I’m in the process of migrating the many sites I manage from Slicehost over to EC2 (which is where this blog is currently running). I hit a snag in the last day or two – my Montastic alerts told me that the sites I had already migrated were not responding. I tried – and failed – to SSH into the box. The CloudWatch graphs for the instance showed a 100% CPU use, explaining SSH being unresponsive. The problem is that I couldn’t tell what was causing the problem. My only option was to restart the instance, which at least brought it back to life.

What I needed was something that would tell me what was causing the problem. After reaching out to The Hive Mind, Cosmin pointed me in the direction of some awk and ps foo. This little script gets a process listing, and writes out all those rows where the CPU is above 20%, prepended with the current timestamp:

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ps aux | gawk ‘{ if ( $3 > 20 ) { print strftime("%Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S")" "$0 } }
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My box rarely goes about 5% CPU use, and I was worried about the CPU ramping up so quickly that I didn’t get a sample, so this threshold seemed sensible. The magic is the if ( $3 > 20) – this only emits the line if the third column of input from ps aux (which is the CPU) goes above 20.

I put the one-liner in a script, then stuck the following entry into cron to ensure that every minute, the script gets run. If everything is ok, no output. Otherwise, I’ll get the full process listing. This wouldn’t top the box getting wedged again, but would at least tell me what caused it.

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* * * * * root /home/ubuntu/tools/cpu_log >> /var/log/cpu_log
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Lo and behold, several hours later and the box got wedged once again. After a restart, the cpu_log showed this:

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2011-07-11 17:55:42 postfix 6398 29.6 0.3 39428 2184 ? S 17:55 0:01 pickup -l -t fifo -u -c
2011-07-11 17:55:42 postfix 6398 29.6 0.3 39428 2180 ? S 17:55 0:01 pickup -l -t fifo -u -c
2011-07-11 17:55:42 postfix 6398 29.6 0.2 39428 1556 ? S 17:55 0:01 pickup -l -t fifo -u -c
2011-07-11 17:55:42 postfix 6398 24.6 0.2 39428 1368 ? S 17:55 0:01 pickup -l -t fifo -u -c
2011-07-11 18:16:43 root 6440 50.0 0.0 30860 344 ? R 18:16 0:01 pickup -l -t fifo -u -c
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Matching what the CloudWatch graphs showed me, the CPU ramped up quote quickly, before I loose all output (the 4th column here is CPU). But this time, we have a culprit – Postfix’s pickup process. I had configured Postfix just a day or two back, so clearly something was amiss. Nonetheless, I can at least now disable Postfix to spend some time diagnosing the problem.

Limiting CPU

Something else that was turned up in my cries for help was cpulimit. This utility would allow me to cap how much CPU a given process used. If and when I re-enable postfix, I’ll almost certainly use this to avoid future outages while I iron out any kinks.

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