Does scrolling output make a program slower? (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 08 Nov 2013

Does scrolling output make a program slower?

While watching my rsync -av messages scroll by during a big backup, I wondered, as I often have, whether that -v (verbose) flag was slowing my backup down.

In other words: when you run a program that prints lots of output, so there's so much output the terminal can't display it all in real-time -- like an rsync -v on lots of small files -- does the program wait ("block") while the terminal catches up?

And if the program does block, can you speed up your backup by hiding the terminal, either by switching to another desktop, or by iconifying or shading the terminal window so it's not visible? Is there any difference among the different ways of hiding the terminal, like switching desktops, iconifying and shading?

Since I've never seen a discussion of that, I decided to test it myself. I wrote a very simple Python program:

import time

start = time.time()

for i in xrange(500000):
    print "Now we have printed", i, "relatively long lines to stdout."

print time.time() - start, "seconds to print", i, "lines."

I ran it under various combinations of visible and invisible terminal. The results were striking. These are rounded to the nearest tenth of a second, in most cases the average of several runs:

Terminal type Seconds
xterm, visible 56.0
xterm, other desktop 8.0
xterm, shaded 8.5
xterm, iconified 8.0
Linux framebuffer, visible 179.1
Linux framebuffer, hidden 3.7
gnome-terminal, visible 56.9
gnome-terminal, other desktop 56.7
gnome-terminal, iconified 56.7
gnome-terminal, shaded 43.8


First, the answer to the original question is clear. If I'm displaying output in an xterm, then hiding it in any way will make a huge difference in how long the program takes to complete.

On the other hand, if you use gnome-terminal instead of xterm, hiding your terminal window won't make much difference. Gnome-terminal is nearly as fast as xterm when it's displaying; but it apparently lacks xterm's smarts about not doing that work when it's hidden. If you use gnome-terminal, you don't get much benefit out of hiding it.

I was surprised how slow the Linux console was (I'm using the framebuffer in the Debian 3.2.0-4-686-pae on Intel graphics). But it's easy to see where that time is going when you watch the output: in xterm, you see lots of blank space as xterm skips drawing lines trying to keep up with the program's output. The framebuffer doesn't do that: it prints and scrolls every line, no matter how far behind it gets.

But equally interesting is how much faster the framebuffer is when it's not visible. (I typed Ctrl-alt-F2, logged in, ran the program, then typed Ctrl-alt-F7 to go back to X while the program ran.) Obviously xterm is doing some background processing that the framebuffer console doesn't need to do. The absolute time difference, less than four seconds, is too small to worry about, but it's interesting anyway.

I would have liked to try it my test a base Linux console, with no framebuffer, but figuring out how to get a distro kernel out of framebuffer mode was a bigger project than I wanted to tackle that afternoon.

I should mention that I wasn't super-scientific about these tests. I avoided doing any heavy work on the machine while the tests were running, but I was still doing light editing (like this article), reading mail and running xchat. The times for multiple runs were quite consistent, so I don't think my light system activity affected the results much.

So there you have it. If you're running an output-intensive program like rsync -av and you care how fast it runs, use either xterm or the console, and leave it hidden most of the time.

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[ 14:17 Nov 08, 2013    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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