Originally Published: Thursday, 5 July 2001 Author: Dustin Puryear
Published to: enhance_articles_sysadmin/Sysadmin Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Book Review: A Treasure from the Past: System Performance Tuning

Dustin Puryear finds an old dusty volume and mines it for what might still be relevant today.

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Recently I found myself browsing a varied assortment of titles at my local bookstore and stumbled upon O'Reilly and Associates' "System Performance Tuning," by Mike Loukides. The title immediately caught my eye and so I decided to look a little closer.

Preliminary scanning revealed the book was a small guide, totaling 300 pages, in the Nutshell series format. And, to my amazement, the book had gone into print in 1990--to still be on the bookshelf of a major book seller after ten years was either an oversight of the local store or I had apparently found a well-known gem in the computer community.

I then decided to purchase the book, which retailed at $29.95, and took it home for some weekend reading. After what turned out to actually be several days of reading I found the book to be full of useful information, albeit some of it dated, as you will soon see.


The back cover of "System Performance Tuning" states that the book answers the following question about computers, "How can I get it to do more work without buying more hardware?" To put it more succinctly, the focus of the book is on system tuning and optimization of UNIX systems.

The book is broken into several chapters, each dedicated to a specific component or issue of the system, such as the memory or disk subsystem. In addition, there are two appendices that contain additional information about tuning strategies. Each chapter remains faithfully on-topic, while often addressing related issues that are treated in more depth in one or more of the other chapters.

Of course, the age of the book shows. The UNIX versions that are treated by Loukides include System V.2, V.3, and V.4. Indeed, for V.4 (more commonly known as SVR4) the author notes that the release has not yet made it to the market when the book was released. Loukides also blends in information specific to BSD UNIX systems throughout the chapters, often taking pains to point out differences between it and System V systems.

Chapter Review

As mentioned earlier, each chapter in the book has a core focus that addresses a specific subsystem or issue. Chapter 1, "Introduction to System Performance," is the requisite lead-in to the book. In this chapter the author points out some obvious and not so obvious information regarding system tuning and its effects on performance.

Chapter 2, "Monitoring System Activity," walks the reader through basic monitoring functions. This includes the use of tools such as ps, system accounting, and sar. This is a good chapter for both beginning and intermediate UNIX administrators. Often, administrators are not fully aware of how to use these tools, and this is a good introduction.

The book then progresses to Chapter 3, "Managing Workload," which moves into more hard-hitting information: how to find unnecessary services, change priorities, inject jobs into the batch system, and configure shells to limit system usage. At this point Loukides has still not begun to fully address how to determine hard performance numbers, but the information presented is still important reading for new and intermediate administrators.

In Chapters 4, "Memory Performance," 5, "Disk Performance Issues," and 6, "Network Performance," Loukides actually delves into real tuning--determining how the various UNIX subsystems are being utilized and judging how to best alter the system to maintain peak performance. Issues addressed include system paging and swapping, partition parameters such as location on the physical disk and block size, and NFS tuning.

The information presented in these chapters, despite the book's age, is as relevant as ever. While some concerns mentioned are no longer a real factor (such as BSD partition limitations), the methods discussed for attacking performance issues are still used throughout the profession. These chapters are an excellent read for both intermediate and advanced administrators alike.

Loukides addresses terminal issues in Chapter 7, "Terminal Performance." While a few performance issues are addressed, the real focus of this chapter is on problem detection and correction.

The chapter that many will seem the most dated is Chapter 8, "Kernel Configuration." Obviously, technology has moved on. Yet, many of the issues addressed in this chapter can still play a role in many servers, especially BSD systems such as FreeBSD. While it may prove futile to try and follow the information presented in this chapter verbatim, the general guidelines still provide a good framework on which to optimize your kernel.

Finally, Loukides closes the book with Appendix A, "Real-time Processes in System V.4," and Appendix B, "A Performance Tuning Strategy." Appendix A will probably prove irrelevant to most readers, if not the vast majority, but Appendix B contains good information that is found throughout the book, but now given in a checklist-style format.


This is a good book. The information is solid and, although the book is dated, very good reading. The author writes to the reader, rather than in third person, which makes for an engaging book. In addition, he doesn't dilute the book with attempts at humor, which is often the sad downfall of current computer titles. This book deserves to sit on the shelf with other excellent old O'Reilly classics such as "Essential System Administration" and "Building Internet Firewalls."

Lastly, I would like to end this review with one request to Tim O'Reilly and Mike Loukides: Why not get busy and write a new edition? This is an excellent book and deserves to be updated.

Dustin Puryear is a professional working in the Information Technology industry. He is author of "Integrate Linux Solutions into Your Windows Network," as well as numerous articles for both print and online publications. He may be reached at dpuryear@usa.net.

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