Hardware and performance

 
 
Picture of Samuel Cochran
Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
As a new Moodler I have noticed many complaints about Moodles speed. Several times I have heard people quoted Moodle's loading times as reasons not to implement it. I'm thinking of implementing a caching system.

This is potentially a very complicated task, especially seeing as it would need to be as transparent as possible to retain the ease-of-use and ease-of-modification that makes Moodle so desirable.

In a professional application, for example, I would make all components of Moodle create a template file which contains all of the structural information already and does the bare neccessities of data extraction to fill in the dynamic parts of the pages. However, with Moodle's current setup, creating this sort of framework is difficult, especially when a teacher wants to come along and modify something simple but can't understand why a PHP script is writing another PHP script.

What are peoples' thoughts on this topic? How far should Moodle be cached, and how much impact do loading times make on your use of Moodle?
 
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Picture of Mark Stevens
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group Moodle Course Creator Certificate holders
I think this is an issue related to the digital divide.  Our gigabit ethernet network and moderately spec'd server on campus load very quickly (especially off-peak).  Accessing the same pages last summer via dial-up from the states wsa much slower.  I think no matter how much caching you do, a dial-up connection is going to seem slow and a very quick gigabit connection can't get much quicker... I think your expertise could be used in better ways smile
 
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Me and Ray
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
Just yesterday an overseas student of mine from China, asked me about ways of improving the speed of Moodle without changing his hardware. I could only point him to the following

1) the filter's area - remove all non-essential filters especially autolinking large glossaries
2) the filter's are - increase the cache time,
3) the langcache setting in admin should be on
4) Messaging should be off
5) Experiment with dbsessions to on (?)
6) Experimenting with a php accelerator

Any other non-hardware tips, anyone?

He claimed that the first page was particularly slow to load, and that subsequent pages are slow too. I presume that this suggests that even with the present system of caching, old servers are not facing problems with large php (L)CMS like moodle.

The trouble is that with the planned move to SMARTY templating engine, and plans for increased seperation of layout and content, not to mention ongoing development in general, it sounds like making a templating system is going to be pretty difficult.

Tim
 
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Picture of Samuel Cochran
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
The SMARTY templating engine would make caching a hell of a lot easier - perhaps that's one of the reasons it's been selected.

A PHP Optimizer is likely to increase speed nominally, but what makes Moodle slow is that it regenerates the page content and grabs all the data out of the database EVERY request. Most of this stuff is duplicated. With an efficient file-caching scenario I think the speed of Moodle and it's loading latency could be reduced by up to 200-300%.

Looks like this one's being covered for the moment - I might leave it on the back burner for a while.

I noticed on the "Some nice little projects" page resource search functionality is listed. Maybe I'll have a crack at that instead.

There seems to be no unified search platform, which would be the easiest way to do things. Adding a central search index for all items in Moodle and offering module support through a search class seems the best way to do things. That way modules can choose to offer serch functionality or not, and, depending on what you're looking for, different criterea can be set. Yes. I think I'm going to enjoy making this smile
 
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Martin in black and white
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Documentation writersGroup Moodle HQGroup Particularly helpful MoodlersGroup Testers
PHP cache is actually very effective, I see improvements of 5-10 times faster using PHPA or Turck. Couple this with MySQL query caching and I think it's hard to beat. Note we also have text caching (in Moodle) and filesystem caching (in Linux).

Any caching system is going to have do a lot of checking of data because Moodle pages are so dynamic - I doubt anything in PHP can compete with the native code solutions I outlined above.

Most of the time when people have speed issues with Moodle it's because they either haven't set up all of the above, or the server is simply overloaded with too many users and too features enabled. Any car with ten people on board is going to drive slow. smile

I'll move this to the Servers and Performance forum.  wink
 
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Picture of Maik Riecken
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
Using PHP Caches was one of my first tuning activities. Another could be the use of different webserver. I am using lighttpd, available here. I have built a debian-package from source-code, too (if someone is interested and doesn't want to compile).
One active apache process requires about 20-30Megs of RAM, depending on active modules. One lighttpd process requires 2-3Megs of RAM, depending on active modules.
My lighttpd-installations (e.g. the newest moodle-liveCD) are runing php in cgi-mode via fastcgi. All active lighttpd and fastcgi-processes require only 18-25Megs of RAM. Speed increases rapidly with the use of lighttpd (load-balancing can be done as well...), but this has to be checked on really "big" moodle-installations, because php-cgi is told to be slow... The liveCD runs properly on a PII-400 with 192Megs of RAM now. With apache speed was really poor. I am just checking out to migrate our moodle site to lighttpd, which is no big thing...

