I have been looking into the iowait property shown in top utility output as shown below.

top - 07:30:58 up  3:37,   1 user,  load average: 0.00, 0.01, 0.05
Tasks:  86 total,   1 running,   85 sleeping,   0 stopped,   0 zombie
%Cpu(s):  0.0 us,  0.3 sy,  0.0 ni, 99.7 id,  0.0 wa,  0.0 hi,  0.0 si,  0.0 st

iowait is generally defined as follows:

"It is the time during which CPU is idle and there is some IO pending."

It is my understanding that a process is run on a single CPU. After it gets de-scheduled either because it has used up its time slot or after it gets blocked, it can eventually be scheduled again on any one CPU again.

In case of IO request, a CPU that puts a process in uninterruptible sleep is responsible for tracking the iowait time. The other CPUs would be reporting the same time as idle time on their end as they really are idle. Is this assumption correct?

Furthermore, assuming there is a long IO request (meaning the process had several opportunities to get scheduled but didn't get scheduled because the IO wasn't complete), how does a CPU know there is "pending IO"? Where is that kind of information fetched from? How can a CPU simply find out that some process was put to sleep some time for an IO to complete as any of the CPUs could have put that process to sleep. How is this status of "pending IO" confirmed?

  • 3
    "A process is run on a single CPU". Not really. A thread is run on a single CPU core, but modern processes have multiple threads and modern CPU's have multiple cores.
    – MSalters
    Dec 13, 2017 at 15:57
  • @MSalters And even then, while a single thread can only execute on one core at any point in time the core it executes on may change after context switches.
    – JAB
    Dec 13, 2017 at 17:03
  • 1
    There's this thing called interrupt request (IRQ) but it is maybe more hardware than we are interested in. Dec 13, 2017 at 17:23

1 Answer 1


The CPU doesn’t know any of this, the task scheduler does.

The definition you quote is somewhat misleading; the current procfs(5) manpage has a more accurate definition, with caveats:

iowait (since Linux 2.5.41)

(5) Time waiting for I/O to complete. This value is not reliable, for the following reasons:

  1. The CPU will not wait for I/O to complete; iowait is the time that a task is waiting for I/O to complete. When a CPU goes into idle state for outstanding task I/O, another task will be scheduled on this CPU.

  2. On a multi-core CPU, the task waiting for I/O to complete is not running on any CPU, so the iowait of each CPU is difficult to calculate.

  3. The value in this field may decrease in certain conditions.

iowait tries to measure time spent waiting for I/O, in general. It’s not tracked by a specific CPU, nor can it be (point 2 above — which also matches what you’re wondering about). It is measured per CPU though, as far as possible.

The task scheduler “knows” there is pending I/O, because it knows that it suspended a given task because it’s waiting for I/O. This is tracked per task in the in_iowait field of the task_struct; you can look for in_iowait in the scheduler core to see how it is set, tracked and cleared. Brendan Gregg’s recent article on Linux load averages includes useful background information. The iowait entry in /proc/stat, which is what ends up in top, is incremented whenever a timer tick is accounted for, and the current process “on” the CPU is idle; you can see this by looking for account_idle_time in the scheduler’s CPU time-tracking code.

So a more accurate definition would be “time spent on this CPU waiting for I/O, when there was nothing better to do”...

  • "The CPU will not wait for I/O to complete... When a CPU goes into idle state for outstanding task I/O, another task will be scheduled on this CPU." It implies that the CPU does not perform the actual transactions on the IO bus. Linux/CPU formulates the IO task and something else executes it, like the disk controller, as described here. I wonder, can there be some important IO transaction that must be atomic, so that Linux disables IRQ and executes it synchronously?
    – xealits
    Nov 5, 2022 at 22:47
  • @xealits I’m not aware of any “important” transaction where the kernel would deal with the full transaction itself; in many cases that’s not possible anyway, DMA is the only supported data-transfer method. See PIO for more on CPU-controlled I/O. Nov 6, 2022 at 9:45

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