Libvirt real time instances

The CPU pinning feature added to the ability to assign guest virtual CPUs to dedicated host CPUs, providing guarantees for CPU time and improved worst case latency for CPU scheduling. The real time feature builds on that work to provide stronger guarantees for worst case scheduler latency for vCPUs.

Problem description

The CPU pinning feature allowed guest vCPUs to be given dedicated access to individual host pCPUs. This means virtual instances will no longer suffer from “steal time” where their vCPU is pre-empted in order to run a vCPU belonging to another guest. Removing overcommit eliminates the high level cause of guest vCPU starvation, but guest vCPUs are still susceptible to latency spikes from various areas in the kernel.

For example, there are various kernel tasks that run on host CPUs, such as interrupt processing that can preempt guest vCPUs. QEMU itself has a number of sources of latency, due to its big global mutex. Various device models have sub-optimal characteristics that will cause latency spikes in QEMU, as may underling host hardware. Avoiding these problems requires that the host kernel and operating system be configured in a particular manner, as well as the careful choice of which QEMU features to exercise. It also requires that suitable scheduler policies are configured for the guest vCPUs.

Assigning huge pages to a guest ensures that guest RAM cannot be swapped out on the host, but there are still other arbitrary memory allocations for the QEMU emulator. If parts of QEMU get swapped out to disk, then can have an impact on the performance of the realtime guest.

Enabling realtime is not without cost. In order to meet the strict worst case requirements for CPU latency, overall throughput of the system must necessarily be compromised. As such it is not reasonable to have the real time feature unconditionally enabled for an OpenStack deployment. It must be an opt-in that is used only in the case where the guest workload actually demands it.

As an indication of the benefits and tradeoffs of realtime, it is useful to consider some real performance numbers. With bare metal and dedicated CPUs but non-realtime scheduler policy, worst case latency is on the order of 150 microseconds, and mean latency is approx 2 microseconds. With KVM and dedicated CPUs and a realtime scheduler policy, worst case latency is 14 microseconds, and mean latency is < 10 microseconds. This shows that while realtime brings significant benefits in worst case latency, the mean latency is still significantly higher than that achieved on bare metal with non-realtime policy. This serves to re-inforce the point that realtime is not something to unconditionally use, it is only suitable for specific workloads that require latency guarantees. Many apps will find dedicated CPUs alone to be sufficient for their needs.

Use Cases

Tenants who wish to run workloads where CPU execution latency is important need to have the guarantees offered by a real time KVM guest configuration. The NFV appliances commonly deployed by members of the telco community are one such use case, but there are plenty of other potential users. For example, stock market trading applications greatly care about scheduling latency, as may scientific processing workloads.

It is expected that this feature would predominently be used in private cloud deployments. As well as real-time compute guarantees, tenants will usually need corresponding guarantees in the network layer between the cloud and the service/system it is communicating with. Such networking guarantees are largely impractical to achieve when using remote public clouds across the internet.

Proposed change

The intention is to build on the previous work done to enable use of NUMA node placement policy, dedicated CPU pinning and huge page backed guest RAM.

The primary requirement is to have a mechanism to indicate whether realtime must be enabled for an instance. Since real time has strict pre-requisites in terms of host OS setup, the cloud administrator will usually not wish to allow arbitrary use of this feature. Realtime workloads are likely to comprise a subset of the overall cloud usage, so it is anticipated that there will be a mixture of compute hosts, only some of which provide a realtime capability.

For this reason, an administrator will need to make use of host aggregates to partition their compute hosts into those which support real time and those which do not.

There will then need to be a property available on the flavor

  • hw:cpu_realtime=yes|no

which will indicate whether instances booted with that flavor will be run with a realtime policy. Flavors with this property set to ‘yes’ will need to be associated with the host aggregate that contains hosts supporting realtime.

A pre-requisite for enabling the realtime feature on a flavor is that it must also have ‘hw:cpu_policy’ is set to ‘dedicated’. ie all real time guests must have exclusive pCPUs assigned to them. You cannot give a real time policy to vCPUs that are susceptible to overcommit, as that would lead to starvation of the other guests on that pCPU, as well as degrading the latency guarantees.

The precise actions that a hypervisor driver takes to configure a guest when real time is enabled are implementation defined. Different hypevisors will have different configuration steps, but the commonality is that all of them will be providing vCPUs with an improved worst case latency guarantee, as compared to non-realtime instances. The tenant user does not need to know the details of how the requirements are met, merely that the cloud can support the necessary latency guarantees.

In the case of the libvirt driver with the KVM hypervisor, it is expected that setting the real time flavor will result in the following guest configuration changes

  • Entire QEMU and guest RAM will be locked into memory

  • All vCPUs will be given a fixed realtime scheduler priority

As well as the vCPU workload, most hypervisors have one or more other threads running in the control plane which do work on behalf of the virtual machine. Most hypervisors hide this detail from users, but the QEMU/KVM hypervispor exposes it via the concept of emulator threads. With the initial support for dedicated CPUs, Nova was set to confine the emulator threads to run on the same set of pCPUs that the guest’s vCPUs are placed. This is highly undesirable in the case of realtime, because these emulator threads will be doing work that can impact latency guarantees. There is thus a need to place emulator threads in a more fine precise fashion.

