger Spawner which is always resident in memory, and starts Framework Spawners as Passenger supports multiple web frameworks (Rails, Merb, Sinatra, etc). Framework Spawners start App Spawners so that multiple applications can be supported, and these App Spawners starts instances of of the application (and puts them in the instance pool) which handle actual user requests. Apart from the Passenger Spawner, all these can be stopped after an idle period (see the Setup section) to conserve memory. So it is possible that after a period of inactivity, just to serve a single user request, Passenger would need to start a Framework Spawner then an App Spawner then an app instance before handling the request. This is why my low usage sites are slow at first and then speed up. Here is the internal state of Passenger after a long period of inactivity (with default settings):

--------- Passenger processes ---------
22575  9        14.8 MB  0.1 MB   /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/ext/apache2/ApplicationPoolServerExecutable 0 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/bin/passenger-spawn-server  /usr/bin/ruby1.8  /tmp/passenger_status.5364.fifo
22576  2        47.3 MB  0.7 MB   Passenger spawn server

and here it is again right after a request:

-------- Passenger processes ----------
22575  9        14.8 MB   0.1 MB   /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/ext/apache2/ApplicationPoolServerExecutable 0 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/bin/passenger-spawn-server  /usr/bin/ruby1.8  /tmp/passenger_status.5364.fifo
22576  2        47.3 MB   0.2 MB   Passenger spawn server
23776  1        99.6 MB   21.9 MB  Passenger FrameworkSpawner: 2.1.0
23781  1        138.2 MB  46.2 MB  Passenger ApplicationSpawner: /home/queuesaurus/public_html/wq
23788  1        139.4 MB  48.1 MB  Rails: /home/queuesaurus/public_html/wq

As can be seen it comes down to a tradeoff between speed and memory. Having all the application instances running all the time would take a lot of memory. Starting them as required takes time. The tests I ran attempted to quantify this tradeoff, setting the idle config options to various values such that Passenger was in a variety of states when a user request arrived.


The first task was to create an upper and lower bound for my user requests. On a just started Passenger (with the memory profile like the first example above - nothing running apart from the Passenger Spawner), a certain user request took 10.9 seconds (average over 10 runs), the same user request made a minute after the first took 0.12 seconds. There was no caching in the system, so the majority of the 10.8 second difference is probably in starting up the Framework Spawner, Application Spawner and an instance (the memory profile was like the second example above - everything running).

Next I tried to isolate the starting of the various components. If I had the Framework Spawner running, but not the App Spawner or an instance then it took an average of 4.5 seconds to start them and respond. If a Framework and App Spawner were running then it took around 2 seconds to start an instance and respond. If there was an instance running at the time of a user request it normally took under a second to respond, although occasionally took upto 5 seconds. I couldn’t get the App Spawner running by itself. If the Framework Spawner stopped then so did the App Spawner regardless of their idle timeouts - strange.

The situations where just an application instance is running deserves greater examination. Most of the time I saw this (PassengerPoolIdleTime=999999, others left with default value):

-------- Passenger processes ----------
27504  7        14.5 MB   0.2 MB   /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/ext/apache2/ApplicationPoolServerExecutable 0 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/bin/passenger-spawn-server  /usr/bin/ruby1.8  /tmp/passenger_status.5364.fifo
27505  2        49.1 MB   3.0 MB   Passenger spawn server
27521  1        139.1 MB  35.4 MB  Rails: /home/queuesaurus/public_html/wq

Query took 0m0.191s

--------- Passenger processes ----------
27504  9        14.8 MB   0.2 MB   /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/ext/apache2/ApplicationPoolServerExecutable 0 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/bin/passenger-spawn-server  /usr/bin/ruby1.8  /tmp/passenger_status.5364.fifo
27505  2        49.1 MB   3.0 MB   Passenger spawn server
27521  1        139.1 MB  35.5 MB  Rails: /home/queuesaurus/public_html/wq

That is after a period of inactivity (32 minutes in the example above) there is still an instance running and it responds quickly to the request. Sometimes I saw this after the same 32 of inactivity (PassengerPoolIdleTime=999999, APP_SPAWNER_MAX_IDLE_TIME=1, FRAMEWORK_SPAWNER_MAX_IDLE_TIME at default):

--------- Passenger processes ---------
7666  9        14.8 MB   ?        /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/ext/apache2/ApplicationPoolServerExecutable 0 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/bin/passenger-spawn-server  /usr/bin/ruby1.8  /tmp/passenger_status.5364.fifo
7667  2        48.8 MB   1.5 MB   Passenger spawn server
7683  1        139.2 MB  0.3 MB   Rails: /home/queuesaurus/public_html/wq

Query took 0m7.884s

--------- Passenger processes ---------
7666  9        14.8 MB   0.1 MB   /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/ext/apache2/ApplicationPoolServerExecutable 0 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/bin/passenger-spawn-server  /usr/bin/ruby1.8  /tmp/passenger_status.5364.fifo
7667  2        48.8 MB   1.5 MB   Passenger spawn server
7683  1        139.2 MB  5.0 MB   Rails: /home/queuesaurus/public_html/wq

Here the query took much longer, but nothing was started. The time seems to have been taken by the application instance itself in getting started again. Note the difference in starting memory. In the first example the instance has 35MB allocated before and after the query. In the second the instance has 0.3MB before and 5MB after. I saw a similar scenario with the spawners. If they never timed out then sometimes after a long period of time they would decrease resident memory usage and then take a long time to recover when action was required. Thus even if the the config settings are set to very large values, this is no guarantee that the components will react quickly, just increase the probability that they will. The only way to be sure memory is not being freed and that a component is fast is to exercise that component (for the spawners by creating application instances, and for application instances by responding to requests).

As for memory usage, I found that Framework and Application Spawners used about as much resident memory each as an application instance.


It is important that you get an understanding of how much load your system has and play around with your settings to match your situation. If I had a high load website (with enough memory), I could have the spawners running all the time (setting their idle time to 999999) along with a set of long-lived application instances (PassengerPoolIdleTime a multiple of a normal user session time). Then the constant hits would keep starting up instances and keeping them active, with the spawners able to quickly respond to changes in load.

I have a low load website, there is rarely more than a couple of people using it at once. Furthermore I only have 256MB of memory to play with. At this level it is not really worth having the spawners running, as each means that one less application instance can run. So I have roughly calculated how many instances I can have running at one and estimated 4 rails applications instances (roughly 48M each = 192M out of 256 available). Thus set PassengerMaxPoolSize to 4 and split equally between my two apps with PassengerMaxInstancesPerApp set to 2. Then PassengerPoolIdleTime was set to 999999, to ensure the instances would never time out. As this setup would quickly hit the maximum pool size the spawners won’t be used, thus both APP_SPAWNER_MAX_IDLE_TIME & FRAMEWORK_SPAWNER_MAX_IDLE_TIME are 1 so they timeout straight away.

To ensure the application instances don’t release too much memory there is a cronscript running every 20 minutes to make a user request. Unless you have a constant heavy load website I think this is a good idea to keep initial response times low.

Update: It seems just making the same user request every 20 minutes with cron doesn’t properly keep the memory allocated in the instances. I am going to have to update the cron script to make a random query, as I think the current ones might be cached somewhere.