Practical Insights From Queueing Theory

Queuing theory provides a way to predict the average delay when work builds up at a busy device. The calculations are complex, but luckily we can often ignore the math and focus on the key insights this branch of mathematics can bring to things that are busy. First, let’s define a few terms:

Service Center and Service Time

A service center is where the work gets done. To accomplish a given task, it is generally assumed that it takes a service center a fixed amount of time – the service time. In reality this assumption is usually technically false, but still useful.  If work arrives faster than it can be processed a queue builds and the average response time grows because work has to wait in a queue to be serviced.

service center 3

Queuing Theory

As a service center gets busy, it becomes more likely that a newly arriving job will have to wait because there are jobs ahead of it. An approximate formula that describes this relationship is: ResponseTime =  ServiceTime / (1 -Utilization)

The real insight comes from looking at the graph of this function below, as the utilization is goes from 0% to 90%.


Notice that response time starts out as 1x at idle. At idle the response time always equals the service time as there is nothing to wait for.

Notice that the response time doubles when the service center gets to 50% utilization. At this point, sometimes the arriving jobs finds the service center idle, sometimes they find it with several jobs already waiting, but the effect on the average job is to double the response time as compared to an idle service center. The response time doubles to 4X when the service center is at 75% utilization and doubles again to 8x at around 87% utilization. Assuming you kept pushing more work at the service center, the response time doublings keep getting closer and closer (16x at 94% utilization, 32x at 97% utilization) as the curve turns skyward. All these doublings are created by the fact that the service center is busy, and thus there will often be many jobs waiting ahead of you in the queue.

Insight #1:

The slower the service center, the lower the maximum utilization you should plan for at peak load. The slowest computer resource is going to contribute the most to overall transaction response time increases. Unless you have a paper-tape reader as part of your transaction path, the slowest part of any computer in the early part of the twenty-first century is the rotating, mechanical magnetic disks. At the time of this writing, on an average machine, fetching a 64 bit word from memory was ~50,000x faster than getting it off disk.

The first doubling of response time comes at 50% busy and that is why conventional wisdom shoots for the spinning magnetic disks to be no more than 50% busy at peak load.  Think about it this way, at 50% busy you are doubling the response time of the slowest part of your transaction path – that has got to hurt. If the boss insists that you run the disk up to 90% busy then the average response time for a disk read is about 10X larger than if the drive was idle. Ouch!

Insight #2:

It’s very hard to use the last 15% of anything. As the service center gets close to 100% utilization the response time will get so bad for the average transaction that nobody will be having any fun. The graph below is exactly the same situation as the previous graph except this graph is plotted to 99% utilization. At 85% utilization the response time is about 7x and it just gets worse from there.


Insight #3:

The closer you are to the edge, the higher the price for being wrong. Imagine your plan called for a peak of 90% CPU utilization on the peak hour of your peak day but the users didn’t read the plan. They worked the machine 10% harder than anticipated and drove the single CPU to 99% utilization. Your average response time for that service center was planned to be 10x, instead it is 100x. Ouch!  This is a key reason that you want to build a safety cushion into any capacity plan.

Insight #4:

Response time increases are limited by the number that can wait. Mathematically, the queuing theory calculations predict that at 100% utilization you will see close to an infinite response time. That is clearly ridiculous in the real world as there are not an infinite number of users to send in work.

The max response time for any service center is limited by the total number of possible incoming requests. If, at worst case, there can only be 20 requests in need of service, then the maximum possible response time is 20x the service time. If you are the only process using a service center, no matter how much work you send it, there will be no queuing-based increase in response time because no one is ever ahead of you in line.

Insight #5:

Remember this is an average, not a maximum. If a single service center is at 75% utilization, then the average response time will be 4x the service time. Now a specific job might arrive when the service center is idle (no wait time) or it might arrive when there are dozens of jobs ahead of it to be processed (huge wait time).

The higher the utilization of the service center the more likely you are to see really ugly wait times and have trouble meeting your service level agreements. This is especially true if your service level agreements are written to specify that no transaction will take longer than X seconds.

Insight #6:

There is a human denial effect in multiple service centers. If there are multiple service centers that can handle the incoming work, then, as you push the utilization higher, the response time stays lower longer. Eventually the curve has to turn and when it does so the turn is sudden and sharp!


This effect makes sense if you think about buying groceries in a MegaMart. If at check out time seven cashiers are busy and three are idle, you go to the idle cashier. Even though the checkout service center is 70% busy overall, your wait time is often zero, and your response time is equal to the service time. Life is good.

If you have a computer with eight available CPUs the response time will stay close to the service time as the CPU busy climbs to around 90%. At this point the response time curve turns sharply. At 95% busy, and the system becomes a world of response time pain. So, for resources with multiple service centers, you can run them hotter than single service center resources, but you have to be prepared to add capacity quickly or suffer horrendous jumps in response time. Most companies are much better at understanding real pain they are experiencing now, as opposed to future pain they may experience if they don’t spend lots of money now.

For More Information:

To begin to explore the mathematical underpinnings of this post you can begin here’s_law and here, but it is a long way down those rabbit holes.

There are more easy performance-related mathematical insights in my book:
The Every Computer Performance Book

A short, occasionally funny, book on how to solve and avoid application and/or computer performance problems


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