‘top’ and friends – what’s going on on my system?

Linux gives you all sorts of ways of keeping an eye on what’s going on your server.  Here are several that I find useful.  Read my post on apt-get to get any of these that may not be installed on your computer.

The grand-daddy of them all is top

This is like Task Manager on Windows or Activity Monitor on Mac.  It gives you a quick list of all the processes that are running on your computer, how much RAM and processor power they’re using, and how long they’ve been running for.

top, however has a pretty ugly output format, so it’s good that there are several better alternatives.

My preferred tool is htop, which gives a better visual display, including a nice bar-chart showing CPU usage on all your cores, and the ability to sort by CPU, memory usage etc.


  CPU[||                                                                          1.3%]     Tasks: 44, 46 thr; 1 running
  Mem[|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||  332/987MB]     Load average: 0.00 0.01 0.05 
  Swp[|                                                                       0/1021MB]     Uptime: 1 day, 13:00:40

  PID USER      PRI  NI  VIRT   RES   SHR S CPU% MEM%   TIME+  Command
24133 trevor     20   0 26420  2756  1456 R  0.7  0.3  0:00.57 htop
 1030 root       20   0 91728  4412  3572 S  0.0  0.4  2:21.86 /usr/sbin/vmtoolsd
 1051 postgres   20   0  129M  5056  3628 S  0.0  0.5  0:24.74 postgres: writer process

So what’s making my disk thrash?

htop tells us what processes are using memory and processing power. To see what’s using I/O, use iotop. This needs to be run as root:


$ sudo apt-get install iotop
$ sudo iotop

which gives you a list of which processes are reading and writing to disk.

But what’s using my network connection?

Likewise, we can monitor network usage using iftop


$ sudo apt-get install iftop
$ sudo iftop

which shows the open connections on your machine and how much data is being passed through them.

An alternative to iftop is nethogs which shows you which processes are responsible for data being passed over your network connections.

I also find netstat useful in these situations. netstat can do a lot, but one way I find myself using it a lot is

 $ netstat -plnt 

which means ‘show me all the processes on this machine that are listening for TCP/IP connections, and which port they are listening on’. This is very helpful when you’re setting up a machine and you want to verify that, say, your webserver or database server is running correctly.

Linux gives you many, many ways to see what’s going on on your system, and we’ve only scratched the surface her. Check out the rest of my technology toolkit posts: