The tai library interface

The following functions are declared in the skalibs/tai.h header, and implemented in the libskarnet.a or library.

General information

tai is a set of data structures and primitives to represent and perform operations on time.

The point of tai is to handle time without ever having to deal with annoyances such as Y2K, Y2038, NTP limits, non-linear clocks, and the like. By using the tai interface, you ensure your program will behave properly no matter what.

What is the problem ?

The standard APIs for time management under Unix are broken in more or less subtle ways. The most obvious thing is that they do not pass year 2038. A less obvious problem is that they do not handle leap seconds correctly. Here are a few references you should read to understand what is going on:

The meat and potatoes of all this is that programmers cannot simply rely on standard Unix APIs such as gettimeofday() (which, by the way, is marked as obsolescent, but it's not going to disappear tomorrow) to measure time intervals or even to give precise absolute time, and in any case those APIs will become obsolete in 2038.

So what does tai do ?

tai implements - among other things - the TAI64 and TAI64N formats, which are used in all of skalibs. This gives a programmer access to precise linear absolute time, which is suitable for both timestamping (wallclock usage) and time interval measurements (stopwatch usage). Additionally, TAI64 passes Y2038 (it can represent dates exceeding the estimated lifespan of the universe).

tai has been inspired by Dan J. Bernstein's libtai library, but does not borrow any code from it.

Data structures

A tai_t structure holds an absolute date with a one-second precision. A tain_t structure holds an absolute date with a maximum of one-nanosecond precision, as permitted by the underlying system call. If flag-usert is clear, the system clock will be read via gettimeofday() system call, which has a one-microsecond precision; if it is set, the system clock will be read via the clock_gettime() system call, which has a one-nanosecond precision. In either case, a current tain_t will be unable to be more precise than the underlying implementation.

A tai_t, as well as a tain_t, can also hold a (possibly negative) relative time, i.e. a difference of absolute dates. It is up to the programmer to make sure that a relative time is never interpreted as an absolute TAI64 date, and vice-versa.


Wallclock operations

int tai_now (tai_t *t)
Writes the current time as a TAI value to *t, with a 1-second precision. The current time is based on the system clock. Make sure skalibs has been compiled with or without the --enable-tai-clock configure option according to your system clock synchronization method: skalibs supports a system clock set to TAI-10 or to UTC. The function returns 1 if it succeeds, or 0 (and sets errno) if it fails.

int sysclock_get (tain_t *a)
Reads the current value of the system clock into *a, with a 1-nanosecond (resp. 1-microsecond ) precision if skalibs has been configured with (resp. without) the --enable-clock option. Returns 1 if it succeeds or 0 (and sets errno) if it fails. Note that despite being a tain_t, *a does not contain a TAI value - it only contains an internal, Y2038-safe representation of the value of the system clock, which should be either TAI-10 or UTC. You should not use this function directly unless you know exactly what you are doing.

int sysclock_set (tain_t const *a)
Sets the system clock to *a, provided *a has the correct internal representation. You should not use this function directly unless you know exactly what you are doing.

int tain_sysclock (tain_t *a)
Reads the current time into *a, as a TAI64N value, with a 1-nanosecond (resp. 1-microsecond) precision if skalibs has been configured with (resp. without) the --enable-clock option. Returns 1 if it succeeds or 0 (and sets errno) if it fails. Here a contains a valid TAI64N stamp, no matter what the system clock is set to: arithmetic operations can be performed on it.

int tain_setnow (tain_t const *a)
Sets the current time to *a, with a 1-nanosecond (resp. 1-microsecond) precision if skalibs has been configured with (resp. without) the --enable-clock option. Returns 1 if it succeeds or 0 (and sets errno) if it fails. a must contain a valid TAI64N stamp; proper operations will be automatically run to convert that stamp into the right format for the system clock.

Stopwatch operations

The following 3 operations are only defined if your system provides the clock_gettime() primitive with the CLOCK_MONOTONIC option.

int tain_clockmon_init (tain_t *offset)
Initializes a stopwatch in *offset. The actual value of *offset is meaningless to the user; offset's only use is to be given as a second parameter to tain_clockmon(). The function returns 1 if it succeeds or 0 (and sets errno) if it fails.

