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Vaporware! It doesn't actually work!

kprof allows you to measure time spent in interesting functions on the execution path of a request, even as it travels across processes.

kprof is lightweight and allows tracing thousands of requests per second.

Project state

kprof is very much in the stuff-breaks-all-the-time stage. There are very few features apart from the most basic so I would love to get feedback on what could make the "product" more usable! Any form of ideas/suggestions/musings are very much welcome. I also welcome patches and pull requests.

kprof is used by wooga (,, the third largest social games developer in the world.

How it works

Using the built-in trace tools in Erlang, a request is marked with a "sequential trace token". This token is used to trace execution across processes.

Trace messages are handled outside the target VM, for minimum impact. kprof thus needs to run inside a separate VM that is connected to the target node over the Erlang distribution, so kprof can manage the tracing.


The entry point you want traced need to be patched to set and remove a token that is used to identify the request. kprof provides helpers to do this:

  • kprof:do_apply(M, F, A) which manages the token and runs erlang:apply/3 with the supplied arguments

  • kprof:misultin_req_loop(M, F) which returns a fun suitable for use with misultins request loop. The fun will invoke M:F(Request).

kprof:set_token/0 and kprof:clear_token/0 are the true workhorses and might be used inside your own code if you do not want to use the provided helpers.

To start tracing, start kprof (kprof:start()) and call kprof:start_trace/1 like this:

kprof:start_trace([{tier_config, TierConfig},
                   {identity_f, IdentityF},
                   {print_calls, false},
                   {stats_dumper, {file, "stats.log"}}]).


The trace is broken down into "tiers", which allows for much smaller impact due to tracing and simpler aggregation. You can think of a tier as the function to trace and aggregate. There is no need for any hierarchy, so you can trace "sibling" function calls.

When you start tracing, you must supply the tier configuration on the following format:

[{TierName::atom(), {M::atom(), F:atom(), A::integer()}}]

For example, a simple key-value system might be broken down like this:

[{parsing, {network_server, parse_request, 1}}, % decoding network message
 {handle, {requests, handle_request, 2}},
 {formatter, {formatter, format_response, 1}},
 {db, {db, network_request, 1}}, % to measure network latency
 {accounting, {accounting, incr_reqs, 1}}]

In addition, there is a special tier "_total" that is the aggregated data across all tiers.


A request may be identified by a supplied function. The identity serves as a grouper across tiers, in the case of the key-value server above the identity might be the type of request, for example "create", "read", "update", "delete". In other words, you will be able to know how much time is spent in each layer for each type of request.

The identity function should be a fun of arity 1. It will receive the module name, function name, and the actual arguments of the function call, it should return an atom or a string. The function must return 'undefined' if it cannot identify the function. Example:

fun ({requests, handle_request, [create, _]}) ->
    ({requests, handle_request, [update, _]}) ->
    (_) ->

Full trace

It is possible to trace all functions invoked during a request which is very helpful in exploration. However, a full trace has a much higher performance impact than tiered tracing.

Aggregation for full tracing is not possible, as it is currently done per {Module, Function, Arity} not on the position of the call within the call trace. This might change in the future.


When kprof is tracing a request there is at least one case where code executed outside the request may be (partially) traced. If any process along the way sends a message fire-and-forget style (ie. no blocking gen_server:call/2 or receive directly after), the code executed as caused by that message might be interleaved with code from the request. This may easily happen in full traces. A work-around is to trace only on tiers that makes sense.


If a module with a traced function is reloaded, the trace BIFs no longer traces that function. In this case, the trace has to be stopped and restarted.

Overload protection

kprof currently has no overload protection. An idea is to pause tracing if any received trace message is older than N microseconds and resume some time later.



  • use the set_seq_token action function in matchbody instead of using the token server

  • correct request parser

  • logging of slow calls

  • in kprof_tracer, throw away every trace message up until the first entry point message

  • the same traced function must be allowed to be executed multiple times within a request

  • proper explanation of the project in one sentence

  • overload protection in kprof_server, pause tracing, look at timestamp of trace messages, may be no longer than N microseconds in the past, configurable, resume tracing N seconds later, circuit breaker

  • sampling, either based on user input or frequency

  • measure impact of tracing in sample app so everybody can reproduce the same results

  • send trace messages to an external node: dbg:tracer(port, dbg:trace_port(ip, PortNumber), dbg:trace_client(ip, {HostName, PortNumber}, HandlerSpec).


  • easy way to enable/disable tracing without stopping/starting the app, implement in the token server?

  • output trace messages to port, scripts to start/stop a "kprof node" where request processing and aggregation is done

  • plain text output of aggregation

  • github wiki pages detailing usage, design

  • proper/quickcheck tests of the tracer


  • include information about sampling in the couchapp

  • trace garbage collection more meaningfully, send as separate call to aggregator?

  • use basho_bench to run the sample app, while profiling, make sure concurrency doesn't break the profiler

Couchapp TODO

  • select specific node or all nodes

  • select time period, last 30 minutise, 60 minutes, 3 hours, etc, use for all charts