When Your Profiler Lies

By brucedawson

Last week I wrote about the performance consequences of inadvertently loading gdi32.dll into processes that are created and destroyed at very high rates. This week I want to share some techniques for digging deeper into this behavior, and the odd things that I found when trying to use them.

When I first wrote UIforETW I noticed that an inordinate amount of the size of the traces it recorded was coming from the Microsoft-Windows-Win32k provider. This provider records useful information about UI hangs and which window is active, but some less useful events were filling the trace buffers and crowding out the interesting ones. The most verbose events were the ExclusiveUserCrit, ReleaseUserCrit, and SharedUserCrit events and they were routinely generating 75% of the Microsoft-Windows-Win32k event traffic. So I stopped recording those events and forgot about them until quite recently. And that’s funny because those events record exactly the information that is needed for investigating all of these UI hangs – theoretically.

In practice the results from looking at these events are… mixed.

UIforETW settings dialogOnce I remembered the existence of these events I added Microsoft-Windows-Win32k to the extra user mode providers in the UIforETW Settings dialog, with no flags-filter specified so that all of the UserCrit events would be captured. I then recorded an ETW trace of ProcessCreateTests running with and without the -user32 option, on my four-core/eight-thread laptop.

Odd evidence in the new trace

The first thing I noticed was that the global UserCrit (user32.dll critical section) lock was really hot. Check out the count of ReleaseUserCrit events by process from the two runs of ProcessCreateTests:

ReleaseUserCrit event counts - lots of them

The conhost.exe process acquired and released it over 500,000 times per test! It did most of this activity during the process creation phase and usually held the lock for a very brief time so that no hangs were observed. But, acquiring a critical system lock a few hundred thousand times per second seems dangerous at best.

ReleaseUserCrit by processWhen CreateProcessTests was launched normally the lock was never touched by the child processes, but, in the -user32 case the lock was acquired six times per process during the process creation phase. This is the first sign of the performance problems that will happen during process destruction.


At first the tracing data seemed to show that the UserCrit was never acquired by the test child processes during process destruction. That was quite surprising considering that the UserCrit was the reason for the hangs. Unknown process - 2,000 ReleaseUserCrit eventsIt turns out that the UserCrit activity during shutdown of my test processes was entirely attributed to the Unknown process. This seems like an odd ETW tracing defect, which certainly complicated this analysis. Once I understood what was going on (confirmed by matching thread IDs) I could see that the UserCrit is acquired twice per CreateProcessTests child process during process destruction.

Lock acquire counts do not correlate

At this point I could see the problematic UserCrit lock was acquired over 500,000 times during process creation and only 6,000 times during process destruction, and yet, the only time that hangs are observed is during process destruction. So I continued down the rabbit hole…

AquireCPCCounts for UnknownLock contention is a factor both of how often a lock is acquired, and how long it is held. The ExclusiveUserCrit and SharedUserCrit events (acquiring the lock) and the ReleaseUserCrit event have fields labeled AcquireQpcCounts and HoldQPCCounts which appear to record how long the thread waited to acquire the lock, and then how long it held the lock. The time is presumably measured in QueryPerformanceCounter units, and thank you to the anonymous Microsoft developer who labeled these fields clearly. My QPC clock runs at 10 MHz (odd…) so each unit represents 0.1 microseconds.

I wanted to be able to easily summarize this data by process name and event type so  I made a custom profile for the GenericEvents data which applied a filter so that only events with a Task Name containing UserCrit would be displayed:

Nested WPA configuration dialogs

Then I used that together with wpaexporter to export the UserCrit data from specific time ranges to a .csv file for analysis:

wpaexporter -i “2018-11-30_08-02-17 usercrit processcreatetests.etl” -range 4.4s 6.7s -profile UserCritEvents.wpaProfile

I then used a crude Python script to summarize the data for the processes of interest (and totals for all processes in the system) and got these results for the two segments of the run with -user32 specified. “Held time” is how long ReleaseUserCrit says the lock was held for, and “Wait time” is how long ExclusiveUserCrit and SharedUserCrit say the thread waited before it could acquire the lock:

Process creation (~2.0 s duration):

Process ProcessCreatetests.exe:  Held time:   0.151 s,   6110 events  Wait time:   0.359 s,   6110 eventsProcess conhost.exe:  Held time:   0.388 s, 505516 events  Wait time:   0.533 s, 505516 eventsTotals from all processes:

  Held time:   0.597 s, 517946 events

  Wait time:   1.370 s, 517946 events

Process destruction (2.3 s duration):

