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CPU frequency scaling

Dynamic CPU frequency scaling (also known as CPU throttling) is a technique in computer architecture where a processor is run at a less-than-maximum frequency in order to conserve power (src: Wikipedia).

The Linux kernel CPUfreq subsystem provides this ability on Debian Linux systems.

With cpupower


To get the current state:

$ sudo cpupower frequency-info
analyzing CPU 0:
  driver: intel_pstate
  CPUs which run at the same hardware frequency: 0
  CPUs which need to have their frequency coordinated by software: 0
  maximum transition latency:  Cannot determine or is not supported.
  hardware limits: 800 MHz - 3.20 GHz
  available cpufreq governors: performance powersave
  current policy: frequency should be within 800 MHz and 3.20 GHz.
                  The governor "powersave" may decide which speed to use
                  within this range.
  current CPU frequency: Unable to call hardware
  current CPU frequency: 1.74 GHz (asserted by call to kernel)
  boost state support:
    Supported: yes
    Active: yes

The 'available cpufreq governors' field shows which governors are currently available, and 'current policy' shows which policy is currently in use. To switch to another policy, use sudo cpupower frequency-set -g powersave

With cpufrequtils

cpufreq is being replaced by cpupower.


Note: In most cases, this should be enabled automatically during Debian installation.

Install the cpufrequtils package:

aptitude install cpufrequtils


Specify the governor to use at boot

Edit /etc/default/cpufrequtils (you might need to create it if it doesn't exist). Specify the governor with the GOVERNOR variable:

# valid values: userspace conservative powersave ondemand performance
# get them from cat /sys/devices/system/cpu/cpu0/cpufreq/scaling_available_governors 

Keeping the governor settings between boots

Install sysfsutils:

aptitude install sysfsutils

The sysfs values will be configured in /etc/sysfs.conf.

Here are some examples for the conservative governor:

# by default it's 444, so we have to change permissions to be able to change values
mode devices/system/cpu/cpufreq/conservative = 644
devices/system/cpu/cpufreq/conservative/freq_step = 10
devices/system/cpu/cpufreq/conservative/up_threshold = 45
devices/system/cpu/cpufreq/conservative/ignore_nice_load = 1
devices/system/cpu/cpufreq/conservative/sampling_down_factor = 10

After you made the changes in /etc/sysfs.conf, apply them with /etc/init.d/sysfsutils start or with service sysfsutils start.


Check how CPU is configured

Either add "CPU Frequency Scaling Monitor" to your GNOME panel, or install the package cpufrequtils and run the command cpufreq-info, which prints one block like this per core:

analyzing CPU 0:
  driver: acpi-cpufreq
  CPUs which need to switch frequency at the same time: 0
  hardware limits: 1000 MHz - 1.83 GHz
  available frequency steps: 1.83 GHz, 1.33 GHz, 1000 MHz
  available cpufreq governors: userspace, powersave, conservative, ondemand, performance
  current policy: frequency should be within 1000 MHz and 1.83 GHz.
                  The governor "ondemand" may decide which speed to use
                  within this range.
  current CPU frequency is 1000 MHz (asserted by call to hardware).
  cpufreq stats: 1.83 GHz:10.34%, 1.33 GHz:0.62%, 1000 MHz:89.04%  (1068280)

There are two important pieces of information:


The governor decides what frequency should be used (it uses the CPUFreq driver to actually switch the CPU's policy). As explained above, since Lenny, the CPUFreq modules should be loaded using cpufrequtils.

In most cases, ondemand is the recommended governor. CPUFreq governors are actually modules (even though governors are modules, you should use cpufreq-info to know if the governors are loaded, and which one is active).

For more information about governors, read governors.txt (available in /usr/share/doc/linux-doc-2.6.32/Documentation/cpu-freq/ from the package linux-doc-2.6, you can read the latest version from

Userland governors

The userland-based governors (e.g. cpufreqd) are usually not needed any more.


As explained above, the governor defines the frequency scaling policy, but it doesn't instruct the CPU to change the speed directly... it needs a driver for that. cpufrequtils has an init script that should load the appropriate driver at boot time.

The list of CPUFreq drivers available on your system can be obtained by running:

/sbin/modinfo /lib/modules/$(uname -r)/kernel/arch/*/kernel/cpu/cpufreq/* | grep "^[fd]"

or from linux kernel version 3.2:

/sbin/modinfo /lib/modules/$(uname -r)/kernel/drivers/cpufreq/* | grep "^[fd]"  

For more information about governors, read cpu-drivers.txt (available in /usr/share/doc/linux-doc-2.6.32/Documentation/cpu-freq/ from the package linux-doc-2.6, you can read the latest version from

GOVERNOR variable from /etc/default/cpufrequtils not taking effect

So, you configured the GOVERNOR variable in /etc/default/cpufrequtils and after reboot you notice by running cpufreq-info that the active governor is still "ondemand".

This may happen if you have laptop-mode-tools installed. laptop-mode configures the active governor via the following variables: BATT_CPU_GOVERNOR, LM_AC_CPU_GOVERNOR, NOLM_AC_CPU_GOVERNOR. You can override them to your liking in /etc/laptop-mode/laptop-mode.conf:


If you use laptop-mode to set the governor, you can disable /etc/init.d/cpufrequtils from starting at boot to save a few miliseconds:

update-rc.d -f cpufrequtils remove

See Also

CategoryHardware CategoryKernel