If there is a need for really fast systems I would prefer separated MySQL- and webservers (=> cluster!). A webserver requires other optimizations than a database-server. If webservers and MySQL-Servers are clustered, they can easily be scaled to high levels by adding just more servers, if there is a need. But you'll have to start with at least five Servers:

loadbalancer (e.g. proxy)
two webservers
two MySQL-servers

just my ideas....

Maik
 
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Picture of Samuel Cochran
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
Be careful with PHP and CGI: time tells php and CGI don't always mix nicely, and it can cause serious security issues.

Also you lose any advantages gained over the shared library which keeps PHP in the background (instead of loading it up every time) which would have been part of your Apache resource usage. As well, you lose the ability to use things like persistent database connections in PHP (because PHP is executed seperatly each hit instead of the same instance being called with several hits).

I agree about the resource usage, though. Perhaps try using a web server which supports the PHP library rather than the CGI functions? I know there are some out there, although I've never had to use them.
 
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Picture of Samuel Cochran
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
I take back that stuff about the threading and CGI issues: I am not keeping up with server technologies obviously! FastCGI looks very cool.
 
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Picture of Maik Riecken
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
Just one comment to the "lose of security":
In CGI-mode scripts are executed with permission of the owner of the php-file. So e.g. you can limit this owner's write access to /moodledata. If you set permissions carefully, you can achieve more security than with mod_php/apache where scripts are always executed with permissions of apache. Apache must be allowed to write different directories, especially in shared hosting environment. Even an active safe_mode should be possible with php_cgi... I am just checking this out. The idea of FastCGI is a join up between the performance of mod_php/apache and the security of php_cgi.

Maik
 
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Picture of Ed Borasky
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
There are some open source "search engines" which can handle mixed document types. I have "swish-e" (Simple Web Indexing System for Humans - Enhanced, at http://www.swish-e.org/). It has filters for many document types, including, I think, Microsoft Word. From their web site:

About Swish-e

Swish-e is a fast, flexible, and free open source system for indexing collections of Web pages or other files. Swish-e is ideally suited for collections of a million documents or smaller. Using the GNOME libxml2 parser and a collection of filters, Swish-e can index plain text, e-mail, PDF, HTML, XML, Microsoft® Word/PowerPoint/Excel and just about any file that can be converted to XML or HTML text. Swish-e is also often used to supplement databases like the MySQL® DBMS for very fast full-text searching. Check out the full list of features.

Swish-e was recently featured in the Linux Journal article How to Index Anything by Josh Rabinowitz.

Swish-e is descended from the original web indexing program SWISH by WWW Hall of Famer Kevin Hughes.


 
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Picture of Samuel Cochran
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
That search engine does look quite cool, but I can see a few problems:
  1. It's a native c application. That means it's not as easy to "plug-and-play" as Moodle, making it difficult for people wanting a LMS-in-a-box.
  2. It's very dependant on files. Everything has to be a file, and everything is converted to HTML for indexing (not realy a problem for us, but can be anoying with SCORM, etc)
  3. It uses a lot of Perl, and although this is very popular, may limit it's use in a PHP-based application.
It'd be great on a site where you just let it spider your site like Google does, but then you may as well be using Google.

Key things it doesn't have:
  1. The ability to know what courses a user is in and tailer the results accordingly.
  2. Knowledge of a user's permission level, thus indexing "non-released" content wouldn't be possible - a set back for teachers/creates/admins.
  3. Meta-data knowlgde: the ability to restrict results based on relevant fields for relevant data types, for example, all discussions with no replies, or all assignments submitted by user xyz across all courses.
These are all features I plan to integrate into the Moodle search engine I'm making.

It has provided me with a good code-base to implement stemming at a later date, though. This is something I'd like done eventually.
 
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Martin Langhoff - Sailing
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Particularly helpful Moodlers
In my experience (we run high-end Moodle clusters) you _definitely_ want TurckMMCache or PHPA. Smarty, on the other hand, demonstrably _slows_ down web applications to a crawl... the "caching" engine it has is mostly to compensate for its bad performance, and is just limited to the templates, not to the final HTML output. It's generally bad in terms of performance.

There is heaps of scalability/performance improvements that can be done in Moodle, but they are more around tuning how we work with the databases. Some small (well tested and profiled) changes in datalib can give us a huge boost. I've added a lot of profiling information in 1.5 so we can collect stats and focus on the problem areas...
 
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Picture of Samuel Cochran
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
The reason I was thinking of SMARTY as a benefit (and I agree that the platform is slow) is that it will force Moodle's data collection and data insertion to be seperated. That way data can be cached in between and (if unmodified) can simply be cached and loaded straight into the template instead of doing a DB round-trip. Even better would be the complete caching of the output from the template with variables which can change depending on their individual dependancies' modification times. But that makes it too hard to modify Moodle from a beginner's perspective (what I said about PHP scripts writing PHP scripts).

Anyways, I'm leaving this for now. I'll work on the search engine first.
 
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Me and Ray
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 

A programmer that I respect says negative things about Smarty.
http://fplanque.net/Blog/devblog/2005/09/27/mvc_smarty_templating_inefficient
Why I consider (MVC) Smarty templating inefficient

Most PHP developers (and other web developpers too) seem to evolve on a similar path which goes like this:

Step 1: take HTML pages an add PHP tags into them.

Step 2: Realize that on a large scale this is getting very hard to maintain.

Step 3: Learn about the MVC (Model View Controller) paradigm and begin to think it's cool.

Step 4: Use Smarty or another templating engine like that.

The way those templating engines work is basically this:
a) Do a ton of PHP processing in the framework and fill in variables.
b) Call smarty and let it fill in variables in a template.
c) Send the output.

The issue here is that during steps a and b, nothing is sent back to the user. The user is just waiting for a response. Sadly enough, steps a and b will take a lot of precessing time. So the user will wait quite a long time before he gets any feedback on his action.

Even worse, when the application gets bigger, step a will take even more time!
And the more complex page you request, the more time you'll be left in the dark...

This is why I don't like all those mainstream templating engines. I want to send output back to the user as soon as possible. I want to send the page header at the begining of step a. And as soon as something has been processed and is ready for display, I want to send it out.

The global processing time will be approximately the same, but if the user sees content begining to display immediately, instead of all the content displaying at once 2 seconds after clicking, he will get the (false but humanely useful) impression that the application is faster. (Please do not say AJAX here, it is so not my point :P)

I'm not saying MVC is a bad paradigm, I'm saying most implementations of MVC are flawed. Because they do the M & C stuff and then they do the V (view) stuff at the end. In my opinion they definitely need to interleave all this a lot more.

In evoCore (b2evolution's framework) our approach is to have the Controller really control the processing flow. In other words: for every block of information the View wants to display, the Control will process data from the Model and immediately pass it to the View in order to display the result block by block.

Of course, this has drawbacks: you won't be able to change the block order of the output if it's hard coded into the Controller. But really, that's okay to some extent. Who really needs to move the global header and the global footer for example? This is what we use for the back-office.

However, for the front-office, we want more customization, and we want people to be able to rearrange blocks in any order. In this case we have a little more complex processing, where the View actually calls the controller everytime it needs to display something.

Anyway, in any situation, my point is: the View should not be handled last.

 
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Martin Langhoff - Sailing
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Particularly helpful Moodlers
I also consider MVC and Smarty to be rather backwards,specially when you are using PHP which _is_ a templating engine in itself. It's more reasonable when you are doing Java, C or similar.

However -- PHP's model of spitting everything at the user immediately is BAD in the context of serving webpages because you cannot do any decent error handling. Anything that could potentially ever trigger an error must happen before you send content to the user -- this is part of the HTTP protocol model, and PHP breaks it badly.

Perl strikes a great balance: all the output is buffered until you are done. So your code can print() from anywhere, and still die() and the user gets a correct error page (and apache logs a 500 as it should). If your page is long, and you want to print out early, you can force a buffer flush -- but then you know you can't die() on errors. And at any rate it's the exception, not the rule.

cheers~!
 
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Martin in black and white
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Documentation writersGroup Moodle HQGroup Particularly helpful MoodlersGroup Testers
You can buffer in PHP too ... smile

Back to templates, the idea is to split design away so that people who don't know programming can change the layout. I see it as more of a user issue than a programming/efficiency one.

However, with XHTML 1.0 Strict and good CSS the whole idea of templates becomes less and less useful, since so much can be done in CSS. If we really need to have different layouts (say blocks vs no blocks) then these can be handled by user interface variables in PHP (like we do now).

Smarty is really on the backburner for me.  If we ever use it I think it will be restricted to just a few special pages.
 
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One poor developer...
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Documentation writersGroup Moodle HQGroup Particularly helpful MoodlersGroup Testers
Not sure what a "backburner" is but I'm very happy to know that Smarty isn't the future!

