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The global variable jiffies holds the number of ticks that have occurred since the system booted. On boot, the kernel initializes the variable to zero, and it is incremented by one during each timer interrupt. Thus, because there are HZ timer interrupts in a second, there are HZ jiffies in a second. The system uptime is therefore jiffies/HZ seconds.

The Etymology of the Jiffy

The origin of the term jiffy is unknown. Phrases such as in a jiffy are thought to originate from eighteenth-century England. In lay terms, jiffy refers to an indeterminate but very brief period of time.

In scientific applications, jiffy represents various intervals of time, most commonly 10ms. In physics, a jiffy is sometimes used to refer to the time it takes for light to travel some specific distance (usually a foot or a centimeter or across a nucleon).

In computer engineering, a jiffy is often the time between two successive clock cycles. In electrical engineering, a jiffy is the time to complete one AC (alternating current) cycle. In the United States, this is 1/60 of a second.

In operating systems, especially Unix, a jiffy is the time between two successive clock ticks. Historically, this has been 10ms. As we have seen in this chapter, however, a jiffy in Linux can have various values.

The jiffies variable is declared in <linux/jiffies.h> as

extern unsigned long volatile jiffies;

In the next section, we will look at its actual definition, which is a bit peculiar. For now, let's look at some sample kernel code. The following code converts from seconds to a unit of jiffies:

(seconds * HZ)

Likewise, this code converts from jiffies to seconds:

(jiffies / HZ)

The former is more common. For example, code often needs to set a value for some time in the future, for example:

unsigned long time_stamp = jiffies;           /* now */
unsigned long next_tick = jiffies +_1;        /* one tick from now */
unsigned long later = jiffies + 5*HZ;         /* five seconds from now */

The latter is typically reserved for communicating with user-space, as the kernel itself rarely cares about any sort of absolute time.

Note that the jiffies variable is prototyped as unsigned long and that storing it in anything else is incorrect.

Internal Representation of Jiffies

The jiffies variable has always been an unsigned long, and therefore 32 bits in size on 32-bit architectures and 64-bits on 64-bit architectures. With a tick rate of 100, a 32-bit jiffies variable would overflow in about 497 days. With HZ increased to 1000, however, that overflow now occurs in just 49.7 days! If jiffies were stored in a 64-bit variable on all architectures, then for any reasonable HZ value the jiffies variable would never overflow in anyone's lifetime.

For performance and historical reasonsmainly compatibility with existing kernel codethe kernel developers wanted to keep jiffies an unsigned long. Some smart thinking and a little linker magic saved that day.

As you previously saw, jiffies is defined as an unsigned long:

extern unsigned long volatile jiffies;

A second variable is also defined in <linux/jiffies.h>:

extern u64 jiffies_64;

The ld(1) script used to link the main kernel image (arch/i386/kernel/ on x86) then overlays the jiffies variable over the start of the jiffies_64 variable:

jiffies = jiffies_64;

Thus, jiffies is the lower 32 bits of the full 64-bit jiffies_64 variable. Code can continue to access the jiffies variable exactly as before. Because most code uses jiffies simply to measure elapses in time, most code cares about only the lower 32 bits. The time management code uses the entire 64 bits, however, and thus prevents overflow of the full 64-bit value. Figure 10.1 shows the layout of jiffies and jiffies_64. Code that accesses jiffies simply reads the lower 32 bits of jiffies_64. The function get_jiffies_64() can be used to read the full 64-bit value[5]. Such a need is rare; consequently, most code simply continues to read the lower 32 bits directly via the jiffies variable.

[5] A special function is needed because 32-bit architectures cannot atomically access both 32-bit words in a 64-bit value and because jiffies_64 is not marked volatile. The special function locks the jiffies count via the xtime_lock lock before reading.

Figure 10.1. Layout of jiffies and jiffies_64.

On 64-bit architectures, jiffies_64 and jiffies refer to the same thing. Code can either read jiffies or call get_jiffies_64() because both actions have the same effect.

