Load Shedding in Network Monitoring Applications

Pere Barlet-Ros*, Gianluca Iannaccone+, Josep Sanjus-Cuxart*, Diego Amores-Lpez*, Josep Sol-Pareta*

* Technical University of Catalonia (UPC), Barcelona, Spain
+ Intel Research, Berkeley, CA


Monitoring and mining real-time network data streams is crucial for managing and operating data networks. The information that network operators desire to extract from the network traffic is of different size, granularity and accuracy depending on the measurement task (e.g., relevant data for capacity planning and intrusion detection are very different). To satisfy these different demands, a new class of monitoring systems is emerging to handle multiple arbitrary and continuous traffic queries. Such systems must cope with the effects of overload situations due to the large volumes, high data rates and bursty nature of the network traffic.

In this paper, we present the design and evaluation of a system that can shed excess load in the presence of extreme traffic conditions, while maintaining the accuracy of the traffic queries within acceptable levels. The main novelty of our approach is that it is able to operate without explicit knowledge of the traffic queries. Instead, it extracts a set of features from the traffic streams to build an on-line prediction model of the query resource requirements. This way the monitoring system preserves a high degree of flexibility, increasing the range of applications and network scenarios where it can be used.

We implemented our scheme in an existing network monitoring system and deployed it in a research ISP network. Our results show that the system predicts the resources required to run each traffic query with errors below 5%, and that it can efficiently handle extreme load situations, preventing uncontrolled packet losses, with minimum impact on the accuracy of the queries’ results.

1 Introduction

Network monitoring applications that must extract a large number of real-time metrics from many input streams are becoming increasingly common. These include for example applications that correlate network data from multiple sources (e.g., end-systems, access points, switches) to identify anomalous behaviors, enable traffic engineering and capacity planning or manage and troubleshoot the network infrastructure.

The main challenge in these systems is to keep up with ever increasing input data rates and processing requirements. Data rates are driven by the increase in network link speeds, application demands and the number of end-hosts in the network. The processing requirements are growing to satisfy the demands for fine grained and continuous analysis, tracking and inspection of network traffic. This challenge is made even harder as network operators expect the queries to return accurate enough results in the presence of extreme or anomalous traffic patterns, when the system is under additional stress (and the query results are most valuable!). The alternative of over-provisioning the system to handle peak rates or any possible traffic mix would be prohibitively expensive and result in a highly underutilized system based on an extremely pessimistic estimation of workload.

Recently, several research proposals have addressed this challenge [182223814]. The solutions introduced belong to two broad categories. The first includes approaches that consider a pre-defined set of metrics and can report approximate results (within given accuracy bounds) in the case of overload [1814]. The second category includes solutions that define a declarative query language with a small set of operators for which the resource usage is assumed to be known [22238]. In the presence of overload, operator-specific load shedding techniques are implemented (e.g., selectively discarding some records, computing approximate summaries) so that the accuracy of the entire query is preserved within certain bounds. These solutions present two common limitations: (i) they restrict the types of metrics that can be extracted from the traffic streams, limiting therefore the possible uses and applications of these systems, and (ii) they assume explicit knowledge of the cost and selectivity of each operator, requiring a very careful and time-consuming design and implementation phase for each of them.

In this paper, we present a system that supports multiple arbitrary and continuous traffic queries on the input streams. The system can handle overload situations due to anomalous or extreme traffic mixes by gracefully degrading the accuracy of the queries. The core of our load shedding scheme consists of the real-time modeling and prediction of the system resource usage that allows the system to anticipate future bursts in the resource requirements. The main novelty of our approach is that it does not require explicit knowledge of the query or of the types of computations it performs (e.g., flow classification, maintaining aggregate counters, string search). This way we preserve the flexibility of the monitoring system, enabling fast implementation and deployment of new network monitoring applications.

Without any knowledge of the computations performed on the packet streams, we infer their cost from the relation between a large set of pre-defined “features” of the input stream and the actual resource usage. A feature is a counter that describes a specific property of a sequence of packets (e.g., number of unique source IP addresses). The features we compute on the input stream have the advantage of being lightweight with a deterministic worst case computational cost. Then, we automatically identify those features that best model the resource usage of each query and use them to predict the overall load of the system. This short-term prediction is used to guide the system on deciding when, where and how much load to shed. In the presence of overload, the system can apply several load shedding techniques, such as packet sampling, flow sampling or computing summaries of the data streams to reduce the amount of resources required by the queries to run.

For simplicity, in this paper we focus only on one resource: the CPU cycles. Other system resources are also critical (e.g., memory, disk bandwidth and disk space) and we believe that approaches similar to what we propose here could be applied as well.

We have integrated our load shedding scheme into the CoMo monitoring system [16] and deployed it on a research ISP network, where the traffic load and query requirements exceed by far the system capacity. We ran a set of seven concurrent queries that range from maintaining simple counters (e.g., number of packets, application breakdown) to more complex data structures (e.g., per-flow classification, ranking of most popular destinations or pattern search).

Our results show that, with the load shedding mechanism in place, the system effectively handles extreme load situations, while being always responsive and preventing uncontrolled packet losses. The results also indicate that a predictive approach can quickly adapt to overload situations and keep the queries’ results within acceptable error bounds, as compared to a reactive load shedding strategy.

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. Section 2 presents in greater detail some related work. Section 3 introduces the monitoring system and the set of queries we use for our study. We describe our prediction method in Section 4 and validate its performance using real-world packet traces in Section 5. Section 6 presents a load shedding scheme based on our prediction method. Finally, in Section 7 we evaluate our load shedding scheme in a research ISP network, while Section 8 concludes the paper and introduces ideas for future work.

2 Related Work

The design of mechanisms to handle overload situations is a classical problem in any real-time system design and several previous works have proposed solutions in different environments.

