[alsa-devel] Bug in alsa-lib causes high CPU with rate plugin

Trent Piepho tpiepho at gmail.com
Thu Nov 8 22:47:52 CET 2012

There is a bug in the way alsa-lib sleeps when using a plugin that can
cause very high CPU usage for PCM playback with using rate conversion.

I've attached a simple test program.  It simply uses blocking mode and
calls snd_pcm_writei() with a buffer of zeros one thousand times and
then exits.  One would think the CPU usage would be very low.  And
indeed when the write sized passed to snd_pcm_writei is equal to the
period size it is quite low (i5 with HDA):

lucid at Dashboard:~$ /usr/bin/time ./a.out > /dev/null
period size 352, write size 352
done, wrote 1000 buffers of 352 frames
0.10user 0.15system 0:09.01elapsed 2%CPU (0avgtext+0avgdata 9360maxresident)k

But, with one small change to have snd_pcm_writei() write buffers one
frame larger than the period size, one gets this:

period size 352, write size 353
done, wrote 1000 buffers of 353 frames
1.92user 2.00system 0:09.04elapsed 43%CPU (0avgtext+0avgdata 9360maxresident)k

Simply increasing the write size by one caused the CPU usage to jump
to 43% from 2%!  Because more software writes in chunks equal to the
period size it doesn't see this problem.  That's why it wasn't found
and fixed long ago.

I've figured out why this is happening.  The problem is caused by how
alsa-lib decides to sleep when waiting for available buffer space and
the way the rate plugin can only process complete periods at a time.

Suppose we have the rate plugin with hw as its slave.  Both have a
ring buffer that is 3+ periods in size.  Allowing for the rate
conversion, the buffers and periods are the same size for both.
avail_min is set to the normal value of one period for both.

Suppose there are two empty periods in the buffer and we call
snd_pcm_writei() to write 1.5 periods.  That fits in the empty space
in the rate plugin's buffer and so gets written immediately.  The rate
plugin's buffer now has 0.5 empty periods of space.  The rate plugin
will resample just one period of the newly written data, because it
can only process complete periods at a time, and write that to the hw
buffer.  So the hw buffer now has one free period.  This means the
rate plugin has less free space in its buffer than the hw has, because
the rate plugin has half a period of data it can't yet resample and
pass to the slave.

Now we write another one period of data with another snd_pcm_writei()
call.  This gets to snd_pcm_write_areas() in pcm.c and triggers this
code (edited for brevity):

                if ((state == SND_PCM_STATE_RUNNING &&
                     (snd_pcm_uframes_t)avail < pcm->avail_min &&
                     size > (snd_pcm_uframes_t)avail)) {
                        err = snd_pcm_wait(pcm, -1);
                        goto _again;

avail is the available space in the rate plugin's buffer, which is
half a period.  pcm->avail_min is also for the rate plugin.  size is
the amount remaining in the writei() call, which is one period in this

As we can see, the conditions of the if() statement are true.  avail
of 0.5 periods is less than avail_min of 1 period and the size of the
write (1 period) is greater than avail.  So we call snd_pcm_wait() and
then go back to the top when it returns.  avail will get updated to
the current value and this code runs again.

Eventually snd_pcm_wait() will call poll() and try to sleep in the
kernel while waiting for more room to be available.  But remember the
hw buffer had one full period free!  That's more than tghe half period
that's free in the rate buffer and, and this is the key here, it is
*more than avail_min*.  So poll() will not sleep at all!  That's where
the 43% CPU comes from.  alsa-lib is in a tight loop inside
snd_pcm_write_areas() calling snd_pcm_wait() over and over again.

snd_pcm_wait() doesn't sleep, because it's based on the status of the
hw buffer and that buffer does have free space.  snd_pcm_write_areas()
would write to the hw buffer and not try to sleep.  But it's not
looking at the hw buffer when it decides to sleep or write, it's
looking at the rate buffer.  And the rate buffer's fill level says to
sleep, not write.  And if snd_pcm_wait() was looking at the rate
buffer, it would sleep.

We have the rate buffer that's current fill level says, "sleep first,
then write" and the HW buffer that says the opposite, "write first,
then sleep".  The code that writes looks at the former and decides to
sleep but the code that sleeps looks at the latter and decides it's
not time sleep.

A trivial patch that stops this behavior is below, which simply forces
the rate plugin's avail_min to 1.

diff --git a/src/pcm/pcm_rate.c b/src/pcm/pcm_rate.c
index 41089d7..86f57c4 100644
--- a/src/pcm/pcm_rate.c
+++ b/src/pcm/pcm_rate.c
@@ -1142,6 +1142,7 @@ static int snd_pcm_rate_start(snd_pcm_t *pcm)
                return 0;
        rate->start_pending = 0;
+       pcm->avail_min = 1;
        return snd_pcm_start(rate->gen.slave);

I think it would be better to have the rate plugin decrease avail_min
by how much unresampled data it has yet to pass to the slave.  This
preserves the idea of avail_min if it were set to more than one
period.  This also fixes the problem.  I've attached a real patch to
do that.

For the test program to show the problem YOU MUST USE THE RATE CONVERT
PLUGIN!  It seems obvious but people keep missing this.  I found the
easiest way to do that was to create a custom device in ~/.asoundrc
that forced rate converting to 48kHz.  Like this:
pcm.foo {
    type plug;
    slave {
        pcm "hw:0,0";
        rate 48000;
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