UW AMath High Performance Scientific Computing
AMath 483/583 Class Notes
Spring Quarter, 2011

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Unix, Linux, and OS X

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Unix top command

The Unix top command is a very useful way to see what programs are currently running on the system and how heavily they are using system resources. (The command is named “top” because it shows the top users of the system.) It is a good idea to run top to check for other users running large programs before running one yourself on a shared computer (such as the Applied Math servers), and you can also use it to monitor your own programs.

Running top

To run top, simply type:

$ top

at the command line. top will fill your terminal window with a real-time display of system status, with a summary area displaying general information about memory and processor usage in the first few lines, followed by a list of processes and information about them. An example display is shown below, with the process list truncated for brevity:

top - 16:07:52 up  1:45,  2 users,  load average: 0.05, 0.12, 0.09
Tasks: 150 total,   2 running, 148 sleeping,   0 stopped,   0 zombie
Cpu(s):  3.2%us,  2.3%sy,  0.0%ni, 94.2%id,  0.2%wa,  0.0%hi,  0.2%si,  0.0%st
Mem:   1018060k total,   631284k used,   386776k free,    69444k buffers
Swap:   498004k total,        0k used,   498004k free,   283880k cached

 2080 grady     20   0  300m  96m  26m S    0  9.7  10:50.53 firefox
 2757 grady     20   0 71300  36m  11m S    0  3.7   0:16.51 evince
 1859 grady     20   0 60592  20m  12m S    0  2.1   0:06.93 netbook-launche
 1858 grady     20   0 54864  18m  10m S    0  1.9   0:00.76 nautilus
  939 root      20   0 48552  17m 9068 S    4  1.7   3:41.44 Xorg
 1909 grady     20   0 28836  16m  10m S    0  1.7   0:00.88 eee-control-tra
 2640 grady     20   0 27812  16m 9540 S    0  1.6   0:08.10 emacs
 1856 grady     20   0 40312  16m  11m S    0  1.6   0:08.10 gnome-panel
 1907 grady     20   0 29444  14m 8144 S    0  1.4   0:00.41 python
 1902 grady     20   0 36924  13m 9980 S    0  1.4   0:09.76 nm-applet
 2489 grady     20   0 38560  13m 9900 S    3  1.3   0:10.42 gnome-terminal

Summary area

The summary area shows a great deal of information about the general state of the system. The main highlights are the third through fifth lines, which show CPU and memory usage.

CPU is given as percentages spent doing various tasks. The abbreviations have the following meanings:

  • us – time spent running non-niced user processes (most of your programs will fall into this category)
  • sy – time spent running the Linux kernel and its processes
  • ni – time spent running niced use processes
  • id – time spent idle
  • wa – time spent waiting for I/O

The fourth and fifth lines show the usage of physical (i.e. actual RAM chips) and virtual memory. The first three fields are mostly self-explanatory, though on Linux the used memory includes disk cache. (Linux uses RAM that’s not allocated by programs to cache data from the disk, which can improve the computer’s performance because RAM is much faster than disk.) buffers gives the amount of memory used for I/O buffering, and cached is the amount used by the disk cache. Programs’ memory allocation takes priority over buffering and caching, so the total amount of memory available is the sum free + buffers + cached.

Task area

The task area gives a sorted list of the processes currently running on your system. By default, the list is sorted in descending order of CPU usage; the example display above is sorted by memory usage instead. Many different fields can be displayed in the task area; the default fields are:

  • PID: Process ID number. Useful for killing processes.
  • USER: Name of the user running the process.
  • PR: Relative priority of the process.
  • NI: Nice value of the process. Negative nice values give a process higher priority, while positive ones give it lower priority.
  • VIRT: Total amount of memory used by the process. This includes all code, data, and shared libraries being used. The field name comes from the fact that this includes memory that has been swapped to disk, so it measures the total virtual memory used, not necessarily how much of it is currently present in RAM.
  • RES: Total amount of physical (“resident”) memory used by the process.
  • S: Process status. The most common values are S for “Sleeping” or R for “Running”.
  • %CPU: Percent of CPU time being used by the process. This is relative to a single CPU; in a multiprocessor system, it may be higher than 100%.
  • %MEM: Percent of available RAM being used by the process. This does not include data that has been swapped to disk.
  • TIME+: Total CPU time used by the process since it started. This only counts the time the process has spent using the CPU, not time spent sleeping.
  • COMMAND: The name of the program.

Interactive commands

There are many useful commands you can issue to top; only a few of them are listed here. For more information, see the top manual page.

Command Meaning
q Quit
? Help
u Select processes belonging to a particular user. Useful on shared systems.
k Kill a process
F Select which field to sort by

Further reading

For more information, see the quick reference guide at http://www.oreillynet.com/linux/cmd/cmd.csp?path=t/top, or type man top in a Unix terminal window to read the manual page.