Preliminary notes on analyzing Disk and File I/O performance with ETW traces

Raymond Chen


Event Tracing for Windows (ETW) is a powerful tool for blah blah blah. (Sometimes I get tired of writing the introduction.)

Here’s a little diagram of how I/O happens. This diagram is not 100% accurate, but it’ll do for the purpose of today’s discussion.

File System
Disk cache
Volume Manager
Partition Manager★
Disk drivers
Hard drive

When the application initiates an I/O, the request goes to the file system. The request then passes through various minifilters (some of which are shown here), and then enters the I/O subsystem.

It’s possible that the request can be satisfied from the disk cache, in which case the I/O is completed immediately.

If we have a cache miss, then the I/O continues through some more drivers. Here, I’ve shown volsnap, the Volume Snapshot driver (we’ll learn more about this later), and fvevol, which is where BitLocker encryption and decryption happens. (The letters FVE stand for Full Volume Encryption.)

The request eventually reaches the Volume Manager, the Partition Manager, the disk drivers, and finally hits the physical hard drive.

When the I/O completes, the results are returned upward through the diagram back to the application.

I put stars on fileinfo.sys and the Partition Manager because those are the components which are responsible for generating the FILE_IO and DISK_IO ETW events, respectively.

Already, we’ve learned a bunch of stuff:

  • Time spent by anti-malware is not counted by either the FILE_IO or DISK_IO events, since it happens either before the logging components log the start of the I/O, or after they have logged the end of the I/O.
  • Time spent in the file system, System Restore, and BitLocker are not counted by the DISK_IO events for the same reason.
  • If an I/O is satisfied from the disk cache, then there will be no corresponding disk I/O event.
  • If multiple file I/O operations are batched together, they will show up as only one disk I/O event.
  • In general, file I/O events vastly out number disk I/O events.

In the disk I/O data, there is a column called IO Type. There are three I/O types at the disk level: Read, Write, and Flush. Read and Write are self-explanatory. Flush occurs when the operating system commits all pending data to the hard disk, including telling the hard drive to flush its own internal caches. Flushes are generally bad for performance because they cause everything to come to a halt until the flush operation is complete, but flushes are often necessary to ensure disk coherency.

Hard drive manufacturers are sneaky, and when the operating system tells them to flush, they often don’t actually flush. They just say, “Yeah, I flushed the data,” and make a note to themselves, “Y’know, I probably should flush the data at some point before anybody notices that I’ve been lying to them all this time.” This can lead to strange things like a subsequent Read operation taking a very long time. It’s not that the read itself was inherently slow. It’s just that the read happened to occur while the drive was busy “paying back its flush debt”, so it got stuck behind a physical flush operation.

One of the fun graphs to look at is the Disk Offset graph. It’s under the Disk Usage category. This graph shows a dot for each I/O issued to the hard drive, with time on the x-axis and the disk offset (distance from start of the disk) on the y-axis. The dots are connected with lines, giving you a visualization of the movement of the disk head (assuming rotational media).

Sometimes you’ll see what appears to be the disk head vibrating back and forth rapidly between two locations on the disk. That may not be what’s actually happening. Hard drives often have more than one head, so what you could be seeing is one head doing work at one part of the disk, and another head doing work at a different part of the disk. The graph doesn’t realize this, so it looks like there’s a single poor disk head running back and forth between two spots on the disk.

On the other hand, if your hard drive has only one head, then it really is bouncing back and forth like crazy.

On the Disk Offset graph, flushes are marked with vertical red lines. You can see the points at which everything on the disk came to a stop.

Bruce Dawson has a nice picture of the disk offset graph. He also describes what each of the columns in the event log means, so I’ll defer to his write-up. Points of interest include the difference between Disk Service Time and I/O Time.

Next time, I’ll look at the mysterious System process and why it gets blamed for so much I/O.

Additional resources


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  • Avatar
    Wojciech Gebczyk

    “is a powerful tool for blah blah blah” — just ask your Marketing to write the introduction for posts for specific limit of words. They are probably trained well in that! 😛

  • Avatar
    Ian Boyd

    And that explains why I can never prove that the built-in anti-virus/anti-malware is the thing killing the system performance. I knew that disabling Windows Defender would cause my build time to drop from 86 seconds to 3.9 seconds (95% improvement), but i could never figure out how to prove it in WPR/WPA. It was important because if i could solve this fairly trivial case using WPA, then how could i possibly solve problems in the wild?

    tl;dr: Always disable any anti-virus that synchronously intercepts your I/O operations.

    Bonus: Disable any anti-virus system that will intercept a read, return 0x800700E1 (ERROR_VIRUS_INFECTED) rather than the data you asked for, and cause the application’s read to fail. It is commonly reported with Backup software – where a backup failing because of my 1996 installation of mIRC – and the associated potential data loss – is a bad thing.