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Time, but Faster

By Theo Schlossnagle

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 60 No. 3, Pages 38-41
10.1145/3024916

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Every once in a while, you find yourself in a rabbit hole, unsure of where you are or what time it might be. This article presents a computing adventure about time through the looking glass.

The first premise was summed up perfectly by the late Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so." The concept of time, when colliding with decoupled networks of computers that run at billions of operations per second, is ... well, the truth of the matter is you simply never really know what time it is. That is why Leslie Lamport's seminal paper on Lamport timestamps was so important to the industry, but this article is actually about wall-clock time, or a reasonably useful estimation of it.

Even on today's computers, it is feasible to execute an instruction in less than a nanosecond. When the white rabbit looks at his pocket watch in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, he is seeing what time it was a nanosecond before, as the light travels from the hands on the watch to his eyeassuming that Lewis Carroll's timeless tale took place in a vacuum and that the rabbit was holding the watch one-third of a meter from his eyes.

When you think of a distributed system where a cluster of fast computers are often more than one light-nanosecond away from each other, it is understandably difficult to time something that starts in one place and ends in another with nanosecond precision; this is the realm of physicists, not bums like us with commodity computing hardware run in environments we don't even manage. To upset the newcomer even further, every computer today is effectively a distributed system itself, with each CPU core having its own clock ticking away, with its own subtly different frequency and sense of universal beginning.

All that said, computers must give users the illusion of a clock. Without it, we won't know what time it is. As computers get faster and faster, we are able to improve the performance of our systems, but one fundamental of performance engineering is that we cannot improve what we cannot measure; so measure we must. The fundamental paradox is that as what we measure gets smaller, the cost of measuring it remains fixed, and thus becomes relatively monstrous.

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The Beginning of the Tumble ...

At Circonus, we write a database that is fast and keeps getting faster. We dump energy into this seemingly endless journey because we operate at scale and every bit of efficiency we eke out results in lower COGS (cost of goods sold) for us and better service for our customers. Moreover, it fundamentally affords a cost effectiveness of telemetry collection and analysis that approaches reasonable economics to "monitor all the things." In that context ...

Let's assume we want to achieve an average latency for operations of one microsecond. Now let's wrap some numbers around that. I will make some notes about certain aspects of hardware, but I'll really focus only on hardware from the past several years. While we like to think in terms of seconds, computers don't care about this concept of time. They care only about clock ticks.

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The TSC

Online CPUs are forever marching forward at some frequency, and the period of this frequency is called a tick. In an effort to save power, many computers can shift between different power-saving states that cause the frequency of the CPU to change. This could make it excruciatingly difficult to tell high-granularity time accurately, if the frequency of the CPU were used for timing. Each core on a modern CPU has a TSC (time-stamp counter) that counts the number of ticks that have transpired. You can read this counter with the cleverly named rdtsc assembly instruction. Also, modern CPUs have a feature called an invariant TSC, which guarantees that the frequency at which ticks occur will not change for any reason (but mainly for power-saving mode changes). My development box has an invariant TSC that ticks approximately 2.5999503 times per nanosecond. Other machines have different frequencies.

The standard tooling to figure out how long an operation takes on a Unix machine is either clock _ gettime (CLOCK _ MONOTONIC,...) or gethrtime (). These calls return the number of nanoseconds since some arbitrary fixed point in the past. The examples shown here use gethrtime () because it is shorter to write.

hrtime _ t start = gethrtime ();

some _ operation _ worthy _ of _ measurement ();

hrtime _ t elapsed = gethrtime() - start;

As these things are measured, the gethrtime () call itself will take some time. The question is: where does the time it returns sit relative to the beginning and end of the gethrtime() call itself? That can be answered with benchmarks. The bias introduced by measuring the start and finish is relative to its contribution to overall running time. In other words, if the "operation" being measured is made to take a long time over many iterations, the measurement bias can be reduced to near zero. Timing gethrtime () with gethrtime() would look like this:

#define LOTS 10000000 hrtime _ t start = gethrtime();

for(int i=0;i<LOTS;i++) (void)gethrtime() ;

hrtime _ t elapsed = gethrtime () - start;

double avg _ ns _ per _ op = (double) elapsed / (double)LOTS;

Behold, a benchmark is born. Furthermore, you could actually measure the number of ticks elapsed in the test by bracketing the test with calls to rdtsc in assembly. Note that you must bind yourself to a specific CPU on the box to make this effective because the TSC clocks on different cores do not have the same concept of "beginning." Table 1 shows the results if this is run on our two primary platforms (Linux and Illumos/OmniOS on a 24-core 2.6GHz Intel box).

The first observation is that Linux optimizes both of these calls significantly more than OmniOS does. This has actually been addressed as part of the LX brand work in SmartOS by Joyent and will soon be upstreamed into Illumos for general consumption by OmniOS. Alas, that isn't the worst thing: objectively determining what time it is, is simply too slow for microsecond-level timing, even at the lower 119.8ns/op (nanoseconds per operation) number above. Note that gettimeofday () supports only microsecond-level accuracy and thus is not suitable for timing faster operations.

At just 119.8 ns/op, bracketing a one-microsecond call will result in:

(119.8*2)/(1000 + 119.8*2) -> 19.33%

So 19.33% of the execution time is spent on calculating the timing, and that doesn't even include the time spent recording the result. A good goal to target here is 10% or less. So, how do we get there?