Jiffies Wraparound

The jiffies variable, like any C integer, experiences overflow when its value is increased beyond its maximum storage limit. For a 32-bit unsigned integer, the maximum value is 232 - 1. Thus, a possible 4294967295 timer ticks can occur before the tick count overflows. When the tick count is equal to this maximum and it is incremented, it wraps around to zero.

Look at an example of a wraparound:

unsigned long timeout = jiffies + HZ/2;        /* timeout in 0.5s */

/* do some work ... */

/* then see whether we took too long */
if (timeout > jiffies) {
        /* we did not time out, good ... */
} else {
        /* we timed out, error ... */

The intention of this code snippet is to set a timeout for some time in the futurefor one half second from now, in this example. The code then proceeds to perform some work, presumably poking hardware and waiting for a response. When done, if the whole ordeal took longer than the timeout, the code handles the error as appropriate.

Multiple potential overflow issues are here, but let's study one of them: Consider what happens if jiffies wrapped back to zero after setting timeout. Then the first conditional would fail because the jiffies value would be smaller than timeout despite logically being larger. Conceptually, the jiffies value should be a very large numberlarger than timeout. Because it overflowed its maximum value, however, it is now a very small valueperhaps only a handful of ticks over zero. Because of the wraparound, the results of the if statement are switched. Whoops!

Thankfully, the kernel provides four macros for comparing tick counts that correctly handle wraparound in the tick count. They are in <linux/jiffies.h>:

#define time_after(unknown, known) ((long)(known) - (long)(unknown) < 0) 
#define time_before(unknown, known) ((long)(unknown) - (long)(known) < 0)
#define time_after_eq(unknown, known) ((long)(unknown) - (long)(known) >= 0) 
#define time_before_eq(unknown, known) ((long)(known) - (long)(unknown) >= 0)

The unknown parameter is typically jiffies and the known parameter is the value against which you want to compare.

The time_after(unknown, known) macro returns true if time unknown is after time known; otherwise, it returns false. The time_before(unknown, known) macro returns true if time unknown is before time known; otherwise, it returns false. The final two macros perform identically to the first two, except they also return true if the parameters are equal.

The timer-wraparound-safe version of the previous example would look like this:

unsigned long timeout = jiffies + HZ/2;        /* timeout in 0.5s */

/* ... */
if (time_before(jiffies, timeout)) {
        /* we did not time out, good ... */
} else {
        /* we timed out, error ... */

If you are curious as to why these macros prevent errors because of wraparound, try various values for the two parameters. Then assume one parameter wrapped to zero and see what happens.

User-Space and HZ

In kernels earlier than 2.6, changing the value of HZ resulted in user-space anomalies. This happened because values were exported to user-space in units of ticks-per-second. As these interfaces became permanent, applications grew to rely on a specific value of HZ. Consequently, changing HZ would scale various exported values by some constantwithout user-space knowing! Uptime would read 20 hours when it was in fact two!

To prevent such problems, the kernel needs to scale all exported jiffies values. It does this by defining USER_HZ, which is the HZ value that user-space expects. On x86, because HZ was historically 100, USER_HZ is 100. The macro jiffies_to_clock_t() is then used to scale a tick count in terms of HZ to a tick count in terms of USER_HZ. The macro used depends on whether USER_HZ and HZ are integer multiples of themselves. If so, the macro is rather simple:

#define jiffies_to_clock_t(x)                ((x) / (HZ / USER_HZ))

A more complicated algorithm is used if the values are not integer multiples.

Finally, the function jiffies_64_to_clock_t() is provided to convert a 64-bit jiffies value from HZ to USER_HZ units.

These functions are used anywhere a value in ticks-per-seconds needs to be exported to user-space. Example:

unsigned long start;
unsigned long total_time;

start = jiffies;
/* do some work ... */
total_time = jiffies - start;
printk("That took %lu ticks\n", jiffies_to_clock_t(total_time));

User-space expects the previous value as if HZ=USER_HZ. If they are not equivalent, the macro scales as needed and everyone is happy. Of course, this example is silly: It would make more sense to print the message in seconds, not ticks. For example:

printk("That took %lu seconds\n", total_time / HZ);

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