Time Utilities


Uptime in Zephyr is based on the a tick counter. With the default CONFIG_TICKLESS_KERNEL this counter advances at a nominally constant rate from zero at the instant the system started. The POSIX equivalent to this counter is something like CLOCK_MONOTONIC or, in Linux, CLOCK_MONOTONIC_RAW. k_uptime_get() provides a millisecond representation of this time.

Applications often need to correlate the Zephyr internal time with external time scales used in daily life, such as local time or Coordinated Universal Time. These systems interpret time in different ways and may have discontinuities due to leap seconds and local time offsets like daylight saving time.

Because of these discontinuities, as well as significant inaccuracies in the clocks underlying the cycle counter, the offset between time estimated from the Zephyr clock and the actual time in a “real” civil time scale is not constant and can vary widely over the runtime of a Zephyr application.

The time utilities API supports:

For terminology and concepts that support these functions see Concepts Underlying Time Support in Zephyr.

Time Utility APIs

Representation Transformation

Time scale instants can be represented in multiple ways including:

  • Seconds since an epoch. POSIX representations of time in this form include time_t and struct timespec, which are generally interpreted as a representation of “UNIX Time”.

  • Calendar time as a year, month, day, hour, minutes, and seconds relative to an epoch. POSIX representations of time in this form include struct tm.

Keep in mind that these are simply time representations that must be interpreted relative to a time scale which may be local time, UTC, or some other continuous or discontinuous scale.

Some necessary transformations are available in standard C library routines. For example, time_t measuring seconds since the POSIX EPOCH is converted to struct tm representing calendar time with gmtime(). Sub-second timestamps like struct timespec can also use this to produce the calendar time representation and deal with sub-second offsets separately.

The inverse transformation is not standardized: APIs like mktime() expect information about time zones. Zephyr provides this transformation with timeutil_timegm() and timeutil_timegm64().

group timeutil_repr_apis


int64_t timeutil_timegm64(const struct tm *tm)

Convert broken-down time to a POSIX epoch offset in seconds.

  • tm – pointer to broken down time.


the corresponding time in the POSIX epoch time scale.

time_t timeutil_timegm(const struct tm *tm)

Convert broken-down time to a POSIX epoch offset in seconds.

  • tm – pointer to broken down time.


the corresponding time in the POSIX epoch time scale. If the time cannot be represented then (time_t)-1 is returned and errno is set to ERANGE`.

Time Scale Synchronization

There are several factors that affect synchronizing time scales:

  • The rate of discrete instant representation change. For example Zephyr uptime is tracked in ticks which advance at events that nominally occur at CONFIG_SYS_CLOCK_TICKS_PER_SEC Hertz, while an external time source may provide data in whole or fractional seconds (e.g. microseconds).

  • The absolute offset required to align the two scales at a single instant.

  • The relative error between observable instants in each scale, required to align multiple instants consistently. For example a reference clock that’s conditioned by a 1-pulse-per-second GPS signal will be much more accurate than a Zephyr system clock driven by a RC oscillator with a +/- 250 ppm error.

Synchronization or alignment between time scales is done with a multi-step process:

group timeutil_sync_apis


int timeutil_sync_state_update(struct timeutil_sync_state *tsp, const struct timeutil_sync_instant *inst)

Record a new instant in the time synchronization state.

Note that this updates only the latest persisted instant. The skew is not adjusted automatically.

  • tsp – pointer to a timeutil_sync_state object.

  • inst – the new instant to be recorded. This becomes the base instant if there is no base instant, otherwise the value must be strictly after the base instant in both the reference and local time scales.

Return values:
  • 0 – if installation succeeded in providing a new base

  • 1 – if installation provided a new latest instant

  • -EINVAL – if the new instant is not compatible with the base instant

int timeutil_sync_state_set_skew(struct timeutil_sync_state *tsp, float skew, const struct timeutil_sync_instant *base)

Update the state with a new skew and possibly base value.

Set the skew from a value retrieved from persistent storage, or calculated based on recent skew estimations including from timeutil_sync_estimate_skew().

Optionally update the base timestamp. If the base is replaced the latest instant will be cleared until timeutil_sync_state_update() is invoked.

  • tsp – pointer to a time synchronization state.

  • skew – the skew to be used. The value must be positive and shouldn’t be too far away from 1.

  • base – optional new base to be set. If provided this becomes the base timestamp that will be used along with skew to convert between reference and local timescale instants. Setting the base clears the captured latest value.