What tain_clockmon_init() does is synchronize the "stopwatch clock" (CLOCK_MONOTONIC) to the system clock. Right after tain_clockmon_init() has been called, the absolute times given by tain_clockmon() and tain_sysclock() are similar. Then, depending on the accuracy of the system clock, a drift may appear; calling tain_clockmon_init() again resets that drift to zero.

int tain_clockmon (tain_t *a, tain_t const *offset)
Gives the absolute time, as a TAI64N value, in *a. This absolute time is computed as a linear increase (as measured with CLOCK_MONOTONIC) since the last time tain_clockmon_init() was called with parameter offset. tain_clockmon() guarantees precise time interval measurements; however, the time it gives can slightly differ from the result of tain_sysclock(). The function returns 1 if it succeeds or 0 (and sets errno) if it fails.

All-purpose time reading

int tain_init (void)
If skalibs has been configured with the --enable-monotonic option: this function initializes a process-global stopwatch, that future tain_now invocations will depend on. Without the --enable-monotonic option: this function does nothing. The function returns 1 if it succeeds or 0 (and sets errno) if it fails.

int tain_now (tain_t *a)
Writes the current time, as a TAI value, to *a. This is the function you should use to read time by default. It returns 1 if it succeeds or 0 (and sets errno) if it fails.

If skalibs has been configured with the --enable-monotonic option: tain_now() is computed as a linear increase from the last time tain_init() was called. (If tain_init() has never been called before, the first invocation of tain_now() automatically calls tain_init().) Without the --enable-monotonic option: tain_now() is the same as tain_sysclock().

If the above is unclear to you: just use tain_now() everytime you need to read time, and you will always get a reasonable approximation of the current time, in a format suited for arithmetic computations.

Converting to/from libc representations

The following functions only convert from a certain structure format to another; they do not make any assumption about the format of the time contained in those structures. For instance, for the tai_from_timeval function, if the struct timeval contains an absolute UTC time, then the tai_t will also contain the same UTC time. Despite being a tai_t, it may contain something else than TAI time.

If you need conversion from the native machine system clock format to TAI, see the next section.

int tai_from_time (tai_t *t, time_t u)
int tai_relative_from_time (tai_t *t, time_t u)

Those functions convert an absolute (resp. relative) time in a time_t to an absolute (resp. relative) time in a tai_t, with a 1-second precision. They return 1, unless the time_t value is invalid (in which case they return 0).

int time_from_tai (time_t *u, tai_t const *t)
int time_from_tai_relative (time_t *u, tai_t const *t)

The inverse functions of the previous ones. Be aware that time_t is 32 bits on some systems and cannot store all values of a tai_t (in which case the functions will return 0 EOVERFLOW).

int tain_from_timeval (tain_t *a, struct timeval const *tv)
int tain_relative_from_timeval (tain_t *a, struct timeval const *tv)
int tain_from_timespec (tain_t *a, struct timespec const *ts)
int tain_relative_from_timespec (tain_t *a, struct timespec const *ts)
int timeval_from_tain (struct timeval *tv, tain_t const *a)
int timeval_from_tain_relative (struct timeval *tv, tain_t const *a)
int timespec_from_tain (struct timespec *ts, tain_t const *a)
int timespec_from_tain_relative (struct timespec *ts, tain_t const *a)

Same conversion operations, between tain_t and a struct timeval or struct timespec. The 1-microsecond (for struct timeval) or 1-nanosecond (for struct timespec) precision is preserved.

Conversion between TAI and the system clock format

Unlike the previous functions, the functions listed here will always operate on valid absolute timestamps. Only TAI64 time is stored in tai_t structures, and only TAI64N time is stored in tain_t structures. These functions will convert to/from TAI, from/to the machine system clock format, i.e. TAI-10 or UTC depending on whether skalibs was compiled with the --enable-tai-clock configure option). This is useful to get valid TAI/TAI64N timestamps out of information exported by the system, for instance the time_t returned by time(), or in the st_atim, st_mtim or st_ctim fields of a struct stat.

