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The QEMU throttling infrastructure
Copyright (C) 2016 Igalia, S.L.
Author: Alberto Garcia <>
This work is licensed under the terms of the GNU GPL, version 2 or
later. See the COPYING file in the top-level directory.
QEMU includes a throttling module that can be used to set limits to
I/O operations. The code itself is generic and independent of the I/O
units, but it is currently used to limit the number of bytes per second
and operations per second (IOPS) when performing disk I/O.
This document explains how to use the throttling code in QEMU, and how
it works internally. The implementation is in throttle.c.
Using throttling to limit disk I/O
Two aspects of the disk I/O can be limited: the number of bytes per
second and the number of operations per second (IOPS). For each one of
them the user can set a global limit or separate limits for read and
write operations. This gives us a total of six different parameters.
I/O limits can be set using the throttling.* parameters of -drive, or
using the QMP 'block_set_io_throttle' command. These are the names of
the parameters for both cases:
| -drive | block_set_io_throttle |
| throttling.iops-total | iops |
| throttling.iops-read | iops_rd |
| throttling.iops-write | iops_wr |
| throttling.bps-total | bps |
| throttling.bps-read | bps_rd |
| throttling.bps-write | bps_wr |
It is possible to set limits for both IOPS and bps at the same time,
and for each case we can decide whether to have separate read and
write limits or not, but note that if iops-total is set then neither
iops-read nor iops-write can be set. The same applies to bps-total and
The default value of these parameters is 0, and it means 'unlimited'.
In its most basic usage, the user can add a drive to QEMU with a limit
of 100 IOPS with the following -drive line:
-drive file=hd0.qcow2,throttling.iops-total=100
We can do the same using QMP. In this case all these parameters are
mandatory, so we must set to 0 the ones that we don't want to limit:
{ "execute": "block_set_io_throttle",
"arguments": {
"device": "virtio0",
"iops": 100,
"iops_rd": 0,
"iops_wr": 0,
"bps": 0,
"bps_rd": 0,
"bps_wr": 0
I/O bursts
In addition to the basic limits we have just seen, QEMU allows the
user to do bursts of I/O for a configurable amount of time. A burst is
an amount of I/O that can exceed the basic limit. Bursts are useful to
allow better performance when there are peaks of activity (the OS
boots, a service needs to be restarted) while keeping the average
limits lower the rest of the time.
Two parameters control bursts: their length and the maximum amount of
I/O they allow. These two can be configured separately for each one of
the six basic parameters described in the previous section, but in
this section we'll use 'iops-total' as an example.
The I/O limit during bursts is set using 'iops-total-max', and the
maximum length (in seconds) is set with 'iops-total-max-length'. So if
we want to configure a drive with a basic limit of 100 IOPS and allow
bursts of 2000 IOPS for 60 seconds, we would do it like this (the line
is split for clarity):
-drive file=hd0.qcow2,
Or, with QMP:
{ "execute": "block_set_io_throttle",
"arguments": {
"device": "virtio0",
"iops": 100,
"iops_rd": 0,
"iops_wr": 0,
"bps": 0,
"bps_rd": 0,
"bps_wr": 0,
"iops_max": 2000,
"iops_max_length": 60,
With this, the user can perform I/O on hd0.qcow2 at a rate of 2000
IOPS for 1 minute before it's throttled down to 100 IOPS.
The user will be able to do bursts again if there's a sufficiently
long period of time with unused I/O (see below for details).
The default value for 'iops-total-max' is 0 and it means that bursts
are not allowed. 'iops-total-max-length' can only be set if
'iops-total-max' is set as well, and its default value is 1 second.
Here's the complete list of parameters for configuring bursts:
| -drive | block_set_io_throttle |
| throttling.iops-total-max | iops_max |
| throttling.iops-total-max-length | iops_max_length |
| throttling.iops-read-max | iops_rd_max |
| throttling.iops-read-max-length | iops_rd_max_length |
| throttling.iops-write-max | iops_wr_max |
| throttling.iops-write-max-length | iops_wr_max_length |
| throttling.bps-total-max | bps_max |
| throttling.bps-total-max-length | bps_max_length |
| throttling.bps-read-max | bps_rd_max |
| throttling.bps-read-max-length | bps_rd_max_length |
| throttling.bps-write-max | bps_wr_max |
| throttling.bps-write-max-length | bps_wr_max_length |
Controlling the size of I/O operations
When applying IOPS limits all I/O operations are treated equally
regardless of their size. This means that the user can take advantage
of this in order to circumvent the limits and submit one huge I/O
request instead of several smaller ones.
