Timers and time management in the Linux kernel. Part 7.

This is the seventh and last part chapter, which describes timers and time management related stuff in the Linux kernel. In the previous part, we discussed timers in the context of x86_64: High Precision Event Timer and Time Stamp Counter. Internal time management is an interesting part of the Linux kernel, but of course not only the kernel needs the time concept. Our programs also need to know time. In this part, we will consider implementation of some time management related system calls. These system calls are:

  • clock_gettime;
  • gettimeofday;
  • nanosleep.

We will start from a simple userspace C program and see all way from the call of the standard library function to the implementation of certain system calls. As each architecture provides its own implementation of certain system calls, we will consider only x86_64 specific implementations of system calls, as this book is related to this architecture.

Additionally, we will not consider the concept of system calls in this part, but only implementations of these three system calls in the Linux kernel. If you are interested in what is a system call, there is a special chapter about this.

So, let's start from the gettimeofday system call.

Implementation of the gettimeofday system call

As we can understand from the name gettimeofday, this function returns the current time. First of all, let's look at the following simple example:

#include <time.h>
#include <sys/time.h>
#include <stdio.h>

int main(int argc, char **argv)
    char buffer[40];
    struct timeval time;

    gettimeofday(&time, NULL);

    strftime(buffer, 40, "Current date/time: %m-%d-%Y/%T", localtime(&time.tv_sec));

    return 0;

As you can see, here we call the gettimeofday function, which takes two parameters. The first parameter is a pointer to the timeval structure, which represents an elapsed time:

struct timeval {
    time_t      tv_sec;     /* seconds */
    suseconds_t tv_usec;    /* microseconds */

The second parameter of the gettimeofday function is a pointer to the timezone structure which represents a timezone. In our example, we pass address of the timeval time to the gettimeofday function, the Linux kernel fills the given timeval structure and returns it back to us. Additionally, we format the time with the strftime function to get something more human readable than elapsed microseconds. Let's see the result:

~$ gcc date.c -o date
~$ ./date
Current date/time: 03-26-2016/16:42:02

As you may already know, a userspace application does not call a system call directly from the kernel space. Before the actual system call entry will be called, we call a function from the standard library. In my case it is glibc, so I will consider this case. The implementation of the gettimeofday function is located in the sysdeps/unix/sysv/linux/x86/gettimeofday.c source code file. As you already may know, the gettimeofday is not a usual system call. It is located in the special area which is called vDSO (you can read more about it in the part, which describes this concept).

The glibc implementation of gettimeofday tries to resolve the given symbol; in our case this symbol is __vdso_gettimeofday by the call of the _dl_vdso_vsym internal function. If the symbol cannot be resolved, it returns NULL and we fallback to the call of the usual system call:

return (_dl_vdso_vsym ("__vdso_gettimeofday", &linux26)
  ?: (void*) (&__gettimeofday_syscall));

The gettimeofday entry is located in the arch/x86/entry/vdso/vclock_gettime.c source code file. As we can see the gettimeofday is a weak alias of the __vdso_gettimeofday:

int gettimeofday(struct timeval *, struct timezone *)
    __attribute__((weak, alias("__vdso_gettimeofday")));

The __vdso_gettimeofday is defined in the same source code file and calls the do_realtime function if the given timeval is not null:

notrace int __vdso_gettimeofday(struct timeval *tv, struct timezone *tz)
    if (likely(tv != NULL)) {
        if (unlikely(do_realtime((struct timespec *)tv) == VCLOCK_NONE))
            return vdso_fallback_gtod(tv, tz);
        tv->tv_usec /= 1000;
    if (unlikely(tz != NULL)) {
        tz->tz_minuteswest = gtod->tz_minuteswest;
        tz->tz_dsttime = gtod->tz_dsttime;

    return 0;

If the do_realtime will fail, we fallback to the real system call via call the syscall instruction and passing the __NR_gettimeofday system call number and the given timeval and timezone:

notrace static long vdso_fallback_gtod(struct timeval *tv, struct timezone *tz)
    long ret;

    asm("syscall" : "=a" (ret) :
        "0" (__NR_gettimeofday), "D" (tv), "S" (tz) : "memory");
    return ret;

The do_realtime function gets the time data from the vsyscall_gtod_data structure which is defined in the arch/x86/include/asm/vgtod.h header file and contains mapping of the timespec structure and a couple of fields which are related to the current clock source in the system. This function fills the given timeval structure with values from the vsyscall_gtod_data which contains a time related data which is updated via timer interrupt.

First of all we try to access the gtod or global time of day the vsyscall_gtod_data structure via the call of the gtod_read_begin and will continue to do it until it will be successful:

do {
    seq = gtod_read_begin(gtod);
    mode = gtod->vclock_mode;
    ts->tv_sec = gtod->wall_time_sec;
    ns = gtod->wall_time_snsec;
    ns += vgetsns(&mode);
    ns >>= gtod->shift;
} while (unlikely(gtod_read_retry(gtod, seq)));

ts->tv_sec += __iter_div_u64_rem(ns, NSEC_PER_SEC, &ns);
ts->tv_nsec = ns;

As we got access to the gtod, we fill the ts->tv_sec with the gtod->wall_time_sec which stores current time in seconds gotten from the real time clock during initialization of the timekeeping subsystem in the Linux kernel and the same value but in nanoseconds. In the end of this code we just fill the given timespec structure with the resulted values.

