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Linux Job Scheduler: Features & Alternatives in '24

Automation is a cornerstone of operational efficiency in numerous platforms, including Unix-like operating systems. This article will explore the Linux Scheduler, particularly its implementation as the Completely Fair Scheduler (CFS). We’ll then compare this with ‘cron’, a time-based job scheduler, discussing their differences in functionality and operation.

The article will also examine alternatives to the Linux job scheduler, such as advanced job scheduling tools like ActiveBatch, and how they compare with the Linux Scheduler and cron in automating and managing tasks within the Linux environment.

Feature/ TopicLinux Completely Fair Scheduler (CFS)CronWLA tools like ActiveBatch
Focus

Process scheduling within the Linux kernelTime-based job scheduling in Unix-like systemsJob scheduling and automation across different systems
Purpose


Allocates CPU time among running processesExecutes commands or scripts at scheduled timesManages & automates complex workflows
Environment
Kernel-level in Linux systemsUser-level in Unix-like operating systemsEnterprise-level, cross-platform
Usage

Managing system processes and thread schedulingRoutine tasks like backups, updates, etc.Business process automation, IT tasks, etc.
Customization

Limited to kernel parameters and system tuningCrontab file for scheduling tasksHighly customizable with scripts, conditions, and triggers
UICommand-line and system configuration filesCrontab command-line interfaceGUI and command-line interface
Complexity
Low-level, complex-to-use for average usersEasy-to-use for users familiar with Unix/LinuxEasy-to-use for users with limited coding skills managing complex processes
Real-time
Not designed for real-time schedulingNo real-time capabilitiesSupports real-time monitoring and adjustments
Scalability
Scalable within the scope of the operating systemLimited scalabilityHighly scalable for enterprise use
Integration
Integral part of the Linux kernelIntegrates with Unix/Linux systemsIntegrates with various platforms & apps

What is the Linux Scheduler?

The Linux Scheduler, or Completely Fair Scheduler (CFS), as commonly known, is a critical component of the Linux kernel, responsible for managing how processes on the system are allocated CPU time. Its primary function is to decide which process runs at any given point, optimizing CPU scheduling for various factors like system performance, responsiveness, and resource utilization.

The Linux Scheduler is a complex and evolving part of the kernel, adapting to new computing paradigms, hardware advances, operating systems, and user needs. It’s a critical element that ensures efficient and fair CPU time distribution among all processes running on a Linux system. Here are some key aspects of the Linux Scheduler:

  • Process Prioritization: The scheduler prioritizes processes based on factors like their priority level and the amount of CPU time they’ve already consumed. This ensures a balance between foreground (interactive) and background (batch) processes.
  • Preemptive Multitasking: Linux employs preemptive multitasking, where the system call scheduler can interrupt a running process to give time to another process. This ability is crucial for maintaining system responsiveness, especially in a multi-user environment.
  • Different Scheduling Algorithms: Over the years, different versions of the Linux kernel have used various scheduling algorithms. The most widely known algorithm is the Completely Fair Scheduler (CFS), which was introduced in Linux 2.6.23. CFS aims to allocate CPU time to processes in a way that each gets a fair share of CPU time.
  • Load Balancing: In multi-core systems, the scheduler also manages load balancing, distributing processes across different processor cores to optimize for performance and energy efficiency.
  • Real-time Scheduling: Linux also supports real-time scheduling policies (like FIFO and round-robin), which are crucial for time-sensitive tasks where predictable code execution timing is more important than overall system throughput.
  • Cgroups and Control Groups: Modern Linux systems use control groups (cgroups) to group processes and apply policies like CPU time limits or priorities to the entire group, giving administrators more control over resource allocation process scheduling.

Linux Scheduler vs Job Scheduling Tools

In a typical setup, an enterprise-grade job scheduling tool like ActiveBatch will allow enterprises to handle more complex workflows than a basic scheduler like cron or the Linux scheduler.

Job scheduling tools such as ActiveBatch could serve as an alternative when users have outgrown their existing scheduler like Linux Scheduler, and are looking for an upgrade.