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Looking At Our Tools

These same modern CPUs with invariant TSCs have the rdtsc instruction, which reads the TSC, yet doesn't provide insight into which CPU you are executing on. That would require either prefixing the call with a cpuid instruction or binding the executing thread to a specific core. The former adds ticks to the work; the latter is wholly inconvenient and can really defeat any advanced NUMA (nonuniform memory access)-aware scheduling that the kernel might provide. Basically, binding the CPU provides a super-fast but overly restrictive solution. We just want the gethrtime() call to work and be fast.

We are not the only ones in need. Out of the generally recognized need, the rdtscp instruction was introduced. It supplies the value in the TSC and a programmable 32-bit value. The operating system can program this value to be the ID of the CPU, and a sufficient amount of information is emitted in a single instruction. Don't be deceived; this instruction isn't cheap and measures in at 34 ticks on this machine. If you code that instruction call as uint64 _ tmtev _ rdtscp(int *cpuid), that returns the TSC and optionally sets a cpuid to the programmed value.

The first challenge here is to understand the frequency. This is a straight-forward timing exercise illustrated in the accompanying figure.

This usually takes around 10ns, assuming no major page fault during the assignment10ns to set a piece of memory! Remember, that includes the average time of a call to mtev_rdtscp(), which is just over 9ns. That's not really the problem. The problem is that sometimes we get HUGE answers. Why? We switch CPUs and the outputs of the two TSC calls are reporting two completely unrelated counters. So, to rephrase the problem: we must relate the counters.

The code for skew assessment is a bit much to include here. The basic idea is that we should run a calibration loop on each CPU that measures TSC*nanos _ per _ tick and assess the skew from gethrtime(), accommodating the running time of gethrtime(). As with most calibration loops, the most skewed is discarded and the remaining is averaged. This basically goes back to secondary-school math to find the linear intercept equation: y = mx + b, or: gethrtime() = nanos_per_tick * mtev_rdtscp() + skew

As the TSC is per CPU, you need to track m and b (nanos_per_tick and skew) on a per-CPU basis.

Another nuance is that these two values together describe the translation between a CPU's TSC and the system's gethrtime(), and they are estimates. That means two important things: They need to be updated regularly to correct for error in the calibration and estimation; and they need to be set and read atomically. This is where the cmpxchg16b instruction enters.

Additionally, this calibration work is performed every five seconds in a separate thread, and we attempt to make that thread high priority on a real-time scheduler. It turns out that this all works quite well, even without the ability to change priority or scheduling class.

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Gravy

Since we're clearly having to correct for skew to align with the system gethrtime(), and the point in the past to which gethrtime() is relative is arbitrary (according to the documentation), we've elected to make that "arbitrary" point the Unix epoch. No additional instructions are required, and now the replacement gethrtime () can be used to power gettimeofday(). Therefore, y = mx + b is actually implemented as:

nano _ second _ since _ epoch = nanos _ per _ tick * mtev _ rdtscp() + skew

Obviously, we'll pick up changes to the wall clock (via adjtime() et al.) only when we recalibrate.

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Safety

Obviously, things can and do go wrong. A variety of fail-safe mechanisms are in place to ensure proper behavior when the optimizations become unsafe. By default, if the lack of an invariant TSC is detected, the system is disabled. If a calibration loop fails for too long (15 seconds), the CPU is marked as bad and disabled. During rudimentary performance tests, if the system's gethrtime() can beat the emulation, then we disable. If all those tests pass, we still check to see if the underlying system can perform gettimeofday() faster than we can emulate it; if so, we disable gettimeofday() emulation. The goal is for mtev_gethrtime() to be as fast as or faster than gethrtime() and for mtev_gettimeofday() to be as fast as or faster than gettimeofday().

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Results

The overall results are better than expected. The original goal was simply to provide a way for our implementation on Illumos to meet the performance of Linux. The value of ZFS is deeply profound, and while Linux has some performance advantages in specific arenas, that doesn't matter much if you have undetectable corruption of the data you store.

Further optimization is possible in the implementation, but we've stopped for now, having achieved the initial goals. Additionally, for the purposes of this test, we have built the code portably. We can find a couple of nanoseconds if we compile -march=native on machines supporting the AVX (Advanced Vector Extensions) instruction set.

It is true that an approximately 40ns gethrtime () can be considered slow enough, relative to microsecond-level efforts, that very prudent selection is still necessary. It is also true that 40ns gethrtime() can open up a new world of possibilities for user-space instrumentation. It has certainly opened our eyes to some startling things.

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Acknowledgment

This all comes for free with https://github.com/circonus-labs/libmtev/blob/master/src/utils/mtev_time.com (see https://github.com/circonus-labs/libmtev/blob/master/src/utils/mtev_time.c for reference).

As of this writing, Linux and Illumos are supported platforms, and Darwin and FreeBSD do not have "faster time" support. The faster time support in libmtev was a collaborative effort between Riley Berton and Theo Schlossnagle.

q stamp of ACM QueueRelated articles
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Passively Measuring TCP Round-Trip Times
Stephen D. Strowes
http://queue.acm.org/detail.cfm?id=2539132

The One-Second War (What Time Will You Die?)
Poul-Henning Kamp
http://queue.acm.org/detail.cfm?id=1967009

Principles of Robust Timing over the Internet
Julien Ridoux and Darryl Veitch
http://queue.acm.org/detail.cfm?id=1773943

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Author

Theo Schlossnagle is the founder and chief executive officer at Circonus, where he works on Large-scale numerical data analysis. He is the author of Scalable Internet Architectures (Sams Publishing, 2006) and founder of OmniTI, an Internet consultancy.

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Figures

UF1Figure. Calibration loop.

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Tables

T1Table 1. Starting benchmarks.

T2Table 2. Results

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