In the network monitoring space, NetFlow [9] is considered the state-of-the-art. In order to handle the large volumes of data exported and to reduce the load on the router it resorts to packet sampling. The sampling rate must be defined at configuration time and network operators tend to set it to a low “safe” value (e.g., 1/100 or 1/1000 packets) to handle unexpected traffic scenarios. Adaptive NetFlow [14] allows routers to dynamically tune the sampling rate to the memory consumption in order to maximize the accuracy given a specific incoming traffic mix. Keys et al. [18] extend the approach used in NetFlow by extracting and exporting a set of 12 traffic summaries that allow the system to answer a fixed number of common questions asked by network operators. They deal with extreme traffic conditions using adaptive sampling and memory-efficient counting algorithms. Our work differs from these approaches in that we are not limited to a fixed set of known traffic reports, but instead we can handle arbitrary network traffic queries, increasing the range of applications and network scenarios where the monitoring system can be used.

Several research proposals in the stream database literature are also very relevant to our work. The Aurora system [5] can process a large number of concurrent queries that are built out of a small set of operators. In Aurora, load shedding is achieved by inserting additional drop operators in the data flow of each query [23]. In order to find the proper location to insert the drop operators, [23] assumes explicit knowledge of the cost and selectivity of each operator in the data flow. In [722], the authors propose a system that applies approximate query processing techniques, instead of dropping records, to provide approximate and delay-bounded answers in presence of overload. On the contrary, in our context we have no explicit knowledge of the query and therefore we cannot make any assumption on its cost or selectivity to know when it is the right time to drop records. Regarding the records to be dropped, we apply packet or flow sampling to reduce the load on the system, but other summarization techniques are an important piece of future work.

In the Internet services space, SEDA [24] proposes an architecture to develop highly concurrent server applications, built as networks of stages interconnected by queues. SEDA implements a reactive load shedding scheme by dropping incoming requests when an overload situation is detected (e.g., the response time of the system exceeds a given threshold). In this work we use instead a predictive approach to anticipate overload situations. We will show later how a predictive approach can significantly reduce the impact of overload as compared to a reactive one.

Finally, our system is based on extracting features from the traffic streams with deterministic worst case time bounds. Several solutions have been proposed in the literature to this end. For example, counting the number of distinct items in a stream has been addressed in the past in [151]. In this work we implement the multi-resolution bitmap algorithms for counting flows proposed in [15].

3 System Overview

The basic thesis behind this work is that the cost of maintaining the data structures needed to execute a query can be modeled by looking at a set of traffic features that characterizes the input data. The intuition behind this thesis comes from the empirical observation that each query incurs a different overhead when performing basic operations on the state it maintains while processing the input packet stream (e.g., creating new entries, updating existing ones or looking for a valid match). We observed that the time spent by a query is mostly dominated by the overhead of some of these operations and therefore can be modeled by considering the right set of simple traffic features.

A traffic feature is a counter that describes a property of a sequence of packets. For example, potential features could be the number of packets or bytes in the sequence, the number of unique source IP addresses, etc. In this paper we will select a large set of simple features that have the same underlying property: deterministic worst case computational complexity.

Once a large number of features is efficiently extracted from the traffic stream, the challenge is in identifying the right ones that can be used to accurately model and predict the query’s CPU usage. Figure 1 illustrates a very simple example. The figure shows the time series of the CPU cycles consumed by an “unknown” query (top graph) when running over a 100s snapshot of our dataset (described in Section 5.1), where we inserted an artificially generated anomaly. The three bottom plots show three possible features over time: the number of packets, bytes and flows (defined by the classical 5-tuple: source and destination addresses, source and destination port numbers and protocol number). It is clear from the figure that the bottom plot would give us more useful information to predict the CPU usage over time for this query. It is also easy to infer that the query is performing some sort of per-flow classification, hence the higher cost when the number of flows increases, despite the volume of packets and bytes remains fairly stable.


Figure 1: CPU usage of an “unknown” query in the presence of an artificially generated anomaly compared to the number of packets, bytes and flows

We designed a method that automatically selects the most relevant feature(s) from small sequences of packets and uses them to accurately predict the CPU usage of arbitrary queries. This fine-grained and short-term prediction is then used to quickly adapt to overload situations by sampling the input streams.

3.1 Monitoring Platform

We chose the CoMo platform [16] to develop and evaluate our resource usage prediction and load shedding methods. CoMo is an open-source passive monitoring system that allows for fast implementation and deployment of network monitoring applications. CoMo follows a modular approach where users can easily define traffic queries as plug-in modules written in C, making use of a feature-rich API provided by the core platform. Users are also required to specify a simple stateless filter to be applied on the incoming packet stream (it could be all the packets) as well as the granularity of the measurements, hereafter called measurement interval (i.e., the time interval that will be used to report continuous query results). All complex stateful computations are contained within the plug-in module code. This approach allows users to define traffic queries that otherwise could not be easily expressed using common declarative languages (e.g., SQL). More details about the CoMo platform can be found in [16].

In order to provide the user with maximum flexibility when writing queries, CoMo does not restrict the type of computations that a plug-in module can perform. As a consequence, the platform does not have any explicit knowledge of the data structures used by the plug-in modules or the cost of maintaining them. Therefore, any load shedding mechanism for such a system must operate only with external observations of the CPU requirements of the modules – and these are not known in advance but only after a packet has been processed.

Figure 2 shows the components and the data flow in the system. The prediction and load shedding subsystem (in gray) intercepts the packets from the filter before they are sent to the plug-in module implementing the traffic query. The system operates in four phases. First, it groups each 100ms of traffic in a “batch” of packets1. Each batch is then processed to extract a large pre-defined set of traffic features (Section 4.1). The feature selection subsystem is in charge of selecting the most relevant features according to the recent history of the query’s CPU usage (Section 4.3). This phase is important to reduce the cost of the prediction algorithm, because it allows the system to discard beforehand the features regarded as useless for prediction purposes. This subset of relevant features is then given as input to the multiple linear regression subsystem to predict the CPU cycles required by the query to process the entire batch (Section 4.2). If the prediction exceeds the system capacity, the load shedding subsystem pre-processes the batch to discard (via packet or flow sampling) a portion of the packets (Section 6). Finally, the actual CPU usage is computed and fed back to the prediction subsystem to close the loop (Section 4.4).


