user1106106 user1106106 - 2 months ago 17
Linux Question

Getting cpu cycles using RDTSC - why does the value of RDTSC always increase?

I want to get the CPU cycles at a specific point. I use this function at that point:

static __inline__ unsigned long long rdtsc(void)
unsigned long long int x;
__asm__ volatile (".byte 0x0f, 0x31" : "=A" (x));
return x;

The problem is that it returns always an increasing number (in every run). It's as if it is referring to the absolute time.

Am I using the functions incorrectly?


As long as your thread stays on the same CPU core, the RDTSC instruction will keep returning an increasing number until it wraps around. For a 2GHz CPU, this happens after 292 years, so it is not a real issue. You probably won't see it happen. If you expect to live that long, make sure your computer reboots, say, every 50 years.

The problem with RDTSC is that you have no guarantee that it starts at the same point in time on all cores of an elderly multicore CPU and no guarantee that it starts at the same point in time time on all CPUs on an elderly multi-CPU board.
Modern systems usually do not have such problems, but the problem can also be worked around on older systems by setting a thread's affinity so it only runs on one CPU. This is not good for application performance, so one should not generally do it, but for measuring ticks, it's just fine.

(Another "problem" is that many people use RDTSC for measuring time, which is not what it does, but you wrote that you want CPU cycles, so that is fine. If you do use RDTSC to measure time, you may have surprises when power saving or hyperboost or whatever the multitude of frequency-changing techniques are called kicks in. For actual time, the clock_gettime syscall is surprisingly good under Linux.)

I would just write rdtsc inside the asm statement, which works just fine for me and is more readable than some obscure hex code. Assuming it's the correct hex code (and since it neither crashes and returns an ever-increasing number, it seems so), your code is good.

If you want to measure the number of ticks a piece of code takes, you want a tick difference, you just need to subtract two values of the ever-increasing counter. Something like uint64_t t0 = rdtsc(); ... uint64_t t1 = rdtsc() - t0;
Note that for if very accurate measurements isolated from surrounding code are necessary, you need to serialize, that is stall the pipeline, prior to calling rdtsc (or use rdtscp which is only supported on newer processors). The one serializing instruction that can be used at every privilegue level is cpuid.

In reply to the further question in the comment:

The TSC starts at zero when you turn on the computer (and the BIOS resets all counters on all CPUs to the same value, though some BIOSes a few years ago did not do so reliably).

Thus, from your program's point of view, the counter started "some unknown time in the past", and it always increases with every clock tick the CPU sees. Therefore if you execute the instruction returning that counter now and any time later in a different process, it will return a greater value (unless the CPU was suspended or turned off in between). Different runs of the same program get bigger numbers, because the counter keeps growing. Always.

Now, clock_gettime(CLOCK_PROCESS_CPUTIME_ID) is a different matter. This is the CPU time that the OS has given to the process. It starts at zero when your process starts. A new process starts at zero, too. Thus, two processes running after each other will get very similar or identical numbers, not ever growing ones.

clock_gettime(CLOCK_MONOTONIC_RAW) is closer to how RDTSC works (and on some older systems is implemented with it). It returns a value that ever increases. Nowadays, this is typically a HPET. However, this is really time, and not ticks. If your computer goes into low power state (e.g. running at 1/2 normal frequency), it will still advance at the same pace.