System Tap Timestamp Notes

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This information was copied from the System Tap file tapsets/timestamp/timeset_tapset.txt, in May, 2006.

* Application name: sequence numbers and timestamps

* Contact:
    Martin Hunt
    Will Cohen
    Charles Spirakis

* Motivation:
    On multi-processor systems, it is important to have a way
    to correlate information gathered between cpu's. There are two
    forms of correlation:

        a) putting information into the correct sequence order
        b) providing accurate time deltas between information

    If the resolution of the time deltas is high enough, it can
    also be used to order information.

* Background:
    Discussion started due to relayfs and per-cpu buffers, but this
    is neede by many people.

* Target software:
    Any software which wants to correlate data that was gathered
    on a multi-processor system, but the scope will be defined
    specifically for systemtap's needs.

* Type of description:
    General information and discussion regarding sequencing and timing.

* Interesting probe points:
    Any probe points where you are trying to get the time between two
    probe points. For example, timing how long a function takes and
    putting probe points at the function entry and function exit.

* Interesting values:
    Possible ways to order data from multiple sources include:

Retrieve the sequence/time from a global area

  High Precision Event Timer (HPET)
    Possible implementation:
    multimedia/HPET timer
    granularity can vary (HPET spec says minimum freq of HPET timer
    is 10Mhz =~100ns resolution), can be treated as read-only,
    can bypass cache update and avoid being caced at all if desired,
    desigend to be used as an smp timestamp (see specification)
    may not be available on all platforms, may not be synchronized on
    NUMA systems (ie counts for all processors within a numa node is
    comparable, but counts for processors between nodes may not be
    comparable), potential resource conflict if timers used by
    other software

  Real Time Clock (RTC)
    Possible implementation:
    "external" chip (clock chip) which has time information, accessed via
    ioport or memory-mapped io
    can be treated as read-only, can bypass cache update and avoid being
    cached at all if desired
    may not be available on all platforms, low granularity (for rtc,
    ~1ms), usually slow access

  ACPI Power Management Timer (pm timer)
    Possible implementation:
    implemented as part of the ACPI specification at 3.579545Mhz
    not affected by throttling, halting or power saving states, moderate
    granularity (3.5Mhz ~ 300ns resolution), desigend for use by an OS
    to keep track of time during sleep/power states
    may not be available on all platforms, slower access than hpet timer
    (but still much faster than RTC)

  Chipset counter
    Possible implementation:
    timer on a processor chipset, ??SGI implementation??, do we know of any
    other implementations ?
    likely to be based on pci bus clock (33Mhz = ~30ns) or front-side-bus
    clock (200Mhz = ~5ns)
    may not be available on all platforms

  Sequence Number
    Possible implementation:
    atomic_t global variable, cache aligned, placed in struct to keep
    variable on a cache line by itself
    guaranteed correct ordering (even on NUMA systems), architecure
    independent, platform independent
    potential for cache-line ping-pong, doesn't scale, no time
    information (ordering data only), access can be slower on NUMA systems

    Possible implementation:
    OS counts the number of "clock interrupts" since power on.
    platform independent, architecture independent, one writer, many
    readers (less cache ping-pong)
    cached at all if desired
    low resolution (usually 10ms, sometimes 1ms).

    Possible implementation:
    platform independent, architecture independent, 1 writer, many
    readers (less cache ping-pong), accuracy of micro-seconds
    the time unit increment value used by this routine changes
    based on information from ntp (i.e if ntp needs to speed up / slow
    down the clock, then callers to this routine will be affected). This
    is a disadvantage for timing short intervals, but an advantage
    for timing long intervals.

Retrieve the sequence/time from a cpu-unique area

  Timestamp counter (TSC)
    Possible implementation:
    count of the number of core cycles the processor has executed since
    power on, due to lack of synchronization between cpus, would also
    need to keep track of which cpu the tsc came from
    no external bus access, high granularity (cpu core cycles),
    available on most (not all) architectures, platform independent
    not synchronized between cpus, since it is a count of cpu cycles
    count can be affected by throttling, halting and power saving states,
    may not correlate to "actual" time (ie, just because a 1G processor
    showed a delta of 1G cycles, doesn't mean 1 second has passed)

  APIC timer
    Possible implementation:
    timer implemented within the processor
    no external bus access, moderate to high granularity (usually
    counting based front-side bus clock or core clock)
    not synchronized between cpus, may be affected by throttling,
    halting/power saving states, may not correlate to "actual" time.

  PMU event
    Possible implementation:
    program a perfmonance counter with a specific event related to time
    no external bus access, moderate to high granularity (usually
    counting based front-side bus clock or core clock), can be
    virtualized to give moderate to high granularity for individual
    thread paths
    not synchronized between cpus, may be affected by throttling,
    halting/power saving states, may not correlate to "actual" time,
    processor dependent

    For reference, as a quick baseline, on Martin's dual-processor system,
    he gets the following performance measurements:

    kprobe overhead:             1200-1500ns (depending on OS and processor)
    atomic read plus increment:    40ns (single processor access, no conflict)
    monotonic_clock()             550ns
    do_gettimeofday()             590ns

* Dependencies:
    Not Applicable

* Restrictions:
    Certain timers may already be in use by other parts of the kernel
    depending on how it is configured (for example, RTC is used by the
    watchdog code). Some kernels may not compile in the necessary code
    (for example, if using the pm timer, need ACPI). Some platforms
    or architectures may not have the timer requested (for example,
    there is no HPET timer on older systesm).