Figure 2: Prediction and load shedding subsystem

3.2 Queries

Despite the fact that the actual metric computed by the query is not relevant for our work – our system considers all queries as black boxes – we are interested in considering a wide range of queries when performing the evaluation. We have selected the set of queries that are part of the standard distribution of CoMo2. Table 1 provides a brief summary of the queries. We believe that these queries form a representative set of typical uses of a real-time network monitoring system. They present different CPU usage profiles for the same input traffic and use different data structures to maintain their state (e.g., aggregated counters, arrays, hash tables, linked lists).

Name Description

application Port-based application classification

flows Per-flow counters

high-watermark High watermark of link utilization

link-count Traffic load

pattern search Identifies sequences of bytes in the payload

top destinationsPer-flow counters for the top-10 destination IPs

trace Full-payload collection

Table 1: Queries used in the experimental evaluation

4 Prediction Methodology

In this section we describe in detail the three phases that our system executes to perform the prediction (i.e., feature extraction, feature selection and multiple linear regression) and how the resource usage is monitored. The only information we require from the continuous query is the measurement interval of the results. Avoiding the use of additional information increases the range of applications where this approach can be used and also reduces the likelihood of compromising the system by providing incorrect information about a query.

4.1 Feature Extraction

We are interested in finding a set of traffic features that are simple and inexpensive to compute, while helpful to characterize the CPU usage of a wide range of queries. A feature that is too specific may allow us to predict a given query with great accuracy, but could have a cost comparable to directly answering the query (e.g., counting the packets that contain a given pattern to predict the cost of signature-based IDS-like queries). Our goal is therefore to find features that may not explain in detail the entire cost of a query, but can provide enough information about the aspects that dominate the processing cost. For instance, in the previous example of a signature-based IDS query, the cost of matching a string will mainly depend on the number of collected bytes.

In addition to the number of packets and bytes, we maintain four counters per traffic aggregate that are updated every time a batch is received. A traffic aggregate considers one or more of the TCP/IP header fields: source and destination IP addresses, source and destination port numbers and protocol number. The four counters we monitor per aggregate are: (i) the number of unique items in the batch; (ii) the number of new items compared to all items seen in a measurement interval; (iii) the number of repeated items in the batch (i.e., items in the batch minus unique) and (iv) the number of repeated items compared to all items in a measurement interval (i.e., items in the batch minus new).

For example, we may aggregate packets based on the source IP address and source port number, and then count the number of unique, new and repeated source IP address and source port pairs. Table 2 shows the combinations of the five header fields considered in this work. Although we do not evaluate other choices here, we note that other aggregates may also be useful (e.g., source IP prefixes or other combinations of the 5 header fields). Adding new traffic features (e.g., payload-related features) as well as considering other combinations of the existing ones is an important part of our future work.

No.Traffic aggregate

1 src-ip

2 dst-ip

3 protocol

4 <src-ip, dst-ip>

5 <src-port, proto>

6 <dst-port, proto>

7 <src-ip, src-port, proto>

8 <dst-ip, dst-port, proto>

9 <src-port, dst-port, proto>

10 <src-ip, dst-ip, src-port, dst-port, proto>

Table 2: Set of traffic aggregates (built from combinations of TCP/IP header fields) used by the prediction

This large set of features (four counters per traffic aggregate plus the total packet and byte counts, i.e., 42 in our experiments) helps narrow down which basic operations performed by the queries dominate their processing costs (e.g., creating a new entry, updating an existing one or looking up entries). For example, the new items are relevant to predict the CPU requirements of those queries that spend most time creating entries in the data structures, while the repeated items feature may be relevant to queries where the cost of updating the data structures is much higher than the cost of creating entries.

In order to extract the features with minimum overhead, we implement the multi-resolution bitmap algorithms proposed in [15]. The advantage of the multi-resolution bitmaps is that they bound the number of memory accesses per packet as compared to classical hash tables and they can handle a large number of items with good accuracy and smaller memory footprint than linear counting [25] or bloom filters [4]. We dimension the multi-resolution bitmaps to obtain counting errors around 1% given the link speeds in our testbed.

4.2 Multiple Linear Regression

Regression analysis is a widely applied technique to study the relationship between a response variable Y  and one or more predictor variables X1, X2,...,Xp  . The linear regression model assumes that the response variable Y  is a linear function of the p  Xi  predictor variables3. The fact that this relationship exists can be exploited for predicting the expected value of Y  (i.e., the CPU usage) when the values of the p  predictor variables (i.e., the individual features) are known.

When only one predictor variable is used, the regression model is often referred to as simple linear regression (SLR). Using just one predictor has two major drawbacks. First, there is no single predictor that yields good performance for all queries. For example, the CPU usage of the link-count query can be well modeled by looking at the number of packets in the batch, while the trace query would be better modeled by the number of bytes. Second, the CPU usage of more complex queries may depend on more than a single feature. To illustrate this latter point, we plot in Figure 3 the CPU usage for the flows query versus the number of packets in the batch. As we can observe, there are several underlying trends that depend both on the number of packets and on the number of new 5-tuples in the batch. This behavior is due to the particular implementation of the flows query that maintains a hash table to keep track of the flows and expires them at the end of each measurement interval.


Figure 3: Scatter plot of the CPU usage versus the number of packets in the batch (flows query)

Multiple linear regression (MLR) extends the simple linear regression model to several predictor variables. The general form of a linear regression model for p predictor variables can be written as follows [10]:

Yi = β0 + β1X1i + β2X2i + ...
    ⋅⋅⋅+ βpXpi +ɛi,    i = 1,2,...,n.

