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System Performance Tuning, 2nd Edition Gian-Paolo D Musumeci and Mike Loukides
Published by O'Reilly and Associates
336 pages
£ 28.60
Published: 20th February 2002
reviewed by Andrew Cormack
   in the July 2002 issue (pdf), (html)

I read the first edition of Mike Loukides' System Performance Tuning when it was new and afterwards felt, for the first time, that I really understood how a unix system worked. That book concentrated on the operating system and its relationship to the underlying hardware: how to find out what the system was doing, how to tell when it was not performing to its full capability and what to do to resolve the situation. Twelve years on the book has been almost entirely rewritten and a rather different manual has emerged.

There is a much greater range of general purpose computing hardware available nowadays, and the rewrite spends much more time discussing how to select the right platform for a particular application. This concentration on hardware inevitably makes the book more vendor-specific than its predecessor. Most of the information here relates to Sun hardware and the Solaris operating system, indeed at times it comes close to being a detailed catalogue of Sun CPUs and buses and their different characteristics.

There are good sections on memory management and disk arrays. The former includes both physical and virtual memory and the sometimes unexpected interactions between them. The latter has a clear description of the various RAID levels, their aims and the trade-offs that each of them represents.

Although most of the book is specific to Solaris, there is also mention of the performance monitoring tools available for Linux and some of the options for tuning that operating system. However, throughout the book, almost all of the examples show systems in a good state of health. It would be more useful to an administrator trying to diagnose a slow computer to show these alongside listings from systems in distress and then suggest changes that might improve the situation.

In the introduction to the book, the author asks that it be read straight through as a whole, as effective performance tuning is likely to require an understanding of the whole system as well as individual components. I found this hard going as the chapters are not sufficiently well-structured to be read quickly as an overview. Important points are buried in the detail and it is hard to tell which paragraphs can be skimmed on a first reading. Unfortunately I suspect that most people will just concentrate on the sections that most interest them and will miss the broader picture.

If the first edition of the book was aimed at the administrator trying to understand how to get the best out of an existing system, this one concentrates instead on characterising a demanding application and specifying a new system to run it. For those involved in procuring Sun systems for demanding applications its detail will be useful, however it is also likely to date much faster than its predecessor. I doubt that readers will still be learning from this second edition in twelve years time.

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