Why irate from Prometheus doesn't capture spikes

Prometheus query language (PromQL) has two similar functions for calculating per-second rate over counters such as requests_total or bytes_totalrate and irate. There is a myth about irate function — it captures per-second rate spikes on the given [range], while rate averages these spikes.

Spikes and irate

Look at the following picture for hypothetical requests_total counter:

It contains values [20,50,100,200,201,230] with timestamps [10,20,30,40,50,60]. Let’s calculate irate(requests_total[40s]) at the point t. It is calculated as dv/dt for the last two points before t according to the documentation:

(201–200) / (50–40) = 0.1 rps

The 40s range ending at t contains other per-second rates:

  • (100–50) / (30–20) = 5 rps
  • (200–100) / (40–30) = 10 rps

These rates are much larger than the captured rate at t. irate captures only 0.1 rps while skipping 5 and 10 rps. Obviously irate doesn’t capture spikes. Irate documentation says:

irate should only be used when graphing volatile, fast-moving counters.

It is expected to capture spikes for volatile, fast-moving counters. But irate returns a sample of per-second rates for such counters. The returned sample may contain all the spikes, a part of spikes or it may miss all the spikes and capture random rates. This highly depends on the following query_range API args: start and end values (i.e. graph time range) and the step value (i.e. graph resolution and zoom level). This means that the graph built with irate tends to jump in arbitrary directions during zooming and scrolling. This is especially visible on big step values covering multiple time series points (aka multiple scrape intervals).

The following graphs are captured for the same query — irate(requests_total[25m]) on the same time range. The only difference is modified step in Grafana from 20m to 21m.

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irate(requests_total[25m]), step=20m
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irate(requests_total[25m]), step=21m

As you can see, these graphs look completely different and they definitely don’t catch spikes.

Let’s add green rate line to these graphs:

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green line — rate(requests_total[25m]), step=20m
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green line — rate(requests_total[25m]), step=21m

Green rate line is much more consistent on these graphs comparing to yellow irate line for the same counter.

Capturing spikes

Previous graphs revealed that both irate and rate don’t capture peaks on rapidly changing counters. Are there approaches for capturing spikes with PromQL? Probably, recently added subqueries could be used somehow, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it reliably.

If you still want capturing spikes on volatile counters, then set up VictoriaMetrics as a remote storage for Prometheus and then query VictoriaMetrics with rollup_rate function from PromQL extensions. This function returns min, avg and max values for per-second rate. The rate is calculated for each adjacent points, so spikes are reliably captured in min and max values, while avg value is usually close to rate value, though it is calculated differently.

The following graph contains min and avg values for rollup_rate:

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rollup_rate(requests_count), step=21m, without rollup=”max”

rollup=”min” is red, while rollup=”avg” is blue. Yellow line is for irate. As you can see, red line reliably captures all the minimum rates, while yellow line only sometimes reaches the the actual minimum rates.

Now let’s look at the graph with rollup=”max”. It has bigger vertical scale, since rate spikes are much higher for the requests_rate counter comparing to the average rate:

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rollup_rate(requests_count), step=21m, with rollup=”max”

All the lines from the previous graph are present here for comparison. As in the previous case, yellow line (irate) only sometimes reaches actual maximum rates (spikes).


Irate doesn’t capture spikes — it just returns a sample of per-second rate values. If you want to capture all the spikes on volatile counters, then use rollup_rate function from VictoriaMetrics’ PromQL extensions.

There is another widespread myth about irate — it is a faster alternative to rate. The origin of the myth is: irate takes only two last points on the given [range] interval, while rate requires all the points on the [range] interval. While this is true, the performance difference is usually negligible, since Prometheus spends CPU time on extracting all the time series points for the given [start … end] interval of the query_range API regardless of the used function.

If in doubt, prefer rate over irate, since rate consistently returns average per-second rate values for the given [range], while irate usually returns a random set of per-second rate values, which may look like garbage for volatile fast-moving counters.

Update: Chris Siebenmann wrote an interesting article on how to capture spikes and dips in Prometheus with irate + subqueries.

Update2: VictoriaMetrics is open source now, so you can investigate how it implements rollup* functions.

Written by

Founder and core developer at VictoriaMetrics

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