In fact, Equation 1 corresponds to a system of equations that in matrix notation can be written as:

Y = Xβ + ɛ

where Y is a n× 1 column vector of the response variable observations (i.e., the CPU usage of the previous n batches processed by the query); X is a n × (p + 1) matrix resulting from n observations of the p predictor variables X1,,Xp (i.e., the values of the p features extracted from the previous n batches) with a first column of 1’s that represents the intercept term β0; β is a (p + 1) × 1 column vector of unknown parameters β0,β1,...,βp  (β1,...,βp  are referred to as the regression coefficients or weights); and ɛ is a n × 1 column vector of n residuals ɛi.

The estimators b of the regression coefficients β are obtained by the Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) procedure, which consists of choosing the values of the unknown parameters b0,,bp in such a way that the sum of squares of the residuals is minimized. In our implementation, we use the singular value decomposition (SVD) method [21] to compute the OLS. Although SVD is more expensive than other methods, it is able to obtain the best approximation, in the least-squares sense, in the case of an over- or underdetermined system.

The statistical properties of the OLS estimators lie on some assumptions that must be fulfilled  [10, pp. 216]: (i) the rank of X is p + 1 and is less than n, i.e., there are no exact linear relationships among the X variables (no multicollinearity); (ii) the variable ɛi is normally distributed and the expected value of the vector ɛ is zero; (iii) there is no correlation between the residuals and they exhibit constant variance; (iv) the covariance between the predictors and the residuals is zero. In Section 4.3 we present a technique that makes sure the first assumption is valid. We have also verified experimentally using the packet traces of our dataset that the other assumptions hold but in the interest of space we will not show the results here.

4.3 Feature Selection

Since we assume arbitrary queries, we cannot know in advance which features should be used as predictors in the MLR for each query. Including all the extracted traffic features in the regression has several drawbacks: (i) the cost of the linear regression increases quadratically with the number of predictors, much faster than the gain in terms of accuracy (irrelevant predictors); (ii) even including all possible predictors, there would still be a certain amount of randomness that cannot be explained by any predictor; (iii) predictors that are linear functions of other predictors (redundant predictors) invalidate the no multicollinearity assumption4.

It is therefore important to identify a small subset of features to be used as predictors. In order to support arbitrary queries, we need to define a generic feature selection algorithm. We would also like our method to be capable of dynamically selecting different sets of features if the traffic conditions change during the execution, and the current prediction model becomes obsolete.

Most of the algorithms proposed in the literature are based on a sequential variable selection procedure [10]. However, they are usually too expensive to be used in a real-time system. For this reason, we decided to use a variant of the Fast Correlation-Based Filter (FCBF) [26], which can effectively remove both irrelevant and redundant features and is computationally very efficient. Our variant differs from the original FCBF algorithm in that we use the linear correlation coefficient as a predictor goodness measure, instead of the symmetrical uncertainty measure used in [26].

The algorithm consists of two main phases. First, the linear correlation coefficient between each predictor and the response variable is computed and the predictors with a coefficient below a pre-defined FCBF threshold are discarded as not relevant. In Section 5.2 we will address the problem of choosing the appropriate FCBF threshold. Second, the predictors that are left after the first phase are ranked according to their coefficient values and processed iteratively to discard redundant predictors (i.e., predictors that have a mutual strong correlation), as described in [3]. The overall complexity of the FCBF is O(n p log p), where n is the number of observations and p the number of predictors [26].

4.4 Measurement of System Resources

Fine grained measurement of CPU usage is not an easy task. The mechanisms provided by the operating system do not offer enough resolution for our purposes, while processor performance profiling tools [17] impose a large overhead and are not a viable permanent solution.

In this work, we use instead the time-stamp counter (TSC) to measure the CPU usage, which is a 64-bit counter incremented by the processor every clock cycle [17]. In particular, we read the TSC before and after a batch is processed by a query. The difference between these two values corresponds to the number of CPU cycles used by the query to process the batch.

The CPU usage measurements that are fed back to the prediction system should be accurate and free of external noise to reduce the errors in the prediction. However, we empirically detected that measuring CPU usage at very small timescales incurs in several sources of noise:

Instruction reordering. The processor can reorder instructions at run time in order to improve performance. In practice, the rdtsc instruction used to read the TSC counter is often reordered, since it simply consists of reading a register and it has no dependencies with other instructions. To avoid the effects of reordering, we execute a serializing instruction (e.g., cpuid) before and after our measurements [17]. Since the use of serializing instructions can have a severe impact on the system performance, we only take two TSC readings per query and batch, and we do not take any partial measurements during the execution of the query.

Context switches. The operating system may decide to schedule out the query process between two consecutive readings of the TSC. In that case, we would be measuring not only cycles belonging to the query, but also cycles of the process (or processes) that are preempting the query.

In order to avoid degrading the accuracy of future predictions when a context switch happens during a measurement, we discard those observations from the history and replace them with our prediction. To measure context switches, we monitor the rusage process structure in the Linux kernel.

Disk accesses. Disk accesses can interfere with the CPU cycles needed to process a query. In CoMo, a separate process is responsible for scheduling disk accesses to read and write query results. In practice, since disk transfers are done asynchronously by DMA, memory accesses of queries have to compete for the system bus with disk transfers. For the interested reader we show the limited impact of disk accesses on the prediction accuracy in [3].

It is important to note that all the sources of noise we detected so far are independent from the input traffic. Therefore, they cannot be exploited by a malicious user trying to introduce errors in our CPU measurements to attack the monitoring system.

5 Validation

In this section we show the performance of our prediction method on real-world traffic traces. In order to understand the impact of each parameter, we study the prediction subsystem in isolation from the sources of measurement noise identified in Section 4.4. We disabled the disk accesses in the CoMo process responsible for storage operations to avoid competition for the system bus. In Section 7, we will evaluate our method in a fully operational system.

To measure the performance of our method we consider the relative error in the CPU usage prediction while executing the seven queries defined in Table 1 over the traces in our dataset. The relative error is defined as the absolute value of one minus the ratio of the prediction and the actual number of CPU cycles spent by the queries over each batch. A more detailed performance analysis can be found in [3].

