time - overview of time


Real time and process time

Real time is defined as time measured from some fixed point, either from a standard point in the past (see the description of the Epoch and calendar time below), or from some point (e.g., the start) in the life of a process (elapsed time).

Process time is defined as the amount of CPU time used by a process. This is sometimes divided into user and system components. User CPU time is the time spent executing code in user mode. System CPU time is the time spent by the kernel executing in system mode on behalf of the process (e.g., executing system calls). The time(1) command can be used to determine the amount of CPU time consumed during the execution of a program. A program can determine the amount of CPU time it has consumed using times(2), getrusage(2), or clock(3).

The Hardware Clock

Most computers have a (battery-powered) hardware clock which the kernel reads at boot time in order to initialize the software clock. For further details, see rtc(4) and hwclock(8).

The Software Clock, HZ, and Jiffies

The accuracy of many system calls and timestamps is limited by the resolution of the software clock, a clock maintained by the kernel which measures time in jiffies. The size of a jiffy is determined by the value of the kernel constant HZ. The value of HZ varies across kernel versions and hardware platforms. On x86 the situation is as follows: on kernels up to and including 2.4.x, HZ was 100, giving a jiffy value of 0.01 seconds; starting with 2.6.0, HZ was raised to 1000, giving a jiffy of 0.001 seconds; since kernel 2.6.13, the HZ value is a kernel configuration parameter and can be 100, 250 (the default) or 1000, yielding a jiffies value of, respectively, 0.01, 0.004, or 0.001 seconds. Since kernel 2.6.20, a further frequency is available: 300, a number that divides evenly for the common video frame rates (PAL, 25 HZ; NTSC, 30 HZ).

The Epoch

Unix systems represent time in seconds since the Epoch, which is defined as 0:00:00 UTC on the morning of 1 January 1970.

A program can determine the calendar time using gettimeofday(2), which returns time (in seconds and microseconds) that have elapsed since the Epoch; time(2) provides similar information, but only with accuracy to the nearest second. The system time can be changed using settimeofday(2).

Broken-down time

Certain library functions use a structure of type tm to represent broken-down time, which stores time value separated out into distinct components (year, month, day, hour, minute, second, etc.). This structure is described in ctime(3), which also describes functions that convert between calendar time and broken-down time. Functions for converting between broken-down time and printable string representations of the time are described in ctime(3), strftime(3), and strptime(3).

Sleeping and Setting Timers

Various system calls and functions allow a program to sleep (suspend execution) for a specified period of time; see nanosleep(2) and sleep(3).

Various system calls allow a process to set a timer that expires at some point in the future, and optionally at repeated intervals; see alarm(2), getitimer(2), and timer_create(3).


date(1), time(1), adjtimex(2), alarm(2), getitimer(2), getrlimit(2), getrusage(2), gettimeofday(2), nanosleep(2), stat(2), time(2), times(2), utime(2), adjtime(3), clock(3), sleep(3), ctime(3), strftime(3), strptime(3), usleep(3), rtc(4), hwclock(8).