That's all about the gettimeofday system call. The next system call in our list is the clock_gettime.

Implementation of the clock_gettime system call

The clock_gettime function gets the time which is specified by the second parameter. Generally the clock_gettime function takes two parameters:

  • clk_id - clock identifier;
  • timespec - address of the timespec structure which represent elapsed time.

Let's look on the following simple example:

#include <time.h>
#include <sys/time.h>
#include <stdio.h>

int main(int argc, char **argv)
    struct timespec elapsed_from_boot;

    clock_gettime(CLOCK_BOOTTIME, &elapsed_from_boot);

    printf("%d - seconds elapsed from boot\n", elapsed_from_boot.tv_sec);

    return 0;

which prints uptime information:

~$ gcc uptime.c -o uptime
~$ ./uptime
14180 - seconds elapsed from boot

We can easily check the result with the help of the uptime util:

~$ uptime
up  3:56

The elapsed_from_boot.tv_sec represents elapsed time in seconds, so:

>>> 14180 / 60
>>> 14180 / 60 / 60
>>> 14180 / 60 % 60

The clock_id maybe one of the following:

  • CLOCK_REALTIME - system wide clock which measures real or wall-clock time;
  • CLOCK_REALTIME_COARSE - faster version of the CLOCK_REALTIME;
  • CLOCK_MONOTONIC - represents monotonic time since some unspecified starting point;
  • CLOCK_MONOTONIC_RAW - the same as the CLOCK_MONOTONIC but provides non NTP adjusted time.
  • CLOCK_BOOTTIME - the same as the CLOCK_MONOTONIC but plus time that the system was suspended;
  • CLOCK_PROCESS_CPUTIME_ID - per-process time consumed by all threads in the process;
  • CLOCK_THREAD_CPUTIME_ID - thread-specific clock.

The clock_gettime is not usual syscall too, but as the gettimeofday, this system call is placed in the vDSO area. Entry of this system call is located in the same source code file - arch/x86/entry/vdso/vclock_gettime.c) as for gettimeofday.

The Implementation of the clock_gettime depends on the clock id. If we have passed the CLOCK_REALTIME clock id, the do_realtime function will be called:

notrace int __vdso_clock_gettime(clockid_t clock, struct timespec *ts)
    switch (clock) {
        if (do_realtime(ts) == VCLOCK_NONE)
            goto fallback;
    return vdso_fallback_gettime(clock, ts);

In other cases, the do_{name_of_clock_id} function is called. Implementations of some of them is similar. For example if we will pass the CLOCK_MONOTONIC clock id:

    if (do_monotonic(ts) == VCLOCK_NONE)
        goto fallback;

the do_monotonic function will be called which is very similar on the implementation of the do_realtime:

notrace static int __always_inline do_monotonic(struct timespec *ts)
    do {
        seq = gtod_read_begin(gtod);
        mode = gtod->vclock_mode;
        ts->tv_sec = gtod->monotonic_time_sec;
        ns = gtod->monotonic_time_snsec;
        ns += vgetsns(&mode);
        ns >>= gtod->shift;
    } while (unlikely(gtod_read_retry(gtod, seq)));

    ts->tv_sec += __iter_div_u64_rem(ns, NSEC_PER_SEC, &ns);
    ts->tv_nsec = ns;

    return mode;

We already saw a little about the implementation of this function in the previous paragraph about the gettimeofday. There is only one difference here, that the sec and nsec of our timespec value will be based on the gtod->monotonic_time_sec instead of gtod->wall_time_sec which maps the value of the tk->tkr_mono.xtime_nsec or number of nanoseconds elapsed.

That's all.

Implementation of the nanosleep system call

The last system call in our list is the nanosleep. As you can understand from its name, this function provides sleeping ability. Let's look on the following simple example:

#include <time.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <stdio.h>

int main (void)
   struct timespec ts = {5,0};

   printf("sleep five seconds\n");
   nanosleep(&ts, NULL);
   printf("end of sleep\n");

   return 0;

If we will compile and run it, we will see the first line

~$ gcc sleep_test.c -o sleep
~$ ./sleep
sleep five seconds
end of sleep

and the second line after five seconds.

The nanosleep is not located in the vDSO area like the gettimeofday and the clock_gettime functions. So, let's look how the real system call which is located in the kernel space will be called by the standard library. The implementation of the nanosleep system call will be called with the help of the syscall instruction. Before the execution of the syscall instruction, parameters of the system call must be put in processor registers according to order which is described in the System V Application Binary Interface or in other words:

  • rdi - first parameter;
  • rsi - second parameter;
  • rdx - third parameter;
  • r10 - fourth parameter;
  • r8 - fifth parameter;
  • r9 - sixth parameter.