Process ProcessCreatetests.exe:  Held time:   0.000 s,     33 events  Wait time:   1.689 s,     33 eventsProcess Unknown (aka ProcessCreateTests.exe):  Held time:   0.115 s,   2004 events  Wait time: 223.160 s,   2004 eventsProcess conhost.exe:  Held time:   0.021 s,   1262 events  Wait time:   1.289 s,   1262 eventsTotals from all processes:

  Held time:   0.172 s,   5938 events

  Wait time: 251.664 s,   5938 events

So, according to these ETW events the UserCrit was held about 30% of the time during process creation (no hangs observed, ever) and about 7.5% of the time during process destruction (lots of hangs observed, always). Put another way, the “Wait time” total of 251 s over a 2.3 s period implies that on average there were over a hundred threads waiting to acquire the lock, but the “Held time” of 0.172 s implies that there was rarely anybody stopping them from acquiring the lock. Well that doesn’t make sense.

This WPA screenshot gives us another view that shows that something is fishy. The trace is zoomed in on the process destruction phase and the ReleaseUserCrit events are selected so that all of the times the UserCrit is released are highlighted as vertical blue lines, and we can clearly see large segments where the lock is not released for long periods of time. And yet, despite that lack of activity (and no sign of the lock ever being held for long) we can see that multiple processes were hung (MsgCheck Delay) for about 1.5 seconds, and analysis shows that they were hung because they couldn’t grab the UserCrit lock.

The quandary, in an information packed WPA screenshot

We can also see that the ReleaseUserCrit events, sorted by HoldQpcCounts, imply that the longest duration the UserCrit was ever held for was just 20,524 QPC intervals, or 2.05 ms. And yet, we can see that there is a period of over 200 ms where there are no ReleaseUserCrit events, and yet no other applications can get the lock.

Finally, the top line of the HoldQpcCounts column shows a sum of 1,670,037 units, or just 167 ms, over the 2.239 s period shown.

This makes no sense

We have one piece of evidence (the Microsoft-Windows-Win32k events) saying that the UserCrit is available more than 90% of the time during process destruction, and other pieces of evidence (the MsgCheckDelay) events saying it isn’t. Given that I can see the mouse hangs with my own eyes I know which I believe, but what is going on? Unfortunately I can’t tell.

Either the ReleaseUserCrit events are incorrectly recording how long the lock was held, or some ReleaseUserCrit events are not being emitted at all. Or perhaps some events are being emitted but then somehow lost – perhaps due tracing problems during process destruction. Given the number of context switches occurring on call stacks that look like they are related to the UserCrit I think that that some UserCrit events are being missed, for some reason.

For whatever reason, the UserCrit events appear to be unreliable and thus mostly useless, whereas the GUIProcess events (which UIforETW records by default) do have some modest value.

Other observations

In addition to contention on the UserCrit the process destruction (and to some extent process creation) phase is sometimes serialized on a different lock/resource, presumably called the HmgrSemaphore. based on how much time is spent waiting on GreAcquireHmgrSemaphore. So, if the lock contention on the UserCrit is improved then the next serializing lock is already waiting in the wings – Microsoft really doesn’t want you to create a lot of processes.

While poking around I found that there are GUIThread and GUIProcess events that trigger during process creation and process destruction when gdi32.dll is loaded. These events are recorded by UIforETW by default so they serve as the simplest indicator of GUI/GDI processes being destroyed or created. If you see a lot of these events then that probably means you are having a bad day.

When I turned off filtering of Microsoft-Windows-Win32k events the ReleaseUserCrit and ExclusiveUserCrit showed up as the second and third biggest contributors to trace size, which nicely justifies my default behavior of filtering them. This isn’t entirely fair because ProcessCreateTests stresses these events so heavily, but it’s not totally unfair either.

Trace data, showing lots of space used by UserCrit events

Note that you can see the keyword mask which is what I used to disable the events years ago.

Mysteries and things for Microsoft to investigate

  • First lie – why are all the UserCrit ETW events attributed to Unknown during process destruction?
  • Second lie -why are so many UserCrit events apparently missing? Is this perhaps related to the previous question?
  • Why doesn’t the Generic Events table have an option to group by Process Name, unlike most other tables. I really needed that option to let me investigate the 1,001 ProcessCreateTests processes
  • Why is QueryPerformanceCounter running at 10 MHz on my Lenovo P51 laptop? That means that it isn’t using rdtsc directly which means that it is ~25x more expensive, and less precise.
  • Is this the last question in this blog post?

Lock contention posts

I’ve been writing about locks lately. I’ve fought with the UserCrit enough to have written one, two, three times before this about the hangs it causes. I also fought with the lock that protects VirtualAlloc – a story in two parts.