One fundamental question is the encoding of a time value. A time value has two types of use. One is as time stamp and the other is just as a general time reference.
Requirements
On one hand, a time stamp has the requirement to have a well defined and controlled precision, while the covered time span can be limited (i.e. +/ 200 years). On the other hand, a general time reference needs to be applicable to a very large time span, with less constrains on the precision limit.
Options
For the time reference value one could use a double precision float representation with seconds as units. All arithmetic operations are provided right out of the box and generally hardwired in the processor. Conversion to calendar time is trivial since one simply has to extract the integer part of the value and convert it to a time_t value. From there one can use the common calendar time conversion and formatting functions.
For time stamps, using integers seems preferable. But we still have a choice between a split encoding like the timeval structure, a 64bit fixed point encoding, or an integer with very small time unit (i.e. nanoseconds).
Discussion
There is not much to discuss about the absolute time. Using a double precision float is an optimal solution. For time stamps however we have three different solutions.
From my experience, I've seen that split time encoding like the timeval structure is not convenient to use when dealing with time arithmetics. It is even error prone if the user has to program the operations himself.
I also tried to implement a fixed point time encoding class with the decimal point between bit 29 and 30. But this is tricky to get right and some operations are not trivial to implement correctly. This is because fractional computation requires normalization and optimal rounding errors handling.
A 64bit integer using nanoseconds as time units is apparently the most simple and straightforward time stamp encoding. Converting to seconds is done with a simple 64bit integer division which is also hardwired in most recent processors. Conversion to other time units like microseconds, milliseconds, days or week is as accurate and simple. Multiplication or division with decimal scalar values is also trivial.
Another advantage of the 64bit integer nanosecond values is that there is no need of special functions to do the conversions or operations. A programmer can easily figure out what to do and use conventional arithmetic operations.
With a 64 bit signed integers with nanosecond units, the covered time span is over +/ 292 years range. One can thus afford keep the current time_t January 1970 epoch and push back the wrapping limit far away.
Conclusion
In DIS, we'll thus use a double precision float for general time reference value and a 64bit integer with nanosecond units for time stamps and delays encoding.
Note: I've seen the use of a double precision float for time encoding in some Windows operating system API. I still have to see the use of a 64bit signed integer with nanosecond units. It would make sense as an upgrade of time_t which is required since we are getting close to the wrapping limit.Update : It has been brought to my attention that Java stores time values in a signed 64bit integer with milliseconds as time units relative to January 1, 1970. The covered time span is thus +/ 290 million years. I'll stay with the nanosecond units for time stamps.
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AuthorChristophe Meessen is a computer science engineer working in France. Any suggestions to make DIS more useful ? Tell me by using the contact page. Categories
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February 2013
