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Timerssometimes called dynamic timers or kernel timersare essential for managing the flow of time in kernel code. Kernel code often needs to delay execution of some function until a later time. In previous chapters, we looked at using the bottom-half mechanisms, which are great for deferring work until later. Unfortunately, the definition of later is intentionally quite vague. The purpose of bottom halves is not so much to delay work, but simply to not do the work now. What we need is a tool for delaying work a specified amount of timecertainly no less, and with hope, not much longer. The solution is kernel timers.

A timer is very easy to use. You perform some initial setup, specify an expiration time, specify a function to execute upon said expiration, and activate the timer. The given function will run after the timer expires. Timers are not cyclic. The timer is destroyed after it expires. This is one reason for the dynamic nomenclature[7]: Timers are constantly created and destroyed, and there is no limit on the number of timers. Timers are very popular throughout the entire kernel.

[7] Another reason is because of the existence of static timers in older (pre-2.3) kernels. They were created at compile-time, not runtime. They were lame, so no one shed tears over their demise.

Using Timers

Timers are represented by struct timer_list, which is defined in <linux/timer.h>:

struct timer_list {
        struct list_head entry;           /* entry in linked list of timers */
        unsigned long expires;            /* expiration value, in jiffies */
        spinlock_t lock;                  /* lock protecting this timer */
        void (*function)(unsigned long);  /* the timer handler function */
        unsigned long data;               /* lone argument to the handler */
        struct tvec_t_base_s *base;       /* internal timer field, do not touch */

Fortunately, the usage of timers requires little understanding of this data structure. In fact, toying with it is discouraged to keep code forward compatible with changes. The kernel provides a family of timer-related interfaces to make timer management easy. Everything is declared in <linux/timer.h>. Most of the actual implementation is in kernel/timer.c.

The first step in creating a timer is defining it:

struct timer_list my_timer;

Next, the timer's internal values must be initialized. This is done via a helper function and must be done prior to calling any timer management functions on the timer:


Now you fill out the remaining values as required:

my_timer.expires = jiffies + delay;    /* timer expires in delay ticks */ = 0;                     /* zero is passed to the timer handler */
my_timer.function = my_function;       /* function to run when timer expires */

The my_timer.expires value specifies the timeout value in absolute ticks. When the current jiffies count is equal to or greater than my_timer.expires, the handler function my_timer.function is run with the lone argument of As you can see from the timer_list definition, the function must match this prototype:

void my_timer_function(unsigned long data);

The data parameter enables you to register multiple timers with the same handler, and differentiate between them via the argument. If you do not need the argument, you can simply pass zero (or any other value).

Finally, you activate the timer:


And, voila, the timer is off and running! Note the significance of the expired value. The kernel runs the timer handler when the current tick count is equal to or greater than the specified expiration. Although the kernel guarantees to run no timer handler prior to the timer's expiration, there may be a delay in running the timer. Typically, timers are run fairly close to their expiration; however, they might be delayed until the first timer tick after their expiration. Consequently, timers cannot be used to implement any sort of hard real-time processing.

Sometimes you might need to modify the expiration of an already active timer. The kernel implements a function, mod_timer(), which changes the expiration of a given timer:

mod_timer(&my_timer, jiffies + new_delay);  /* new expiration */

The mod_timer() function can operate on timers that are initialized but not active, too. If the timer is inactive, mod_timer() activates it. The function returns zero if the timer was inactive and one if the timer was active. In either case, upon return from mod_timer(), the timer is activated and set to the new expiration.

If you need to deactivate a timer prior to its expiration, use the del_timer() function:


The function works on both active and inactive timers. If the timer is already inactive, the function returns zero; otherwise, the function returns one. Note that you do not need to call this for timers that have expired because they are automatically deactivated.

A potential race condition that must be guarded against exists when deleting timers. When del_timer() returns, it guarantees only that the timer is no longer active (that is, that it will not be executed in the future). On a multiprocessing machine, however, the timer handler might already be executing on another processor. To deactivate the timer and wait until a potentially executing handler for the timer exits, use del_timer_sync():


Unlike del_timer(), del_timer_sync() cannot be used from interrupt context.

Timer Race Conditions

Because timers run asynchronously with respect to the currently executing code, several potential race conditions exist. First, never do the following as a substitute for a mere mod_timer(), because this is unsafe on multiprocessing machines:

my_timer->expires = jiffies + new_delay;

Second, in almost all cases, you should use del_timer_sync() over del_timer(). Otherwise, you cannot assume the timer is not currently running, and that is why you made the call in the first place! Imagine if, after deleting the timer, the code went on to free or otherwise manipulate resources used by the timer handler. Therefore, the synchronous version is preferred.

Finally, you must make sure to protect any shared data used in the timer handler function. The kernel runs the function asynchronously with respect to other code. Data with a timer should be protected as discussed in Chapters 8 and 9.

The Timer Implementation

The kernel executes timers in bottom-half context, as softirqs, after the timer interrupt completes. The timer interrupt handler runs update_process_times(), which calls run_local_timers():

void run_local_timers(void)

The TIMER_SOFTIRQ softirq is handled by run_timer_softirq(). This function runs all the expired timers (if any) on the current processor.

Timers are stored in a linked list. However, it would be unwieldy for the kernel to either constantly traverse the entire list looking for expired timers, or keep the list sorted by expiration value; the insertion and deletion of timers would then become very expensive. Instead, the kernel partitions timers into five groups based on their expiration value. Timers move down through the groups as their expiration time draws closer. The partitioning ensures that, in most executions of the timer softirq, the kernel has to do little work to find the expired timers. Consequently, the timer management code is very efficient.

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