0 if skew was updated


-EINVAL if skew was not valid

float timeutil_sync_estimate_skew(const struct timeutil_sync_state *tsp)

Estimate the skew based on current state.

Using the base and latest syncpoints from the state determine the skew of the local clock relative to the reference clock. See timeutil_sync_state::skew.

  • tsp – pointer to a time synchronization state. The base and latest syncpoints must be present and the latest syncpoint must be after the base point in the local time scale.


the estimated skew, or zero if skew could not be estimated.

int timeutil_sync_ref_from_local(const struct timeutil_sync_state *tsp, uint64_t local, uint64_t *refp)

Interpolate a reference timescale instant from a local instant.

  • tsp – pointer to a time synchronization state. This must have a base and a skew installed.

  • local – an instant measured in the local timescale. This may be before or after the base instant.

  • refp – where the corresponding instant in the reference timescale should be stored. A negative interpolated reference time produces an error. If interpolation fails the referenced object is not modified.

Return values:
  • 0 – if interpolated using a skew of 1

  • 1 – if interpolated using a skew not equal to 1


    • the times synchronization state is not adequately initialized

    • refp is null

  • -ERANGE – the interpolated reference time would be negative

int timeutil_sync_local_from_ref(const struct timeutil_sync_state *tsp, uint64_t ref, int64_t *localp)

Interpolate a local timescale instant from a reference instant.

  • tsp – pointer to a time synchronization state. This must have a base and a skew installed.

  • ref – an instant measured in the reference timescale. This may be before or after the base instant.

  • localp – where the corresponding instant in the local timescale should be stored. An interpolated value before local time 0 is provided without error. If interpolation fails the referenced object is not modified.

Return values:
  • 0 – if successful with a skew of 1

  • 1 – if successful with a skew not equal to 1


    • the time synchronization state is not adequately initialized

    • refp is null

int32_t timeutil_sync_skew_to_ppb(float skew)

Convert from a skew to an error in parts-per-billion.

A skew of 1.0 has zero error. A skew less than 1 has a positive error (clock is faster than it should be). A skew greater than one has a negative error (clock is slower than it should be).

Note that due to the limited precision of float compared with double the smallest error that can be represented is about 120 ppb. A “precise” time source may have error on the order of 2000 ppb.

A skew greater than 3.14748 may underflow the 32-bit representation; this represents a clock running at less than 1/3 its nominal rate.


skew error represented as parts-per-billion, or INT32_MIN if the skew cannot be represented in the return type.

struct timeutil_sync_config
#include <timeutil.h>

Immutable state for synchronizing two clocks.

Values required to convert durations between two time scales.


The accuracy of the translation and calculated skew between sources depends on the resolution of these frequencies. A reference frequency with microsecond or nanosecond resolution would produce the most accurate tracking when the local reference is the Zephyr tick counter. A reference source like an RTC chip with 1 Hz resolution requires a much larger interval between sampled instants to detect relative clock drift.

Public Members

uint32_t ref_Hz

The nominal instance counter rate in Hz.

This value is assumed to be precise, but may drift depending on the reference clock source.

The value must be positive.

uint32_t local_Hz

The nominal local counter rate in Hz.

This value is assumed to be inaccurate but reasonably stable. For a local clock driven by a crystal oscillator an error of 25 ppm is common; for an RC oscillator larger errors should be expected. The timeutil_sync infrastructure can calculate the skew between the local and reference clocks and apply it when converting between time scales.

The value must be positive.

struct timeutil_sync_instant
#include <timeutil.h>

Representation of an instant in two time scales.

Capturing the same instant in two time scales provides a registration point that can be used to convert between those time scales.

Public Members

uint64_t ref

An instant in the reference time scale.

This must never be zero in an initialized timeutil_sync_instant object.

uint64_t local

The corresponding instance in the local time scale.

This may be zero in a valid timeutil_sync_instant object.

struct timeutil_sync_state
#include <timeutil.h>

State required to convert instants between time scales.

This state in conjunction with functions that manipulate it capture the offset information necessary to convert between two timescales along with information that corrects for skew due to inaccuracies in clock rates.

State objects should be zero-initialized before use.

Public Members

const struct timeutil_sync_config *cfg

Pointer to reference and local rate information.

struct timeutil_sync_instant base

The base instant in both time scales.

struct timeutil_sync_instant latest

The most recent instant in both time scales.

This is captured here to provide data for skew calculation.

float skew

The scale factor used to correct for clock skew.