* Data collection:
   For data collection, it is probably best to keep the concept
   between sequence ordering and timestamp separate within
   systemtap (for both the user as well as the implementation).

   For sequence ording, the initial implementation should use ?? the
   atomic_t form for the sequence ordering (since it is guaranteed
   to be platform and architecture neutral)?? and modify/change the
   implementation later if there is a problem.

   For timestamp, the initial implementation should use
   ?? hpet timer ?? pm timer ?? do_gettimeofday ?? cpu # + tsc ??
   some combination (do_gettimeofday + cpu # & low bits of tsc)?

   We could do something like what LTT does (see below) to
   generate 64-bit timestamps containing the nanoseconds
   since Jan 1, 1970.

   Assuming the implementation keeps these concepts separate now
   (ordering data vs. timing deltas), it is always possible to
   merge them in the future if a high granularity, numa/smp
   synchronized timesource becomes available for a large number
   of platforms and/or processors.

* Data presentation:
   In general, users prefer output which is based on "actual" time (ie,
   they prefer an output that says the delta is XXX nanoseconds instead
   of YYY cpu cycles). Most of the time users want delta's (how long did
   this take), but occasionally they want absolute times (when / what time
   was this information collected)

* Competition:
    DTRACE has output in nanoseconds (and it is comparable between
    processors on an mp system), but it is unclear what the actual
    resolution is.  Even if the sparc machine does have hardware
    that provides nanosecond resolution, on x86-64 they are likely
    to have the same problems as discussed here since the solaris
    opteron box tends to be a pretty vanilla box.

    From Joshua Stone (joshua.i.stone at

    == BEGIN ===
    DTrace gives you three built-in variables:

    uint64_t timestamp: The current value of a nanosecond timestamp
    counter. This counter increments from an arbitrary point in the
    past and should only be used for relative computations.

    uint64_t vtimestamp: The current value of a nanosecond timestamp
    counter that is virtualized to the amount of time that the current
    thread has been running on a CPU, minus the time spent in DTrace
    predicates and actions. This counter increments from an arbitrary
    point in the past and should only be used for relative time computations.

    uint64_t walltimestamp: The current number of nanoseconds since
    00:00 Universal Coordinated Time, January 1, 1970. 

    As for how they are implemented, the only detail I found is that
    timestamp is "similar to the Solaris library routine gethrtime".
    The manpage for gethrtime is here:
    == END ==

    What LTT does:

    "Cycle counters are fast to read but may reflect time
    inaccurately.  Indeed, the exact clock frequency varies
    with time as the processor temperature changes, influenced
    by the external temperature and its workload. Moreover, in
    SMP systems, the clock of individual processors may vary

    LTT corrects the clock inaccuracy by reading the real time
    clock value and the 64 bits cycle counter periodically, at
    the beginning of each block, and at each 10ms. This way, it
    is sufficient to read only the lower 32 bits of the cycle
    counter at each event. The associated real time value may
    then be obtained by linear interpolation between the nearest
    full cycle counter and real time values. Therefore, for the
    average cost of reading and storing the lower 32 bits of the
    cycle counter at each event, the real time with full resolution
    is obtained at analysis time."

* Cross-references:
    The profile_tapset is very dependent on sequencing and time when
    ordering of data (i.e. taking a trace history) as well as high
    granularity (when calculating time deltas).

* Associated files:

    Profile tapset requirements

    Intel high precision event timers specification:

    ACPI specification:

    From an internal email sent by Tony Luck (tony.luck at
    regarding a clustered environment. For the summary below, hpet and
    pm timer were not an option. For systemtap, they should be considered,
    especially since pm timer and hpet were designed to be a timestamp.

    == BEGIN ===
    For extremely short intervals (<100ns) get some h/w help (oscilloscope
    or logic analyser).  Delays reading TSC and pipeline effects could skew
    your results horribly.  Having a 2GHz clock doesn't mean that you can
    measure 500ps intervals.

    For short intervals (100ns to 10 ms) TSC is your best choice ... but you
    need to sample it on the same cpu, and converting the difference between
    two TSC values to real time will require some system dependent math to find
    the nominal frequency of the system (you may be able to ignore temperature
    effects, unless your system is in an extremely hostile environment).  But
    beware of systems that change the TSC rate when making frequency
    adjustments for power saving.  It shouldn't be hard to measure the
    system clock frequency to about five significant digits of accuracy,
    /proc/cpuinfo is probably good enough.

    For medium intervals (10 ms to a minute) then "gettimeofday()" or
    "clock_gettime()" on a system *NOT* running NTP may be best, but you will
    need to adjust for systematic error to account for the system clock running
    fast/slow.  Many Linux systems ship with a utility named "clockdiff" that
    you can use to measure the system drift against a reference system
    (a system that is nearby on the network, running NTP, prefereably a
    low "stratum" one).

    Just run clockdiff every five minutes for an hour or two, and plot the
    results to see what systematic drift your system has without NTP. N.B. if
    you find the drift is > 10 seconds per day, then NTP may have
    trouble keeping this system synced using only drift corrections,
    you might see "steps" when running NTP.  Check /var/log/messages for
    complaints from NTP.

    For long intervals (above a minute). Then you need "gettimeofday()" on a
    system that uses NTP to keep it in touch with reality.  Assuming reasonable
    network connectivity, NTP will maintain the time within a small number of
    milliseconds of reality ... so your results should be good for
    4-5 significant figures for 1 minute intervals, and better for longer
    == END ==