Kurt Payne has a new post to his blog showing how to use register_tick_function with a callback to help benchmark and profile your application to find its pain spots.
A profiler gives you the ability to trace the performance of your code through every function call and create an overview of your system's performance over a certain time period and helps you make intelligent decisions about where to look for problems. [...] But what if you’re in an environment where you can't install [the xdebug or xhprof] extension? Luckily, php has a built-in function called register_tick_function that gives you a way to hook in to every user function that's called. With this, you can write a profiler yourself.
A bit of sample code illustrates his method - it defines a "do_profile" function and assigns it with the register_tick_function call. This function generates a debug backtrace and echos out the function path it took to get to that spot (output is included). He provides code for a bit more useful profiling and points out that it could easily be graphed to help visualize the problems. Also included are a few caveats to watch out for when using this method of profiling.