dev etc

Where mistakes go to die.

Timers, Clocks, and Cocoa

Read me before using NSTimer.
Published on Tuesday, 2014-01-21.

Time is a complicated thing (cf. relativity), and it’s a vital part of programs interacting with the world. In casual conversation we usually speak as if there is a value called “the time”, which we can read from “the clock”.

But programming requires specifying things precisely. The measurement called “the clock” can be changed by the user, and by automatic time setting. If we were to use the value of this clock to determine whether an event occurred before or after another, things would occasionally seem crazy!

When you change the clock on your computer or phone, things keep running pretty well. In well-written software, network requests don’t suddenly time out; transfer rates don’t become “−22 MB / second”; and the desktop doesn’t implode in a “general causality fault”. With so many things dependent on time, how does changing the clock not wreak havoc?

There are, in fact, multiple clocks. At first glance they can all appear to run at the same rate, so it might not appear to matter which one you choose. But they have quite different behaviors, and inevitably diverge over time. Choosing the wrong clock can make your software behave unexpectedly, and possibly crash.

As an application developer, these are the most useful clocks in practice1:

  1. The real-time clock, usually accessed in Cocoa via NSDate.2 This is the system’s best guess of coordinated universal time (UTC). The user can change this clock arbitrarily, and the NTP (Network Time Protocol) service also makes changes as it tries to keep it in sync with an external reference. Almost all network-connected devices sync with an external source by default, via an Internet time server, GPS, or the phone network. While the value of this clock typically increases by 1 second per real second, at times it runs faster or slower, and makes discontinuous jumps both forwards and backwards.3

  2. Monotonic time is basically a counter that gets incremented when a physical timer signals the CPU via a timer interrupt. On Mac OS X and iOS, the counter value is returned from mach_absolute_time(), and the number of counts per second is returned by mach_timebase_info().4 Several functions include the conversion to seconds: -[NSProcessInfo systemUptime], CACurrentMediaTime(), and others. The particular value of this counter isn’t really useful because it’s reset on boot, but the difference between two readings tells you how much time has elapsed, regardless of any changes to the real-time clock. This is useful for measuring throughput, or processing speed, of some operation — numbers like “frames per second”. However since the CPU increments this counter, the monotonic clock stops when the CPU is powered down — which includes when the system is “sleeping”.

  3. Boot time, which is like monotonic time but does not pause when the system goes to sleep. This value is reported by the uptime tool.

NSTimer uses monotonic time. This means it pauses when the system goes to sleep, which happens unpredictably and opportunistically on iOS! This makes NSTimer incorrect for timeouts and timing involving anything external — from waiting for a server response to timing the cooking of an egg. NSTimer is only appropriate if the process being timed is confined to the system — such as your app waiting for a result from the kernel, or another app.

Pick your clock

This chart lays out how the clock values change over time in the above video:

Clock values over time

For measuring durations without interference from real-time clock changes or system sleep, you need to use boot time — which NSTimer does not provide. To make matters worse, iOS devices don’t go to sleep when plugged in, including when running an app from Xcode. So using NSTimer can appear to act like it’s using boot time, until you run with the device unplugged!

The Cocoa frameworks do not offer any way to be notified of these time discontinuities in general. UIKit offers UIApplicationSignificantTimeChangeNotification which fires when the real-time clock changes (and a couple of other cases useful for calendar-type apps), but not when waking from sleep. On the Mac there is NSWorkspaceDidWakeNotification,5 but there is no (public) counterpart for iOS.

GCD’s dispatch_after function (and the timer dispatch_source) allow creating timers with either the monotonic or real-time clock, depending on how the dispatch_time object is created. There isn’t an option to use the boot time clock. Because most other timers only use the monotonic clock, I got curious as to how real-time clock timers were implemented. The libdispatch source observes the HOST_NOTIFY_CALENDAR_CHANGE Mach notification to reschedule real-time clock timers. The only form of documentation appears to be comments in the kernel source, which indeed indicates it’s sent when the real-time clock changes, as well as when the system is woken:

 *	clock_initialize_calendar:
 *	Set the calendar and related clocks
 *	from the platform clock at boot or
 *	wake event.
 *	Also sends host notifications.

 *	clock_set_calendar_microtime:
 *	Sets the current calendar value by
 *	recalculating the epoch and offset
 *	from the system clock.
 *	Also adjusts the boottime to keep the
 *	value consistent, writes the new
 *	calendar value to the platform clock,
 *	and sends calendar change notifications.

However it does not mention how far this behavior has existed, so older OS versions potentially don’t do the same thing (it works back to at least iOS 6). It is used in several place though, including by the power management daemon to re-sync the battery’s time remaining.


Since this is all unreasonably difficult with Cocoa, I wrote something: MyLilTimer has an interface similar to NSTimer, with the added option of using one of the three clocks above Additionally, because iOS suspends apps in the background (and now OS X too with “App Nap”), an app can often be notified of the firing of a timer significantly after it was scheduled to fire. The -timeSinceFireDate method returns that duration, using the clock selected by the timer.

MyLilTimer observes the HOST_NOTIFY_CALENDAR_CHANGE kernel notification, checks the value of the corresponding clock, and resets an internal NSTimer to the new expiry date. Give it a go!

Thanks to Wil Shipley for feedback on the early version of this.

  1. There is also CPU time, which is the time that a single CPU has been dedicated to a process. This is the “user” number when using time on the command-line. When a process runs for 1 second utilizing 75% of 4 cores, the CPU time is 1 * 0.75 * 4 = 3 core • seconds. Since this has different units (not seconds), it is not a clock.

  2. and Unix via gettimeofday, or clock_gettime with CLOCK_REALTIME.

  3. When NTP synchronizes, it changes the system clock, either instantly or slowly depending on the difference.

  4. Technical Q&A QA1398: Mach Absolute Time Units

  5. Technical Q&A QA1340: Registering and unregistering for sleep and wake notifications