4.7. Using _COARSE POSIX Clocks for Application Timestamping

Applications that frequently perform timestamps are affected by the cost of reading the clock. A high cost and amount of time used to read the clock can have a negative impact on the application's performance.
To illustrate that concept, imagine using a clock, inside a drawer, to time events being observed. If every time one has to open the drawer, get the clock and only then read the time, the cost of reading the clock is too high and can lead to missing events or incorrectly timestamping them.
Conversely, a clock on the wall would be faster to read, and timestamping would produce less interference to the observed events. Standing right in front of that wall clock would make it even faster to obtain time readings.
Likewise, this performance gain (in reducing the cost of reading the clock) can be obtained by selecting a hardware clock that has a faster reading mechanism. In Red Hat Enterprise Linux for Real Time, a further performance gain can be acquired by using POSIX clocks with the clock_gettime() function to produce clock readings with the lowest cost possible.
POSIX Clocks

POSIX clocks is a standard for implementing and representing time sources. The POSIX clocks can be selected by each application, without affecting other applications in the system. This is in contrast to the hardware clocks as described in Section 2.6, “Using Hardware Clocks for System Timestamping”, which is selected by the kernel and implemented across the system.

The function used to read a given POSIX clock is clock_gettime(), which is defined at <time.h>. clock_gettime() has a counterpart in the kernel, in the form of a system call. When the user process calls clock_gettime(), the corresponding C library (glibc) calls the sys_clock_gettime() system call which performs the requested operation and then returns the result to the user program.
However, this context switch from the user application to the kernel has a cost. Even though this cost is very low, if the operation is repeated thousands of times, the accumulated cost can have an impact on the overall performance of the application. To avoid that context switch to the kernel, thus making it faster to read the clock, support for the CLOCK_MONOTONIC_COARSE and CLOCK_REALTIME_COARSE POSIX clocks was created in the form of a VDSO library function.
Time readings performed by clock_gettime(), using one of the _COARSE clock variants, do not require kernel intervention and are executed entirely in user space, which yields a significant performance gain. Time readings for _COARSE clocks have a millisecond (ms) resolution, meaning that time intervals smaller than 1ms will not be recorded. The _COARSE variants of the POSIX clocks are suitable for any application that can accommodate millisecond clock resolution, and the benefits are more evident on systems which use hardware clocks with high reading costs.


To compare the cost and resolution of reading POSIX clocks with and without the _COARSE prefix, see the Red Hat Enterprise Linux for Real Time Reference guide for Red Hat Enterprise Linux for Real Time.

Example 4.1. Using the _COARSE Clock Variant in clock_gettime

#include <time.h>

	int rc;
	long i;
	struct timespec ts;

	for(i=0; i<10000000; i++) {
		rc = clock_gettime(CLOCK_MONOTONIC_COARSE, &ts);
You can improve upon the example above, for example by using more strings to verify the return code of clock_gettime(), to verify the value of the rc variable, or to ensure the content of the ts structure is to be trusted. The clock_gettime() manpage provides more information to help you write more reliable applications.


Programs using the clock_gettime() function must be linked with the rt library by adding '-lrt' to the gcc command line.
~]$ gcc clock_timing.c -o clock_timing -lrt
Related Manual Pages

For more information, or for further reading, the following man page and books are related to the information given in this section.

  • clock_gettime()
  • Linux System Programming by Robert Love
  • Understanding The Linux Kernel by Daniel P. Bovet and Marco Cesati