5.1 Dataset

We collected two 30-minute traces from one direction of the Gigabit Ethernet link that connects the Catalan Research and Education Network (Scientific Ring) to the global Internet via its Spanish counterpart (RedIRIS). The Scientific Ring is managed by the Supercomputing Center of Catalonia (CESCA) and connects more than fifty Catalan universities and research centers using many different technologies that range from ADSL to Gigabit Ethernet [19]. A trace collected at this capture point is publicly available in the NLANR repository [20].

The first trace contains only packet headers, while the second one includes the entire packet payloads instead. Details of the traces are presented in Table 3.

Trace name
PktsLink load (Mbps)

(M) mean/max/min

w/o payloads02/Nov/054:30pm-5pm103.7 360.5/483.3/197.3

with payloads11/Apr/068am-8:30am 49.4 133.0/212.2/096.1

Table 3: Traces used in the validation

5.2 Prediction Parameters

In our system, two configuration parameters impact the cost and accuracy of the predictions: the number of observations (i.e., n or the “history” of the system) and the FCBF threshold used to select the relevant features.

Number of observations. Figure 4 shows the average cost of computing the MLR versus the prediction accuracy over multiple executions, with values of history ranging from 1s to 100s (i.e., 10 to 1000 batches). As we can see, the cost grows linearly with the amount of history, since every additional observation translates into a new equation in the system in (2). The relative error between the prediction and the actual number of CPU cycles spent by the queries stabilizes around 1.2% for histories longer than 6 seconds. Larger errors for very small amounts of history (e.g., 1s) are due to the fact that the number of predictors (i.e., p = 42) is larger than the amount of history (i.e., n = 10 batches) and thus the no multicollinearity assumption is not met. We also checked that histories longer than 100s do not improve the accuracy, because events that are not modeled by the traffic features are probably contributing to the error. Moreover, a longer history makes the prediction model less responsive to sudden changes in the traffic that may change the behavior of a query. In the rest of the paper we use a number of observations equal to 60 batches (i.e., 6s).


Figure 4: Prediction error versus cost as a function of the amount of history used to compute the MLR

FCBF threshold. The FCBF threshold determines which traffic features are relevant and not redundant in modeling the response variable. Figure 5 presents the prediction cost and accuracy as functions of the FCBF threshold over multiple executions in our testbed, with threshold values ranging from 0 (i.e., all features are considered relevant but the redundant ones are not selected) to 0.9 (i.e., most features are not selected). The prediction cost includes both the cost of the selection algorithm and the cost of computing the MLR with the selected features. Comparing this graph with Figure 4, we can see that using FCBF reduces the overall cost of the prediction by more than an order of magnitude while maintaining similar accuracy.


Figure 5: Prediction error versus cost as a function of the Fast Correlation-Based Filter threshold

As the threshold increases, less predictors are selected, and this turns into a decrease in the CPU cycles needed to run the MLR. However, the error remains fairly close to the minimum value obtained when all features are selected, and starts to ramp up only for relatively large values of the threshold (around 0.6). Very large values of the threshold (above 0.8) experience a much faster increase in the error compared to the decrease in the cost. In the rest of the paper we use a value of 0.6 for the FCBF threshold that achieves a good trade-off between prediction cost and accuracy.

5.3 Prediction Accuracy

In order to evaluate the performance of our method we ran the seven queries of Table 1 over the two traces in our dataset. Figures 6 and 7 show the time series of the average and maximum error over five executions when running on the packet trace with and without payloads, respectively.


Figure 6: Prediction error over time (trace with payloads)


Figure 7: Prediction error over time (trace w/o payloads)

The average error in both cases is consistently below 2%, while the maximum error peaks around 10%. These larger errors are due to external system events unrelated to the traffic that cause a spike in the CPU usage (e.g., cache misses) or due to a sudden change in the traffic patterns that is not appropriately modeled by the features that the prediction is using at that time. However, the time series shows that our method is able to converge very quickly. The trace without payloads (Figure 7) exhibits better performance, with average errors that drop well below 1%.

In Table 4, we show the breakdown of the prediction errors by query. The average error is very low for each query, with a relatively small standard deviation indicating compact distributions for the prediction errors. As expected, queries that make use of more complex data structures (e.g., flows, pattern search and top destinations) incur in the larger errors, but still at most around 3% on average.

Trace with payloads
Query Mean StdevSelected features

application 0.01100.0095packets, bytes
flows 0.03190.0302new dst-ip, dst-port, proto
high-watermark 0.00640.0077packets
link-count 0.00480.0066packets
pattern search 0.01980.0169bytes
top destinations0.01690.0267packets
trace 0.00900.0137bytes, packets

Trace without payloads
Query Mean StdevSelected features

application 0.00680.0060repeated 5-tuple, packets
flows 0.02520.0203new dst-ip, dst-port, proto
high-watermark 0.00590.0063packets
link-count 0.00460.0053packets
pattern search 0.00980.0093packets
top destinations0.01360.0183new 5-tuple, packets
trace 0.00920.0132packets

Table 4: Breakdown of prediction error and selected features by query (5 executions)

It is also very interesting to look at the features that the selection algorithm identifies as most relevant for each query. Remember that the selection algorithm has no information about what computations the queries perform nor what type of packet traces they are processing. The selected features give hints on what a query is actually doing and how it is implemented. For example, the number of bytes is the predominant traffic feature for the pattern search and trace queries when running on the trace with payloads. However, when processing the trace with just packet headers, the number of packets becomes the most relevant feature for these queries, as expected.