The functions return 1 in case of success, or 0 if the conversion could not be performed; in which case errno is set to EINVAL if the input argument was not a valid timestamp, to EOVERFLOW if the output could not be represented in the chosen format (which may happen on systems with a 32 bit time_t), or other error codes.

int tai_from_time_sysclock (tai_t *a, time_t t)
int time_sysclock_from_tai (time_t *t, tai_t const *a)
int tain_from_timeval_sysclock (tain_t *a, struct timeval const *tv)
int timeval_sysclock_from_tain (struct timeval *tv, tain_t const *a)
int timespec_sysclock_from_tain (struct timespec *ts, tain_t const *a)

Conversions to/from basic types

int tain_uint (tain_t *a, unsigned int c)
Stores a relative time of c seconds into a. Normally returns 1, but may return 0 EINVAL on pathological numbers.

int tain_from_millisecs (tain_t *a, int ms)
This function makes a tain_t representing a relative time of ms milliseconds. ms must be non-negative. The function returns 1, unless ms is negative, in which case it returns 0 EINVAL.

int tain_to_millisecs (tain_t const *a)
If *a contains a non-negative relative time that fits into a 31-bit integer number of milliseconds, the function returns that number. Else it returns -1 EINVAL.

Time computations

int tai_add (tai_t *t, tai_t const *t1, tai_t const *t2)
Stores *t1 + *t2 into t. Of course, *t1 and *t2 must not both represent absolute times. The function normally returns 1, but will return 0 on bad inputs.

int tai_sub (tai_t *t, tai_t const *t1, tai_t const *t2)
Stores *t1 - *t2 into t. *t1 cannot be relative if *t2 is absolute. If they are both relative or both absolute, then *t is relative, else it's absolute. The function normally returns 1, but will return 0 on bad inputs.

int tain_add (tain_t *a, tain_t const *a1, tain_t const *a2)
int tain_sub (tain_t *a, tain_t const *a1, tain_t const *a2)

Same thing with tain_t.

int tain_addsec (tain_t *a, tain_t const *a1, int c)
Adds c seconds to *a1 and stores the result into a. c may be negative.

void tain_half (tain_t *a, tain_t const *b)
Stores *b/2 into a. *b must be relative.

Comparing dates or durations

int tai_less (tai_t const *t1, tai_t const *t2)
int tain_less (tain_t const *t1, tain_t const *t2)

Those functions return nonzero iff *t1 is lesser than *t2. *t1 and *t2 must be both relative, or both absolute.

Packing and unpacking

void tai_pack (char *s, tai_t const *t)
Marshals *t into the buffer s points to, which must be preallocated with at least TAI_PACK (8) characters. Afterwards, the buffer contains the external TAI64 format representation of *t.

void tai_unpack (char const *s, tai_t *t)
Unmarshals the external TAI64 format label pointed to by s (at least TAI_PACK characters) and stores the result into t.

void tain_pack (char *s, tain_t const *a)
void tain_unpack (char const *s, tain_t *a)

Same thing with external TAI64N format, using TAIN_PACK (12) characters.

Formatting and scanning

unsigned int tain_fmt (char *s, tain_t const *a)
Writes into s an ASCII representation of *a in external TAI64N format. s must point to a preallocated buffer of at least TAIN_PACK*2 (24) characters. The function returns the number of bytes that have been written to s (24).

unsigned int tain_scan (char const *s, tain_t *a)
Reads 24 characters from s; if those characters are a valid ASCII representation of the external TAI64N format of some time value, this value is stored into a, and 24 is returned. Else 0 is returned.


A TAI64N timestamp is a string of 25 characters: a single '@' character followed by the ASCII representation of the TAI64N external format of an absolute date.

unsigned int timestamp_fmt (char *s, tain_t const *a)
Writes a TAI64N timestamp representing the absolute date *a into the 25 characters pointed to by s. Returns 25.

unsigned int timestamp_scan (char const *s, tain_t *a)
Reads 25 characters at s. If those characters are a valid TAI64N timestamp, stores the absolute date in a and returns 25. Else, returns 0.

int timestamp (char *s)
Writes the current time (read from the system clock) as a TAI64N timestamp into s. Returns 1 if it succeeds or 0 (and sets errno) if it fails.

TAI64N timestamps are an efficient, robust, and easy-to-use way of timestampping log lines. They're easy to recognize in automatic data parsers. Log files where every line starts with a TAI64N timestamp can be merged and alphanumerically sorted: the resulting file will be chronologically sorted.

The s6 package provides tools to convert TAI64N timestamps into human-readable dates. Please do not embed human-readable dates in your log files, thus making parsing tools unnecessarily hard to write; use TAI64N timestamps instead, design tools that can parse them, and translate them to human-readable form at human analysis time.