How Instruments can be used to fix a graphics performance issue

Lately, I have been investigating an issue a customer of mine’s app showed.

My customer’s app is a sort of PDF viewer that also allow to add annotations. Such annotations are not stored in the PDF itself, instead they are managed in a custom way and drawn on top of the PDF in a dedicated CATiledLayer-based view.

The issue was that after a couple of zoom-in/out operations, or alternatively after moving from one PDF to another, the CPU used to jump to 100% usage, even though no apparent operation was ongoing. This hampered a lot the overall experience of the app, since practically all graphics operations became extremely slow with the app stuck in that state. Curiously, other kind of operations, e.g., downloading a file, were not slowed down significantly.

The issue had quite a trivial cause, due to some “bad” programming (meaning that some obvious rule was not respected), but the interesting part in this is how I came to understand what was going on.

Instruments was the main tool that came to rescue, as you can imagine. The picture at the left shows the CPU Profiler tool output. You can see how the overall CPU usage goes to 100% at some point and stays there. The fundamental bits of information one can get from this output are the following:

  • there was something going wrong in the cleanup phase of a pthread lifecycle; knowing that the CATiledLayer used for optimised drawing uses threads, this was a hint at that something was not handled correctly in the drawing phase; hard to think at some CATiledLayer bug, but still a possibility;
  • furthermore, (while the program was running) the “self” field showed that there were very many calls being made to practically all symbols under “pthread_dst_cleanup” and that those calls would not halt for any reason;
  • among the calls being made repetitively, my attention got caught by those to FreeContextStack/PopContext/GetContextStack.

The last point was the key to understand that something in the handling of the Core Graphics context stack was not doing correctly. So I set up to investigate the custom drawing code and indeed what I found was a couple of unbalanced calls to UIGraphicsPushContext and UIGraphicsPopContext. Fixing this, removed the CPU utilisation issue.

As I said, the issue was caused by incorrect programming, but nevertheless catching it was an interesting experience.

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