5.4 Prediction Cost

To understand the cost of running the prediction, we compare the CPU cycles of the prediction subsystem to those spent by the entire CoMo system over 5 executions. The feature extraction phase constitutes the bulk of the processing cost, with an overhead of 9.07%. The overhead introduced by the feature selection algorithm is only around 1.70% and the MLR imposes an even lower overhead (0.20%), mainly due to the fact that, when using the FCBF, the number of predictors is significantly reduced and thus there is a smaller number of variables to estimate. The use of the FCBF allows to increase the number of features without affecting the cost of the MLR. Finally, the total overhead imposed by our prediction method is 10.97%

6 Load Shedding

In this section, we provide the answers to the three fundamental questions any load shedding scheme needs to address: (i) when to shed load (i.e., which batch), (ii) where to shed load (i.e., which query) and (iii) how much load to shed (e.g., the sampling rate to apply). Algorithm 1 presents our load shedding scheme in detail, which controls the Prediction and Load Shedding subsystem of Figure 2. It is executed at each time bin (i.e., 0.1s in our current implementation) right after every batch arrival, as described in Section 3.1. This way, the system can quickly adapt to changes in the traffic patterns by selecting a different set of features if the current prediction model becomes obsolete.


6.1 When to Shed Load

To decide when to shed load the system maintains a threshold (avail_cycles) that accounts for the amount of cycles available in a time bin to process the queries. Since batch arrivals are periodic, this threshold can be dynamically computed as (time bin × CPUfrequency) - overhead, where overhead stands for the cycles needed by our prediction subsystem (ps_cycles), plus those spent by other CoMo tasks (como_cycles), but not directly related to query processing (e.g., packet collection, disk and memory management). The overhead is measured using the TSC, as described in Section 4.4. When the predicted cycles for all queries (pred_cycles) exceed the avail_cycles threshold, excess load needs to be shed.

We observed that, for certain time bins, como_cycles is greater than the available cycles, due to CoMo implementation issues (i.e., other CoMo tasks can occasionally consume all available cycles). This would force the system to discard entire batches, impacting on the accuracy of the prediction and query results. However, this situation can be minimized due to the presence of buffers (e.g., in the capture devices) that allow the system to use more cycles than those available in a single time bin. That is, the system can be delayed in respect to real-time operation as long as it is stable in the steady state.

We use an algorithm, inspired by TCP slow-start, to dynamically discover by how much the system can safely (i.e., without loss) exceed the avail_cycles threshold. The algorithm continuously monitors the system delay (delay), defined as the difference between the cycles actually used and those available in a time bin, and maintains a threshold (rtthresh) that controls the amount of cycles the system can be delayed without loss. rtthresh is initially set to zero and increases whenever queries use less cycles than available. If at some point the occupation of the buffers exceeds a predefined value (i.e., the system is turning unstable), rtthresh is reset to zero, and a second threshold (initialized to ) is set to rtthresh
  2. rtthresh grows exponentially while below this threshold, and linearly once it is exceeded.

This technique has two main advantages. First, it is able to operate without explicit knowledge of the maximum rate of the input streams. Second, it allows the system to quickly react to changes in the traffic.

Algorithm 1 (line 7) shows how the avail_cycles threshold is modified to consider the presence of buffers. Note that, at this point, delay is never less than zero, because if the system used less cycles than the available in a previous time bin, they would be lost anyway waiting for the next batch to become available.

Finally, as we further discuss in Section 6.3, we multiply the pred_cycles by 1 + error in line 8, as a safeguard against prediction errors, where error is an Exponential Weighted Moving Average (EWMA) of the actual prediction error measured in previous time bins (computed as shown in line 17).

6.2 Where and How to Shed Load

Our approach to shed excess load consists of adaptively reducing the volume of data to be processed by the queries (i.e., the size of the batch).

There are several data reduction techniques that can be used for this purpose (e.g., filtering, aggregation and sampling). In our current implementation, we support uniform packet and flow sampling, and let each query select at configuration time the option that yields the best results. In case of overload, the same sampling rate is applied to all queries (line 11).

In order to efficiently implement flow sampling, we use a hash-based technique called Flowwise sampling [11]. This technique randomly samples entire flows without caching the flow keys, which reduces significantly the processing and memory requirements during the sampling process. To avoid bias in the selection and deliberate sampling evasion, we randomly generate a new H3 hash function [6] per query every measurement interval, which distributes the flows uniformingly and unpredictably. The hash function is applied on a packet basis and maps the 5-tuple flow ID to a value distributed in the range [0, 1). A packet is then selected only if its hash value is less or equal to the sampling rate.

Note that our current implementation based on traffic sampling has two main limitations. First, using an overall sampling rate for all queries does not differentiate among them. Hence, we are currently investigating the use of different sampling rates for different queries according to per-query utility functions in order to maximize the overall utility of the system, as proposed in [23]. Second, there is a large set of imaginable queries that are not able to correctly estimate their unsampled output from sampled streams. For those queries, we plan to support many different load shedding mechanisms, such as computing lightweight summaries of the input data streams [22] and more robust flow sampling techniques [12].

6.3 How Much Load to Shed

The amount of load to be shed is determined by the maximum sampling rate that keeps the CPU usage below the avail_cycles threshold.

Since the system does not differentiate among queries, the sampling rate could be simply set to the ratio availxcycles-
predxcycles  in all queries. This assumes that their CPU usage is proportional to the size of the batch (in packets or flows, depending on whether packet or flow sampling is used). However, the cost of a query can actually depend on several traffic features, or even on a feature different from the number of packets or flows. In addition, there is no guarantee of keeping the CPU usage below the avail_cycles threshold, due to the error introduced by the prediction subsystem.

We deal with these limitations by maintaining an EWMA of the prediction error (line 17) and correcting the sampling rate accordingly (line 9). Moreover, we have to take into account the extra cycles that will be needed by the load shedding subsystem (ls_cycles), namely the sampling procedure (line 11) and the feature extraction (line 12), which must be repeated after sampling in order to correctly update the MLR history. Hence, we also maintain an EWMA of the cycles spent in previous time bins by the load shedding subsystem (line 13) and subtract this value from avail_cycles.

