In B2G, we try to dynamically change processes' CPU priorities depending on how important we think the process is. For example, processes in the foreground get a higher CPU priority.

I spent the past few days tracking down a bug where our mechanism for changing the CPU priorities didn't seem to be working properly. Thanks to Gabriele Svelto, we figured out today what was going on.

The issue is that the setpriority syscall on Linux does not actually set a process's priority, as you might be led to believe from its man page. Instead, setpriority changes the priority of a process's main thread. It leaves the priority of the process's other threads unchanged. I haven't tested, but from reading the kernel sources, the nice syscall should behave the same way.

Maybe this gotcha is common knowledge, but I was certainly caught unawares.

Experiment (Linux-only)

Here's a simple demonstration of the issue using this testcase. Be warned that this is a Linux-only test, although it's not hard to fix if you're intent on trying it on Mac OS. (Spoiler: renice on Mac OS sets the priority for all threads in the process.)

$ cd $(mktemp -d)

$ curl > test.cpp
$ g++ -O2 -lpthread -lrt -lm test.c -o test
$ taskset 1 ./test
tid 1399: Finished iteration in 1.65s
tid 1400: Finished iteration in 1.64s

Notice that the two threads are running at the same speed. Now let's change the priority. renice simply calls setpriority on the given pid, so we can use that.

# In a separate terminal
$ renice 10 $(pidof test)

# In the first terminal
tid 1399: Finished iteration in 8.50s
tid 1400: Finished iteration in 0.90s

Now notice that the spawned thread (tid 1400) is running almost twice as fast as it was, while the main process (tid == pid == 1399) is running much slower.

This does not entirely prove my point. All I've shown so far is that renicing the main process lowers the priority of the main thread more than it lowers the priority of the other thread. But it's still possible that both threads' priorities were lowered.

This is a simple hypothesis to test: Just spawn a new process that spins the CPU. If the spawned thread is actually running with niceness 0, it should share roughly half of the CPU with the new process. On the other hand, if renice affected the spawned thread , we'd expect to see the new process get more than half of the CPU.

# In a separate terminal
$ taskset 1 yes > /dev/null

# In the first terminal
tid 1399: Finished iteration in 16.95s
tid 1400: Finished iteration in 1.83s

Thread 1400's time to finish an iteration doubled, from 0.9s to 1.8s, indicating that it's sharing the CPU equally with yes. So we conclude that the renice had no effect on the thread.

I tried a similar procedure on my Mac. Mac doesn't have any way to pin a process to a CPU, so I launched a bunch of programs each spinning the CPU and then reniced the main process. After renicing the two threads contined to run at the same speed—just as things should work!


I take a few lessons away from this.

Gabriele dug up a thread on LKML where it was suggested that setpriority on a pid should modify all threads' priorities, but this was rejected because the kernel maintainers were afraid this would break userspace programs which rely on the current behavior.

I'm not so brave as to try to write new functions in glibc that do what we want here (e.g. modify the priority of all threads relative to the main thread's new priority), but at least we can fix NSPR. :)