The nominal rate for the local counter is assumed to be inaccurate but stable, i.e. it will generally be some parts-per-million faster or slower than specified.

A duration in observed local clock ticks must be multiplied by this value to produce a duration in ticks of a clock operating at the nominal local rate.

A zero value indicates that the skew has not been initialized. If the value is zero when base is initialized the skew will be set to 1. Otherwise the skew is assigned through timeutil_sync_state_set_skew().

Concepts Underlying Time Support in Zephyr

Terms from ISO/TC 154/WG 5 N0038 (ISO/WD 8601-1) and elsewhere:

  • A time axis is a representation of time as an ordered sequence of instants.

  • A time scale is a way of representing an instant relative to an origin that serves as the epoch.

  • A time scale is monotonic (increasing) if the representation of successive time instants never decreases in value.

  • A time scale is continuous if the representation has no abrupt changes in value, e.g. jumping forward or back when going between successive instants.

  • Civil time generally refers to time scales that legally defined by civil authorities, like local governments, often to align local midnight to solar time.

Relevant Time Scales

International Atomic Time (TAI) is a time scale based on averaging clocks that count in SI seconds. TAI is a monotonic and continuous time scale.

Universal Time (UT) is a time scale based on Earth’s rotation. UT is a discontinuous time scale as it requires occasional adjustments (leap seconds) to maintain alignment to changes in Earth’s rotation. Thus the difference between TAI and UT varies over time. There are several variants of UT, with UTC being the most common.

UT times are independent of location. UT is the basis for Standard Time (or “local time”) which is the time at a particular location. Standard time has a fixed offset from UT at any given instant, primarily influenced by longitude, but the offset may be adjusted (“daylight saving time”) to align standard time to the local solar time. In a sense local time is “more discontinuous” than UT.

POSIX Time is a time scale that counts seconds since the “POSIX epoch” at 1970-01-01T00:00:00Z (i.e. the start of 1970 UTC). UNIX Time is an extension of POSIX time using negative values to represent times before the POSIX epoch. Both of these scales assume that every day has exactly 86400 seconds. In normal use instants in these scales correspond to times in the UTC scale, so they inherit the discontinuity.

The continuous analogue is UNIX Leap Time which is UNIX time plus all leap-second corrections added after the POSIX epoch (when TAI-UTC was 8 s).

Example of Time Scale Differences

A positive leap second was introduced at the end of 2016, increasing the difference between TAI and UTC from 36 seconds to 37 seconds. There was no leap second introduced at the end of 1999, when the difference between TAI and UTC was only 32 seconds. The following table shows relevant civil and epoch times in several scales:

UTC Date

UNIX time

TAI Date


UNIX Leap Time




































Functional Requirements

The Zephyr tick counter has no concept of leap seconds or standard time offsets and is a continuous time scale. However it can be relatively inaccurate, with drifts as much as three minutes per hour (assuming an RC timer with 5% tolerance).

There are two stages required to support conversion between Zephyr time and common human time scales:

  • Translation between the continuous but inaccurate Zephyr time scale and an accurate external stable time scale;

  • Translation between the stable time scale and the (possibly discontinuous) civil time scale.

The API around timeutil_sync_state_update() supports the first step of converting between continuous time scales.

The second step requires external information including schedules of leap seconds and local time offset changes. This may be best provided by an external library, and is not currently part of the time utility APIs.

Selecting an External Source and Time Scale

If an application requires civil time accuracy within several seconds then UTC could be used as the stable time source. However, if the external source adjusts to a leap second there will be a discontinuity: the elapsed time between two observations taken at 1 Hz is not equal to the numeric difference between their timestamps.

For precise activities a continuous scale that is independent of local and solar adjustments simplifies things considerably. Suitable continuous scales include:

  • GPS time: epoch of 1980-01-06T00:00:00Z, continuous following TAI with an offset of TAI-GPS=19 s.

  • Bluetooth mesh time: epoch of 2000-01-01T00:00:00Z, continuous following TAI with an offset of -32.

  • UNIX Leap Time: epoch of 1970-01-01T00:00:00Z, continuous following TAI with an offset of -8.

Because C and Zephyr library functions support conversion between integral and calendar time representations using the UNIX epoch, UNIX Leap Time is an ideal choice for the external time scale.

The mechanism used to populate synchronization points is not relevant: it may involve reading from a local high-precision RTC peripheral, exchanging packets over a network using a protocol like NTP or PTP, or processing NMEA messages received a GPS with or without a 1pps signal.