There could be instances where the Linux Scheduler, particularly its implementation as the Completely Fair Scheduler (CFS), and enterprise-grade job scheduling tools can work together to ensure both system-level efficiency and workflow-level automation. 

For this section, we will take ActiveBatch for comparison as it is an enterprise-grade scheduler.

Linux Scheduler

Purpose: The Linux Scheduler (like CFS) is a low-level kernel component responsible for deciding which process gets CPU time and when. It’s integral to the operating system’s core functionality.

Focus: It manages CPU time allocation among all the running processes on a system, ensuring fair distribution, responsiveness, and efficient utilization of CPU resources.

Scope: Operates at the process or thread level within a single system.

Job Scheduling Tools (e.g., ActiveBatch)

Purpose: Job scheduling tools are high-level, often application-oriented tools designed for automating and scheduling business processes and tasks.

Focus: These tools manage the execution of batch jobs or workflows, which can involve multiple steps, dependencies, and scheduling criteria. They are used for orchestrating tasks like data backups, report generation, or any complex sequence of operations in business environments.

Scope: Can operate across multiple systems and platforms, orchestrating tasks that may involve several different applications or services.

What is the Difference between ‘Cron’ and Linux Scheduler or ‘CFS’

CFS and ‘cron’ are integral parts of Linux systems but serve very different purposes. In essence, CFS is about distributing CPU time fairly among currently running processes, while cron is about when to run specific tasks based on the clock/calendar. 

Key Differences

  • Functionality and Role: CFS is a process scheduler for managing how processes share CPU time, while cron is a job scheduler for executing tasks at scheduled times.
  • Level of Operation: CFS operates at the kernel level, handling real-time scheduling of processes, whereas cron operates at a higher level, dealing with the scheduling of tasks that are not necessarily running continuously.
  • Continuous vs. Discrete: CFS is continuously working as long as the system is running, managing CPU allocation dynamically. In contrast, cron executes tasks at specific, pre-defined times.

Tools like ActiveBatch can also be alternatives to cron, especially for enterprises or mid-market businesses with complex, real-time scheduling requirements. While both are used for job scheduling, they differ significantly in features, capabilities, and use cases. For more on this topic, Top Alternatives to Cron

Transparency Statement

Numerous emerging tech vendors, including ActiveBatch, are sponsors of AiMultiple.

How can you automate workloads with the Linux Scheduler?

Automating workloads with the Linux Scheduler isn’t about directly programming the scheduler itself; rather, it involves using various tools and techniques in Linux that interact with the scheduler to manage and automate tasks. Here are some ways to automate task scheduling and manage workloads effectively in a Linux environment: 

  • Cron Jobs: Perhaps the most common method for automating tasks in Linux is through cron jobs. Cron is a time-based job scheduler in Unix-like operating systems. Users can schedule jobs (commands or scripts) to run periodically at fixed times, dates, or intervals. This doesn’t directly manipulate the scheduler but schedules tasks at the user level.
  • Nice and Renice Commands: You can use nice and renice commands to influence the priority of a process. This doesn’t schedule a task per se, but it alters how the scheduler treats a process, which can be part of an automation strategy to ensure critical tasks get more CPU time.
  • Control Groups (cgroups): cgroups allow you to allocate resources—such as CPU time, system memory, network bandwidth, or combinations of these resources—among user-defined groups of tasks. With cgroups, you can ensure that certain applications or services get the resources they need as part of an automated workflow.
  • Systemd and Unit Files: Systemd, the init system and system manager for most Linux distributions, allows for more advanced scheduling and management of services. It uses unit files to describe how services should start, stop, and operate. You can configure systemd to automatically start services at boot, after certain other services are up, or on a specific schedule.
  • Scripting and Automation Tools: Scripting in bash or other shell languages, along with automation tools like ActiveBatch, Ansible, Puppet, or Chef, can be used to automate tasks. While these scripts and tools don’t directly interact with the Linux Scheduler, they can be used to create complex workflows and manage when and how different processes run.
  • Kernel Tuning: For advanced users, tuning kernel parameters via sysctl or other kernel interfaces can influence scheduler behavior. This is a more sophisticated approach and requires in-depth knowledge of the Linux kernel.
  • Real-Time Linux: For workloads requiring strict timing and scheduling constraints, using a real-time Linux kernel might be necessary. Real-time extensions to the Linux kernel can provide more deterministic and predictable scheduling behavior.

