If I enter in two different root terminals:

nice -n 19 burnK7 &


nice -n -19 burnK7 &

Then both processes receive about 50% of the available CPU time - not expected and certainly not desired.

If I run in the same root terminal:

 nice -n 19 burnK7 &
 nice -n -19 burnK7 &

The first process receives about 0% and the second receives about 100% of the available CPU time, as expected.

Is this a bug or a feature?

I am running Arch Linux with version 3.16 of the kernel, on a single core machine, for what it's worth.

  • 1
    So prioritisation is meaningless unless you're talking about processes started by the same shell, by the same user etc.? That sounds bonkers. – Fela Maslen Sep 1 '14 at 1:55

So, well after the fact, here's some information. The behavior you are seeing is because of the autogroup feature that was added in Linux 2.6.38 (in 2010). Here's an edited version of some text I am about to add to the sched(7) manual page which explains what you are seeing.

The kernel provides a feature known as autogrouping to improve interactive desktop performance in the face of multiprocess, CPU-intensive workloads such as building the Linux kernel with large numbers of parallel build processes (i.e., the make(1) -j flag).

A new autogroup is created when a new session is created via setsid(2); this happens, for example, when a new terminal window is started. A new process created by fork(2) inherits its parent's autogroup membership. Thus, all of the processes in a session are members of the same autogroup.

When autogrouping is enabled, all of the members of an autogroup are placed in the same kernel scheduler "task group". The Linux kernel scheduler employs an algorithm that equalizes the distribution of CPU cycles across task groups. The benefits of this for interactive desktop performance can be described via the following example.

Suppose that there are two autogroups competing for the same CPU (i.e., presume either a single CPU system or the use of taskset(1) to confine all the processes to the same CPU on an SMP system). The first group contains ten CPU-bound processes from a kernel build started with make -j10. The other contains a single CPU-bound process: a video player. The effect of autogrouping is that the two groups will each receive half of the CPU cycles. That is, the video player will receive 50% of the CPU cycles, rather than just 9% of the cycles, which would likely lead to degraded video playback. The situation on an SMP system is more complex, but the general effect is the same: the scheduler distributes CPU cycles across task groups such that an autogroup that contains a large number of CPU-bound processes does not end up hogging CPU cycles at the expense of the other jobs on the system.

The nice value and group scheduling

When scheduling non-real-time processes (e.g., those scheduled under the default SCHED_OTHER policy), the scheduler employs a technique known as "group scheduling", under which threads are scheduled in "task groups". Task groups are formed in the various circumstances, with the relevant case here being autogrouping.

If autogrouping is enabled, then all of the threads that are (implicitly) placed in an autogroup (i.e., the same session, as created by setsid(2)) form a task group. Each new autogroup is thus a separate task group.

Under group scheduling, a thread's nice value has an effect for scheduling decisions only relative to other threads in the same task group. This has some surprising consequences in terms of the traditional semantics of the nice value on UNIX systems. In particular, if autogrouping is enabled (which is the default in various distributions), then employing nice(1) on a process has an effect only for scheduling relative to other processes executed in the same session (typically: the same terminal window).

Conversely, for two processes that are (for example) the sole CPU-bound processes in different sessions (e.g., different terminal windows, each of whose jobs are tied to different autogroups), modifying the nice value of the process in one of the sessions has no effect in terms of the scheduler's decisions relative to the process in the other session.

If you want to prevent autogrouping interfering with the traditional nice behavior as described here, you can disable the feature

echo 0 > /proc/sys/kernel/sched_autogroup_enabled

Be aware though that this will also have the effect of disabling the benefits for desktop interactivity that the autogroup feature was intended to provide (see above).

The autogroup nice value

A process's autogroup membership can be viewed via the file /proc/[pid]/autogroup:

$ cat /proc/1/autogroup
/autogroup-1 nice 0

This file can also be used to modify the CPU bandwidth allocated to an autogroup. This is done by writing a number in the "nice" range to the file to set the autogroup's nice value. The allowed range is from +19 (low priority) to -20 (high priority).

The autogroup nice setting has the same meaning as the process nice value, but applies to distribution of CPU cycles to the autogroup as a whole, based on the relative nice values of other autogroups. For a process inside an autogroup, the CPU cycles that it receives will be a product of the autogroup's nice value (compared to other autogroups) and the process's nice value (compared to other processes in the same autogroup).

  • 1
    @Burgi Fair enough. Edited into what I think might be a more usable form now. – mtk Nov 30 '16 at 17:13
  • Very useful answer, but how does someone modify an autogroups nice value? "This file can also be used to modify the CPU bandwidth allocated to an autogroup". After finding the PID (in this case 30218) I want to changed the autogroup nice value I typed cat /proc/30218/autogroup it returned /autogroup-187 nice 0 and then I typed echo "/autogroup-187 nice 10" | sudo tee /proc/30218/autogroup but it returns an invalid argument error. – Falk Jan 3 at 14:44
  • @Falk: just echo 10 > /proc/30218/autogroup – mtk Jan 3 at 18:39
  • I'll try it out, you saved my poor laptop, thank you. – Falk Jan 3 at 18:41

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