Most guest OS will run with multiple vCPUs and have at least one of their vCPUs dedicated to running non-realtime house keeping tasks. Given this, the intention is that the emulator threads be co-located with the vCPU that is running non-realtime tasks. This will in turn require another tunable, which can be set either on the flavor, or on the image. This will indicate which vCPUs will have realtime policy enabled:

  • hw:cpu_realtime_mask=^0-1

This indicates that all vCPUs, except vCPUs 0 and 1 will have a realtime policy. ie vCPUs 0 and 1 will remain non-realtime. The vCPUs which have a non-realtime policy will also be used to run the emulator thread(s). At least one vCPU must be reserved for non-realtime workloads, it is an error to configure all vCPUs to be realtime. If the property is not set, then the default behaviour will be to reserve vCPU 0 for non-realtime tasks. This property will be overridable on the image too via the hw_cpu_realtime_mask property.

In the future it may be desirable to allow emulator threads to be run on a host pCPU that is completely separate from those running the vCPUs. This would, for example, allow for running of guest OS, where all vCPUs must be real-time capable, and so cannot reserve a vCPU for real-time tasks. This would require the scheduler to treat the emulator threads as essentially being a virtual CPU in their own right. Such an enhancement is considered out of scope for this blueprint in order to remove any dependency on scheduler modifications. It will be dealt with in a new blueprint

A significant portion of the work required will be documenting the required compute host and guest OS setup, as much of this cannot be automatically performed by Nova itself. It is anticipated that the developers of various OpenStack deployment tools will use the documentation to extend their tools to be able to deploy realtime enabled compute hosts. This is out of scope of this blueprint, however, which will merely document the core requirements. Tenants building disk images will also need to consume this documentation to determine how to configure their guest OS.


One option would be to always enable a real time scheduler policy when the guest is using dedicated CPU pinning and always enable memory locking when the guest has huge pages. As explained in the problem description, this is highly undesirable as an approach. The real time guarantees are only achieved by reducing the overall throughput of the system. So unconditionally enabling realtime for hosts / guests which do not require it would significantly waste potential compute resources. As a result it is considered mandatory to have an opt-in mechanism for enabling real time.

Do nothing is always an option. In the event of doing nothing, guests would have to put up with the latencies inherent in non-real time scheduling, even with dedicated pCPUs. Some of those latencies could be further mitigated by careful host OS configuration, but extensive performance testing as shown that even with carefully configured host and dedicated CPUs, worst case latencies for a non-realtime task will be at least a factor of x10 worse than when realtime is enabled. Thus not supporting realtime guests within OpenStack will exclude Nova from use in a variety of scenarios, forcing users to deployment alternative non-openstack solutions, or requiring openstack vendors to fork the code and ship their own custom realtime solutions. Neither of these are attractive options for OpenStack users or vendors in the long term, as it would either loose user share, or balkanize the openstack ecosystem.

Data model impact

None required

REST API impact

None required

Security impact

The enablement of real time will only affect the pCPUs that are assigned to the guest. Thus if the tenant is already permitted to use dedicated pCPUs by the operator, enabling real time does not imply any further privileges. Thus real time is not considered to introduce any new security concerns.

Notifications impact


Other end user impact

The tenant will have the ability to request real time via an image property. They will need to carefully build their guest OS images to take advantage of the realtime characteristics. They will to obtain information from their cloud provider as to the worst case latencies their deployment is capable of satisfying, to ensure that it can achieve the requirements of their workloads.

Performance Impact

There will be no new performance impact to Nova as a whole. This is building on the existing CPU pinning and huge pages features, so the scheduler logic is already in place. Likewise the impact on the host is restricted to pCPUs which are already assigned to a guest.

Other deployer impact

The operator will have the ability to define real time flavors by setting a flavor extra spec property.

The operator will likely wish to make use of host aggregates to assign a certain set of compute nodes for use in combination with huge pages and CPU pinning. This is a pre-existing impact from those features, and real time does not alter that.

Developer impact

Other virt drivers may wish to support the flavor/image properties for enabling real time scheduling of their instances, if their hypervisor has such a feature.



Primary assignee:


Other contributors:


Work Items

The primary work items are

  • Add the ‘hw_cpu_realtime_mask’ field to the ImageMetaProps object

  • Update the libvirt guest XML configuration when the real time flavor or image properties are present

  • Update the Nova deployment documentation to outline what host OS setup steps are required in order to make best use of the real time feature


  • The libvirt project needs to add support for the XML feature to enable real time scheduler priority for guests. Merged as of 1.2.13

  • The KVM/kernel project needs to produce recommendations for optimal host OS setup. Partially done - see KVM Forum talks. Collaboration will be ongoing during development to produce Nova documentation.

If the libvirt emulator threads policy blueprint is implemented, then the restriction that real-time guests must be SMP can be lifted, to allow for UP realtime guests. This is not a strict pre-requisite though, merely a complementary piece of work to allow real-time to be used in a broader range of scenarios.


None of the current OpenStack community test harnesses check the performance characteristics of guests deployed by Nova, which is what would be needed to validate this feature.

The key functional testing requirement is around correct operation of the existing Nova CPU pinning and huge pages features and their scheduler integration. This is outside the scope of this particular blueprint.

Documentation Impact

The deployment documentation will need to be updated to describe how to setup hosts and guests to take advantage of real time scheduler prioritization. Since this is requires very detailed knowledge of the system, it is expected that the feature developers will write the majority of the content for this documentataion, as the documentation team cannot be expected to learn the details required.