Tuning performance is harder than debugging bugs

In the past week, I focused on resolving an application performance issue, i.e., try to pinpoint why the code didn’t run as fast as I expected. Once upon a time, I am convinced that tuning performance is indeed harder than debugging bugs.

I have more than 10 years experience in software programming, and in recent 4 years, I spend ~20% working time in performance tuning related work: mostly application, sometimes the whole system. Regarding to debugging software bug, if the bug can be always reproduced, it should not be hard to find the root cause. Please notice, I never say it should be easy to fix: e.g., some huge technical debt. If for some reasons, the bug is not 100% reproducible, e.g., the notorious multi-thread bug, you can resort to methods to increase reproduce ratio and help you to pinpoint the culprit: add more logs, change execution time sequence, and so on. However, when talking about performance issue, the thing is “you don’t know something you don’t know“.

In most cases, as a software engineer, you don’t need to keep a watchful eye on hardware, Operating System, compiler, etc. You just need to concentrate on your own code. But to make your program performant, it is not enough to only analyze your code, you need to find answers to questions like this: why does the program run slower in this more powerful platform? Why does profiling make program run even faster? Why can’t multi-thread give a big performance rise? The more you dive into, the more you find you don’t know: architectures of CPU, the mechanism behind Operating System, tons of compiler’s options, and so forth. Even small catch can make your program hiccup! Furthermore, the stackoverflow is not the good place to call for help for performance issue, so the only guy you can rely on is yourself at most of time.

Nonetheless, the fun of performance tuning is also here: after days even weeks of endeavor, I finally find the bottleneck. It is not only exciting experience but every time I learn something I totally don’t know before amid this process. Performance tuning forces you to get a whole picture of the computer system, not only the code you write. This can broaden your view and let you know the essence of computer science.

performance tuning is harder than debugging bugs, but it also pays off! Enjoy it!

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