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From: Reid Sweatman (reids_at_[hidden])
Date: 1999-07-02 14:18:14

I was aware of most of these things, especially since, as you note, in the
"watered down" docs that were released it's noted that the feature may
change in future chips. My code does a bit of testing up front to determine
whether the TSC is there and enabled, and a piece of it I never finished
makes a stab at determining the actual clock speed for converting cycles to
seconds. I hadn't thought of a problem in connection with power-down mode.
I do use inline assembly to emit the key instructions.

Now, for my purposes (games) most of the objections aren't too much of a
problem, because even taking them into account, such a timer is still worlds
better than Windows' system timers. I realize that for more mission
critical applications, you *would* have to account for everything you
mention. I also never considered even trying to implement a TSC-based timer
on non-Intel chips. I always supply a fallback timer of a more conventional
sort in case I can't get at the TSC.

One instruction I do wish everyone would include in their CPU's is one to
return the actual current system clock speed. That would simplify some of
the issues you mention a bit.

I will go out on a limb and admit that I first found out about the TSC
instructions from a source not very dear to Intel, namely, the NIntel site.
I'm sure *you* know what that is <g>, but I'll pass on getting embroiled in
that (again, <g>). Anyway, thanks for the clarifications.

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Andy Glew [mailto:glew_at_[hidden]]
> Sent: Thursday, July 01, 1999 6:48 PM
> To: boost_at_[hidden]
> Cc: glew_at_[hidden]
> Subject: [boost] Re: timer classes
> As somebody who has worked on the architectural definition of
> the Intel
> timestamp counter and RDTSC instructions, mind if I
> respond/add to Reid's
> statement about having a timer library invoke the hardware directly?
> (0) Using RDTSC as an implementation layer alternative to system calls
> is probably overall a good thing.
> (0.1) Further, on compilers that support it, using inline
> assembly code for
> this is even more of a good thing.
> (1) However, there probably needs to be an implementation dependent
> configuration parameter selecting which to use - syscall or
> RDTSC - for
> some of the following reasons. Maybe
> ?
> (1.1) Architecturally, RDTSC is defined to return a
> timestamp, not a time value.
> On IBM 360's there were implementations of the same function
> that return
> something like seconds or milliseconds of real time, and just
> incremented a counter
> for the low order bits, to return a unique, ordered, value.
> Intel would like to have
> the option of doing the same.
> I wrote some of the language that tried to explain this, in
> the internal manuals
> for P6. However, after it got watered down for the public,
> ... well, it is basically
> a lost cause. The real problem is that there is a real need
> for a good reliable
> low overhead timer, that need is not satisfied anywhere else,
> so RDTSC is used
> de-factor by thousands of programmers.
> Except...
> (1.2) RDTSC is denominated in cycles. Now, as you may know,
> Intel has announced
> Geyserville technology that changes the clock rate of a chip
> depending on whether
> it is plugged in, and how fast you want the batteries to go
> down. So, a clock cycle
> may sometimes be 2ns, and sometimes 4 or 8ns. Now, *you*
> probably aren't doing
> performance measurements in such an environment, but some
> people probably
> want to.
> Further, some non-Intel x86 processors (TI?) actually
> dynamically varied the clock rate
> while running.
> It took some doing, but we ensured that the TSC timestamp
> counter does not get powered
> down by the P6 core, even when it goes into a power saving
> mode. But while I think that
> is a good thing, I am fairly confident that one day we will
> have a power savings mode
> where TSC does change rate, or even go away.
> (1.3) Further, RDTSC can be disabled by the OS. It turns out
> that any high resolution
> timer is a security hole, for high level (higher than NT and
> UNIX) secure systems.
> Covert timing channels. The best way to fix that is to mask
> off low order bits in
> the hardware, but so far all we have done is just allow the
> OS to disable it if security
> is really a concern.
> (1.4) RDTSC is not guaranteed to be consistent between CPUs
> in a multiprocessor
> system. It actually happens that it is, to within a small
> factor - strictly speaking a good
> timing utility would estimate that factor so that values
> could be corrected - but, again, that's
> not guaranteed.
> Similarly, nobody here is likely to be using such a system,
> but systems that allow CPUs
> to be hot-inserted and deleted again do not guarantee RDTSC
> synchronization,
> unless the OS has taken special care.
> (1.5) Finally, I have worked on OSes where the TSC was
> context switched with the
> process - providing fine grain process time, as opposed to real time.
> So just beware.
> Basically, all of these caveats amount to saying "Yes, RDTSC
> does what you want now,
> and probably will do so in the future just because the demand
> is high, even though such
> behaviour is not guaranteed by the original or current definitions."
> But please provide a way of unspecifying RDTSC if desired.
> >Just a minor cavil from someone who does most of his
> programming on Wintel
> >platforms: the C and system timer functions aren't very
> reliable, because
> >they're at the mercy of the time-share schemes (which are
> different in every
> >version of Windows), and don't return very reliable numbers.
> On Pentium and
> >better Intel processors, though, the Time-stamp instructions
> are available,
> >which directly read an _Int64 counter in the CPU that counts
> cycles since
> >start-up or reset. The only inaccuracies in using these
> instructions are
> >those associated with the function-call overhead, assuming
> you've handled
> >thread-locking and such correctly. Admittedly, this only
> works on a subset
> >of one brand of processor, but realistically it accounts for
> a large chunk
> >of market share. I'd rather see such a version of the
> implementation layer
> >for Pentium systems than one that uses the standard system calls.
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