After applying the mentioned changes, the sampling rate is computed as shown in Algorithm 1 (line 9). The EWMA weight α is set to 0.9 in order to quickly react to changes. It is also important to note that if the prediction error had a zero mean, we could remove it from lines 8 and 9, because buffers should be able to absorb such error. However, there is no guarantee of having a mean of zero in the short term.

7 Evaluation and Operational Results

We evaluate our load shedding system in a research ISP network, where the traffic load and query requirements exceed by far the capacity of the monitoring system. We also assess the impact of sampling on the accuracy of the queries, and compare the results of our predictive scheme to two alternative systems. Finally, we present the overhead introduced by the load shedding procedure and discuss possible alternatives to reduce it further.

7.1 Testbed Scenario

Our testbed equipment consists of two PCs with an Intel Pentium 4 running at 3 GHz, both equipped with an Endace DAG 4.3GE card [13]. Through a pair of optical splitters, both computers receive an exact copy of the link described in Section 5.1, which connects the Catalan Research and Education Network to the Internet. The first PC is used to run the CoMo monitoring system on-line, while the second one collects a packet-level trace (without loss), which is used as our reference to verify the accuracy of the results.

Throughout the evaluation, we present the results of three 8 hours-long executions (see Table 5 for details). In the first one (predictive), we run a modified version of CoMo that implements our load shedding scheme5, while in the other two executions we repeat the same experiment, but using a version of CoMo that implements two alternative load shedding approaches described below. The duration of the executions was constrained by the amount of storage space available to collect the packet-level traces (600 GB) and the size of the DAG buffer was configured to 256 MB.

Link load (Mbps)


predictive 24/Oct/069am:5pm 750.4/973.6/129.0

original 25/Oct/069am:5pm 719.9/967.5/218.0

reactive 05/Dec/069am:5pm 403.3/771.6/131.0

Table 5: Characteristics of the network traffic during the evaluation of each load shedding method

7.2 Alternative Approaches

The first alternative (original) consists of the current version of CoMo, which discards packets from the input buffers in the presence of overload. In our case, overload situations are detected when the occupation of the capture buffers exceeds a pre-defined threshold.

For the second alternative (reactive), we implemented a more complex reactive method that makes use of packet and flow sampling. This system is equivalent to a predictive one, where the prediction for a time bin is always equal to the cycles used to process the previous batch. This strategy is similar to the one used in SEDA [24]. In particular, we measure the cycles available in each time bin, as described in Section 6.1, and when the cycles actually used to process a batch exceed this limit, sampling is applied to the next time bin. The sampling rate for the time bin t is computed as:

            (      (             availcyclest - delay))
sratet = min 1, max α, sratet-1 × consumed-cycles----
                                               t- 1

where consumed_cyclest-1 stands for the cycles used in the previous time bin, delay is the amount of cycles by which avail_cyclest-1 was exceeded, and α is the minimum sampling rate we want to apply.

7.3 Performance

In Figure 8, we plot the Cumulative Distribution Function (CDF) of the CPU cycles consumed to process a single batch (i.e., the service time per batch). Recall that batches represent 100ms resulting in 3 × 108 cycles available to process each batch.


Figure 8: Cumulative Distribution Function of the CPU usage per batch

The figure shows that the predictive system is stable. As expected, sometimes the limit of available cycles is slightly exceeded owing to the buffer discovery algorithm presented in Section 6.1. The CDF also indicates good CPU usage between 2.5 and 3 × 108 cycles per batch, i.e., the system is rarely under- or over-sampling.

On the contrary, the service time per batch when using the original and reactive approaches is much more variable. It is often significantly larger than the batch interarrival time, with a probability of exceeding the available cycles greater than 30% in both executions. This leads to very unstable systems that introduce packet drops without control, even of entire batches. Figure 8 shows that more than 20% of the batches in the original execution, and around 5% in the reactive one, are completely lost (i.e., service time equal to zero).

Figure 9 illustrates the impact of exceeding the available cycles on the input stream. The line labeled ‘DAG drops’ refers to the packets dropped on the network capture card due to full memory buffers (results are averaged over one second). These drops are uncontrolled and contribute most to the errors in the query results. The line ‘unsampled’ counts the packets that are not processed due to packet or flow sampling.

Figure 9(a) confirms that, during the 8 hours, not a single packet was lost by the capture card when using the predictive approach. This result indicates that the system is robust against overload.

Figures 9(b) and 9(c) show instead that the capture card drops packets consistently during the entire execution6. The number of drops in the original approach is expected given that the load shedding scheme is based on dropping packets on the input interface. In the case of the reactive approach instead, the drops are due to incorrect estimation of the cycles needed to process each batch. The reactive system bases its estimation on the previous batch only. In addition, it must be noted that traffic conditions in the reactive execution were much less adverse, with almost half of traffic load, than in the other two executions (see Table 5). It is also interesting to note that when the traffic conditions are similar in all executions (from 9am to 10am), the number of unsampled packets plus the packets dropped by the reactive system is very similar to the number of unsampled packets by the predictive one, in spite of that they incur different processing overheads.

(a) Predictive load shedding
(b) Original CoMo
(c) Reactive load shedding

Figure 9: Link load and packet drops during the evaluation of each load shedding method

7.4 Accuracy

We modified the source code of five of the seven queries presented in Table 1, in order to allow them to estimate their unsampled output when load shedding is performed. This modification was simply done by multiplying the metrics they compute by the inverse of the sampling rate being applied to each batch.

We did not modify the pattern search and trace queries, because no standard procedure exists to recover their unsampled output from sampled streams and to measure their error. In this case, the error should be measured in terms of the application that uses the output of these two queries. As discussed in Section 6.2, we also plan to support other load shedding mechanisms for those queries that are not robust against sampling.

In the case of the link-count, flows and high-watermark queries, we measure the relative error in the number of packets and bytes, flows, and in the high-watermark value, respectively. The error of the application query is measured as a weighted average of the relative error in the number of packets and bytes across all applications. The relative error is defined as |1 -estimated-value
  actual value|, where the actual value is obtained from the complete packet trace, and all queries use packet sampling as load shedding mechanism, with the exception of the flows query that uses flow sampling.

