Heat Maps

Latency Heat Map

Heat maps allow three dimensions of data to be visualized, similar to weather radar maps where color is used as a dimension. As data is quantized into buckets, they are practical for handling large datasets, such as performance monitoring metrics across thousands of servers.

The following pages introduce and demonstrate different uses of heat maps:

  1. Latency
  2. Utilization
  3. Subsecond Offset

The latency heat map on the right shows the passage of time on the x-axis, disk I/O latency on the y-axis, and the frequency of disk I/O as color intensity. For more about this, see the latency page, which also has the software used to generate it.


Heat maps are a three dimensional visualization, using x and y coordinates for two dimensions, and color intensity for the third. They can reveal detail that summary statistics, such as line charts of averages, can miss.

Their typical use is for large two dimensional datasets. The data is quantized (or "bucketized") into x- and y-ranges, shown as rectangles, with the count of data elements in each range shown as color intensity: darker for more. One dimension is often time, and the other is a performance metric of interest: latency, offset, utilization, etc. The resulting heat map shows the distribution of the performance metric over time.

I introduced heat maps for latency and other performance metrics in my 2010 article "Visualizing System Latency": ACMQ, CACM. I've also described them on the latency page, which includes a Heat Maps Explained diagram.


For computer performance analysis, heat maps date back to at least 1995 with Richard McDougall's taztool, which used an offset heat map to visualize disk access patterns. There are older examples of disk defrag tools that use heat map-like visualizations to map disk contents.

Latency heat maps were first developed for the Sun Microsystems ZFS storage appliance (the 7000 series), and first described publicly in the 2008 talk Analytics in the Sun 7000 Series by Bryan and myself. It originated from a confluence of ideas: Bryan was doing most of the coding work for Analytics, and wanted develop new visualizations that better leveraged DTrace; I was trying to understand NFS performance better, especially latency outliers, and an industry friend (Jarod) suggested we visualize latency distributions over time; and I had coded DTraceTazTool in the past (a rewrite of Richard's taztool), and thought that latency vs time should also work as a heat map.


More heatmaps news (updated Mar 2014):

More heatmaps news (updated May 2015):

Thanks to everyone who has written about heatmaps, developed them further, and shared their results! I'll update this page from time to time with more news.

Last updated: 03-Jun-2015