ThumbsUp.jpg

Anyway, in my opinion, we must follow (increase) the tendency to encapsulate more and more code inside functions, both because of html readability and logic-presentation separation. This will make things really easier for everybody and the possibilities of CORRECT interaction with Moodle from external systems will be more than better!

Ciao smile
 
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Martin in black and white
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Documentation writersGroup Moodle HQGroup Particularly helpful MoodlersGroup Testers
Backburner ... imagine a cooking stove with front burners and back burners.  On the front burner (close to you) you put things you need to pay attention to while on the back you can put things that just need to simmer away on a low heat for a while.
 
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Picture of Samuli Karevaara
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Particularly helpful MoodlersGroup Translators
What's the that flaming thing that jet engines (not space rockets) might leave behind (in fictional illustrations anyway)? I was thinking of that smile

Dull answer, www.m-w.com:
Main Entry: back burner
Function: noun
: the condition of being out of active consideration or development -- usually used in the phrase on the back burner
 
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Picture of Lena Persson
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
afterburner.   Best not to leave your pan on that smile
 
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Picture of Samuli Karevaara
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Particularly helpful MoodlersGroup Translators
Oh yes, thank! How come I didn't remember that... Must be a name of some computer game too. I thought that if Smarty is on that, for Martin, then it's pretty much last years snow smile
 
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Martin Langhoff - Sailing
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Particularly helpful Moodlers
Yes, ob_* are my friends wink but lots of things break if you default to buffering=on (perhaps less true now, PHP3 and early PHP4 where horrid in this).

The assumptions of PHP are that we're on stage, the band is playing and we're printing to the client -- all the time. And I'm happy to play by PHP's rules, and there are certainly strategies to cope.

Luckily[*] Moodle uses really good strategies to address this. The most important thing is: we do a lot of processing before we print the HTML headers, and in all that process, we can error out safely. And most of the modules follow that quite well and only do trivial things after the HTML headers are out.

* What I call luck is usually MartinD's good judgement!

In some cases we have that as separate somefile.php and somefile.html -- which I think is PHP's sweet spot and a great practice. I like how 1.5 has gone down the track you describe of simplifying the HTML parts and letting people manage their page by (ab)using CSS. And abstracting things more into functions and pre-processing somefile.php files.

(I sometimes rant loudly at PHP, but it's noise. It definitely hits a sweet spot for projects like Moodle, and then what we want to do is to play to its strenghts rather than to its weaknesses. Blame my rants on my being a Perl-head).
 
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Picture of Samuli Karevaara
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Particularly helpful MoodlersGroup Translators
"You can buffer in PHP too ... smile "

While I don't fully agree with the original blog poster, I want to point out that this is what the original blog poster was mostly against of: that everything is buffered and only sent out in the end.

I'm prejudiced against his post a bit as he kind of equalled Smarty with MVC. People can code 100% MVC-less code with Smarty too, or 100% MVC without it...

 
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Picture of Samuli Karevaara
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
Group DevelopersGroup Particularly helpful MoodlersGroup Translators
"However -- PHP's model of spitting everything at the user immediately is BAD in the context of serving webpages because you cannot do any decent error handling."

It's true that this is the way almost everybody codes in PHP. But even in PHP, you still have to specifically print the stuff out before they are thrown to the browser. No function returns (naturally) are echoed to the browser, so it kind of still gives free hands to do things "the right way". Which would be something like the current page object to the power of two. A display layer asking modules "do you have something for output there, this thing is going to the browser soon you know". Most functions should not print at all, but just to return arrays for processing.

I think that any language powerful enough let's you do things either the right way, the wrong way or the very wrong way. PHP does have a lot of glitches and weird/inconsistent things, but I think that the low learning curve (<?php print("Hello, world!") ?>) is what brings out most of the "bad code".
 
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Picture of Ed Borasky
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
Would you be interested in being a co-author on linuxcapacityplanning.com? This is exactly the sort of subject matter I'm looking for. Also, where might I find the documentation on Moodle profiling? Do I need to read the source or is this written down somewhere else?

And some day, I'll have so many students at linuxcapacityplanning.com that this will matter to me and my hosting service. wink
 
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Picture of Samuel Cochran
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
Was that directed at Martin, myself, or both of us?

I'll go and sign up now, your site looks interesting in any case.
 
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Picture of Ed Borasky
Re: Moodle: Load and Speed issues
 
The request for co-authors applies to anyone with practical experience in the subject matter, especially in areas I don't have any experience with (yet), like profiling and tuning PHP-based web sites. I pretty much have the Linux kernel, analytical modeling and load testing covered, but I'm just getting into server-side tuning for LAMP-specific applications.
 
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