What are the alternatives to the Linux Scheduler?

There are several alternatives to the default Linux Kernel Scheduler (primarily the Completely Fair Scheduler, or CFS scheduling algorithm). These alternatives can be third-party enterprise-grade job schedulers for cases where companies have outgrown the Linux job scheduler, other schedulers within the Linux kernel, or different scheduling approaches in other operating systems. Here are some notable examples:

Third-Party Job Scheduling Tools With Extensive Capabilities

  • ActiveBatch: ActiveBatch is a workload automation and job scheduling solution that goes beyond the capabilities of a basic Linux Scheduler. It is designed to provide a centralized platform for automating and managing complex workflows across diverse environments, including Windows, Linux, Unix, and more. 
  • Stonebranch Universal Automation Center (UAC): Stonebranch UAC serves as a single automation platform for managing workload processes across enterprise environments, offering a unified web-based interface, distributed execution engine, workload visualization, and built-in availability and disaster recovery features​
  • Fortra’s JAMS: JAMS centralizes the management of Linux and UNIX batch processes in a single interface, offering job scheduling and workload automation features. It supports event-based scheduling and triggers, bringing flexibility to Cron job scheduling in Linux environments.​

Alternatives Within Linux

  • O(1) Scheduler: Before CFS, the Linux kernel used the O(1) scheduler, designed for constant time operation irrespective of the number of tasks. It was the default scheduler in Linux 2.6 kernels prior to version 2.6.23.
  • Brain Fuck Scheduler (BFS): BFS, created by Con Kolivas, is aimed at improving the responsiveness of the system, especially for desktop systems with fewer than 16 cores. It’s simpler than CFS and can be beneficial for single-user systems.
  • MuQSS (Multiple Queue Skiplist Scheduler): Also developed by Con Kolivas as a successor to BFS, MuQSS aims to improve performance on desktop systems. It replaces the runqueue structure of CFS with a skiplist.
  • Real-Time (RT) Schedulers: Linux offers real-time scheduling policies, like FIFO (First In, First Out) and round-robin, for tasks where consistent timing is more critical than overall system throughput. These are often used in conjunction with the PREEMPT_RT patch for real-time Linux systems.
  • Deadline Schedulers: These schedulers, like SCHED_DEADLINE (introduced in Linux kernel 3.14), are designed for tasks with specific time constraints. They schedule tasks based on application-defined deadlines.

Alternatives in Other Operating Systems

  • Windows NT Scheduler: Used in Microsoft Windows, it is a preemptive, priority-based scheduler, known for its focus on responsiveness, especially in the consumer-oriented versions of Windows.
  • macOS Scheduler: macOS uses a combination of traditional Unix-based scheduling with extensions for GUI responsiveness, emphasizing smooth user experiences in interactive tasks.
  • Solaris Scheduler: The scheduler used in Oracle Solaris (and historically Sun Solaris) includes support for both real-time and fair-share scheduling, offering flexibility for a range of applications from desktops to servers.
  • BSD Schedulers: Variants of BSD (like FreeBSD, OpenBSD) use different schedulers. FreeBSD, for instance, uses the ULE scheduler (Unix-Like Scheduler), which is optimized for performance on multi-core systems.
  • RTOS Schedulers: Real-Time Operating Systems (RTOS) like RTLinux, VxWorks, or QNX use schedulers optimized for real-time performance, offering predictable and deterministic scheduling behavior.
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Cem Dilmegani
Principal Analyst
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Altay Ataman
Altay is an industry analyst at AIMultiple. He has background in international political economy, multilateral organizations, development cooperation, global politics, and data analysis. He has experience working at private and government institutions. Altay discovered his interest for emerging tech after seeing its wide use of area in several sectors and acknowledging its importance for the future. He received his bachelor's degree in Political Science and Public Administration from Bilkent University and he received his master's degree in International Politics from KU Leuven .

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