In order to measure the error of the top destinations query, we use the detection performance metric proposed in [2], which is defined as the number of misranked flow pairs, where the first element of a pair is in the top-10 list returned by the query and the second one is outside the actual top-10 list. In this case, we selected packet sampling as load shedding mechanism [2].

Table 6 presents the error in the results of these five queries averaged across all the measurement intervals. We can observe that, although our load shedding system introduces a certain overhead, the error is kept significantly low compared to the two reactive versions of the CoMo system. Recall that the traffic load in the reactive execution was almost half of that in the other two executions. Large standard deviation values are due to long periods of consecutive packet drops in the alternative systems. It is also worth noting that the error of the top destinations query obtained in the predictive execution is consistent with that of [2].

Query predictive original reactive

application (pkts) 1.03% 0.65 55.38% 11.80 10.61% 7.78

application (bytes)1.17% 0.76 55.39% 11.80 11.90% 8.22

flows 2.88% 3.3438.48% 902.1312.46% 7.28

high-watermark 2.19% 2.30 8.68% 8.13 8.94% 9.46

link-count (pkts) 0.54% 0.50 55.03% 11.45 9.71% 8.41

link-count (bytes) 0.66% 0.60 55.06% 11.45 10.24% 8.39

top destinations 1.41 3.32 21.63 31.94 41.86 44.64

Table 6: Breakdown of the accuracy error of the different load shedding methods by query (mean stdev)

7.5 Overhead

Figure 10 presents the CPU usage during the predictive execution, broken down by the three main tasks presented in Section 6 (i.e., como_cycles, query_cycles and ps_cycles + ls_cycles). We also plot the cycles the system estimates as needed to process all incoming traffic (i.e., pred_cycles). From the figure, it is clear that the system is under severe stress because, during almost all the execution, it needs more than twice the cycles available to run our seven queries without loss.


Figure 10: CPU usage after load shedding (stacked) and estimated CPU usage (predictive execution)

The overhead introduced by our load shedding system (ps_cycles + ls_cycles) to the normal operation of the entire CoMo system is reasonably low compared to the advantages of keeping the CPU usage and the accuracy of the results well under control. Note that in Section 5.4 the cost of the prediction subsystem is measured without performing load shedding. This resulted in an overall processing cost similar to the pred_cycles in Figure 10 and therefore in a lower relative overhead.

While the overhead incurred by the load shedding mechanism itself (ls_cycles) is similar in any load shedding approach, independently of whether it is predictive or reactive, the overhead incurred by the prediction subsystem (ps_cycles) is particular to our predictive approach. As discussed in Section 5.4, the bulk of the prediction cost corresponds to the feature extraction phase, which is entirely implemented using a family of memory-efficient algorithms that could be directly built in hardware [15]. Alternatively, this overhead could be reduced significantly by applying sampling in this phase or simply reducing the accuracy of the bitmap counters.

Finally, our current implementation incurs additional overhead, since it is not completely integrated with the rest of the CoMo system to minimize the number of modifications in the core platform. An alternative would be to merge the filtering process with the prediction in order to avoid scanning each packet twice (first to apply the filter and then to extract the features) and to share computations between queries that share the same filter rule. Better integration of the prediction and load shedding subsystem with the rest of the CoMo platform is part of our on-going work.

8 Conclusions and Future work

Effective load shedding methods are now indispensable to allow network monitoring systems to sustain the rapidly increasing data rates, number of users and complexity of traffic analysis methods.

In this paper, we presented the design and evaluation of a system that is able to predict the resource requirements of arbitrary and continuous traffic queries, without having any explicit knowledge of the computations they perform. Our method is based on extracting a set of features from the traffic streams to build an on-line prediction model of the query resource requirements, which is used to anticipate overload situations and effectively control the overall system CPU usage, with minimum impact on the accuracy of the results.

We implemented our prediction and load shedding scheme in an existing network monitoring system and deployed it in a research ISP network. Our results show that the system is able to predict the resources required to run a representative set of queries with small errors. As a consequence, our load shedding scheme can effectively handle overload situations, without packet loss, even during long-lived executions where the monitoring system is under severe stress. We also pointed out a significant gain in the accuracy of the results compared to two versions of the same monitoring system that use a non-predictive load shedding approach instead.

In the paper, we have already identified several areas of future work. In particular, we are currently working on adding other load shedding mechanisms to our system (e.g., lightweight summaries) for those queries that are not robust against sampling. We also intend to develop smarter load shedding strategies that allow the system to maximize its overall utility according to utility functions defined by each query. Finally, we are interested in applying similar techniques to other system resources such as memory, disk bandwidth or storage space.

9 Acknowledgments

This work was funded by a University Research Grant awarded by the Intel Research Council, and by the Spanish Ministry of Education (MEC) under contract TEC2005-08051-C03-01 (CATARO project). Authors would also like to thank the Supercomputing Center of Catalonia (CESCA) for allowing them to collect the packet traces used in this work.


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1The choice of 100ms is somewhat arbitrary. Our experimental results indicate that 100ms represents a good trade-off between accuracy and delay with the traces of our dataset. We leave the investigation on the proper batch duration for future work.

2A description of the queries used in our experiments can be found in [3]. The actual source code of all queries is also publicly available at http://como.sourceforge.net.

3It is possible that the CPU usage of other queries may exhibit a non-linear relationship with the traffic features. A possible solution in that case is to define new features computed as non-linear combinations of simple features.

4Note that the values of some predictors may become very similar under special traffic patterns. For example, the number of packets and flows can be highly correlated under a SYN-flood attack.

5The source code of the prediction and load shedding system is available at http://loadshedding.ccaba.upc.edu. The CoMo monitoring system is also available at http://como.sourceforge.net.

6The values are a lower bound of the actual drops, because the loss counter present in the DAG records is only 16-bit long.