QEMU provides a setting called throttling.iops-size to prevent this
from happening. This setting specifies the size (in bytes) of an I/O
request for accounting purposes. Larger requests will be counted
proportionally to this size.
For example, if iops-size is set to 4096 then an 8KB request will be
counted as two, and a 6KB request will be counted as one and a
half. This only applies to requests larger than iops-size: smaller
requests will be always counted as one, no matter their size.
The default value of iops-size is 0 and it means that the size of the
requests is never taken into account when applying IOPS limits.
Applying I/O limits to groups of disks
In all the examples so far we have seen how to apply limits to the I/O
performed on individual drives, but QEMU allows grouping drives so
they all share the same limits.
The way it works is that each drive with I/O limits is assigned to a
group named using the parameter. If this parameter is
not specified, then the device name (i.e. 'virtio0', 'ide0-hd0') will
be used as the group name.
Limits set using the throttling.* parameters discussed earlier in this
document apply to the combined I/O of all members of a group.
Consider this example:
-drive file=hd1.qcow2,throttling.iops-total=6000,
-drive file=hd2.qcow2,throttling.iops-total=6000,
-drive file=hd3.qcow2,throttling.iops-total=3000,
-drive file=hd4.qcow2,throttling.iops-total=6000,
-drive file=hd5.qcow2,throttling.iops-total=3000,
-drive file=hd6.qcow2,throttling.iops-total=5000
Here hd1, hd2 and hd4 are all members of a group named 'foo' with a
combined IOPS limit of 6000, and hd3 and hd5 are members of 'bar'. hd6
is left alone (technically it is part of a 1-member group).
Limits are applied in a round-robin fashion so if there are concurrent
I/O requests on several drives of the same group they will be
distributed evenly.
When I/O limits are applied to an existing drive using the QMP command
'block_set_io_throttle', the following things need to be taken into
- I/O limits are shared within the same group, so new values will
affect all members and overwrite the previous settings. In other
words: if different limits are applied to members of the same
group, the last one wins.
- If 'group' is unset it is assumed to be the current group of that
drive. If the drive is not in a group yet, it will be added to a
group named after the device name.
- If 'group' is set then the drive will be moved to that group if
it was member of a different one. In this case the limits
specified in the parameters will be applied to the new group
- I/O limits can be disabled by setting all of them to 0. In this
case the device will be removed from its group and the rest of
its members will not be affected. The 'group' parameter is
The Leaky Bucket algorithm
I/O limits in QEMU are implemented using the leaky bucket algorithm
(specifically the "Leaky bucket as a meter" variant).
This algorithm uses the analogy of a bucket that leaks water
constantly. The water that gets into the bucket represents the I/O
that has been performed, and no more I/O is allowed once the bucket is
To see the way this corresponds to the throttling parameters in QEMU,
consider the following values:
- Water leaks from the bucket at a rate of 100 IOPS.
- Water can be added to the bucket at a rate of 2000 IOPS.
- The size of the bucket is 2000 x 60 = 120000
- If 'iops-total-max-length' is unset then it defaults to 1 and the
size of the bucket is 2000.
- If 'iops-total-max' is unset then 'iops-total-max-length' must be
unset as well. In this case the bucket size is 100.
The bucket is initially empty, therefore water can be added until it's
full at a rate of 2000 IOPS (the burst rate). Once the bucket is full
we can only add as much water as it leaks, therefore the I/O rate is
reduced to 100 IOPS. If we add less water than it leaks then the
bucket will start to empty, allowing for bursts again.
Note that since water is leaking from the bucket even during bursts,
it will take a bit more than 60 seconds at 2000 IOPS to fill it
up. After those 60 seconds the bucket will have leaked 60 x 100 =
6000, allowing for 3 more seconds of I/O at 2000 IOPS.
Also, due to the way the algorithm works, longer burst can be done at
a lower I/O rate, e.g. 1000 IOPS during 120 seconds.