The nanosleep system call has two parameters - two pointers to the timespec structures. The system call suspends the calling thread until the given timeout has elapsed. Additionally it will finish if a signal interrupts its execution. It takes two parameters, the first is timespec which represents timeout for the sleep. The second parameter is the pointer to the timespec structure too and it contains remainder of time if the call of the nanosleep was interrupted.

As nanosleep has two parameters:

int nanosleep(const struct timespec *req, struct timespec *rem);

To call system call, we need put the req to the rdi register, and the rem parameter to the rsi register. The glibc does these job in the INTERNAL_SYSCALL macro which is located in the sysdeps/unix/sysv/linux/x86_64/sysdep.h header file.

# define INTERNAL_SYSCALL(name, err, nr, args...) \
  INTERNAL_SYSCALL_NCS (__NR_##name, err, nr, ##args)

which takes the name of the system call, storage for possible error during execution of system call, number of the system call (all x86_64 system calls you can find in the system calls table) and arguments of certain system call. The INTERNAL_SYSCALL macro just expands to the call of the INTERNAL_SYSCALL_NCS macro, which prepares arguments of system call (puts them into the processor registers in correct order), executes syscall instruction and returns the result:

# define INTERNAL_SYSCALL_NCS(name, err, nr, args...)      \
  ({                                                                          \
    unsigned long int resultvar;                                              \
    LOAD_ARGS_##nr (args)                                                      \
    LOAD_REGS_##nr                                                              \
    asm volatile (                                                              \
    "syscall\n\t"                                                              \
    : "=a" (resultvar)                                                          \
    : "0" (name) ASM_ARGS_##nr : "memory", REGISTERS_CLOBBERED_BY_SYSCALL);   \
    (long int) resultvar; })

The LOAD_ARGS_##nr macro calls the LOAD_ARGS_N macro where the N is number of arguments of the system call. In our case, it will be the LOAD_ARGS_2 macro. Ultimately all of these macros will be expanded to the following:

# define LOAD_REGS_TYPES_1(t1, a1)                       \
  register t1 _a1 asm ("rdi") = __arg1;                       \

# define LOAD_REGS_TYPES_2(t1, a1, t2, a2)                   \
  register t2 _a2 asm ("rsi") = __arg2;                       \
  LOAD_REGS_TYPES_1(t1, a1)

After the syscall instruction will be executed, the context switch will occur and the kernel will transfer execution to the system call handler. The system call handler for the nanosleep system call is located in the kernel/time/hrtimer.c source code file and defined with the SYSCALL_DEFINE2 macro helper:

SYSCALL_DEFINE2(nanosleep, struct timespec __user *, rqtp,
        struct timespec __user *, rmtp)
    struct timespec tu;

    if (copy_from_user(&tu, rqtp, sizeof(tu)))
        return -EFAULT;

    if (!timespec_valid(&tu))
        return -EINVAL;

    return hrtimer_nanosleep(&tu, rmtp, HRTIMER_MODE_REL, CLOCK_MONOTONIC);

More about the SYSCALL_DEFINE2 macro you may read in the chapter about system calls. If we look at the implementation of the nanosleep system call, first of all we will see that it starts from the call of the copy_from_user function. This function copies the given data from the userspace to kernelspace. In our case we copy timeout value to sleep to the kernelspace timespec structure and check that the given timespec is valid by the call of the timesc_valid function:

static inline bool timespec_valid(const struct timespec *ts)
    if (ts->tv_sec < 0)
        return false;
    if ((unsigned long)ts->tv_nsec >= NSEC_PER_SEC)
        return false;
    return true;

which just checks that the given timespec does not represent date before 1970 and nanoseconds does not overflow 1 second. The nanosleep function ends with the call of the hrtimer_nanosleep function from the same source code file. The hrtimer_nanosleep function creates a timer and calls the do_nanosleep function. The do_nanosleep does main job for us. This function provides loop:

do {
    hrtimer_start_expires(&t->timer, mode);

    if (likely(t->task))

} while (t->task && !signal_pending(current));

return t->task == NULL;

Which freezes current task during sleep. After we set TASK_INTERRUPTIBLE flag for the current task, the hrtimer_start_expires function starts the give high-resolution timer on the current processor. As the given high resolution timer will expire, the task will be again running.

That's all.


This is the end of the seventh part of the chapter that describes timers and timer management related stuff in the Linux kernel. In the previous part we saw x86_64 specific clock sources. As I wrote in the beginning, this part is the last part of this chapter. We saw important time management related concepts like clocksource and clockevents frameworks, jiffies counter and etc., in this chpater. Of course this does not cover all of the time management in the Linux kernel. Many parts of this mostly related to the scheduling which we will see in other chapter.

If you have questions or suggestions, feel free to ping me in twitter 0xAX, drop me email or just create issue.

Please note that English is not my first language and I am really sorry for any inconvenience. If you found any mistakes please send me PR to linux-insides.

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