Summary

This RFC proposes several new types and associated APIs for working with times in Rust. The primary new types are Instant, for working with time that is guaranteed to be monotonic, and SystemTime, for working with times across processes on a single system (usually internally represented as a number of seconds since an epoch).

Motivations

The primary motivation of this RFC is to flesh out a larger set of APIs for representing instants in time and durations of time.

For various reasons that this RFC will explore, APIs related to time are fairly error-prone and have a number of caveats that programmers do not expect.

Rust APIs tend to expose more of these kinds of caveats through their APIs, in order to help programmers become aware of and handle edge-cases. At the same time, un-ergonomic APIs can work against that goal.

This RFC attempts to balance the desire to expose common footguns and help programmers handle edge-cases with a desire to avoid creating so many hoops to jump through that the useful caveats get ignored.

At a high level, this RFC covers two concepts related to time:

  • Instants, moments in time
  • Durations, an amount of time between two instants

We would like to be able to do some basic operations with these instants:

  • Compare two instants
  • Add a time period to an instant
  • Subtract a time period from an instant
  • Compare an instant to "now" to discover time elapsed

However, there are a number of problems that arise when trying to define these types and operations.

First of all, with the exception of moments in time created using system APIs that guarantee monotonicity (because they were created within a single process, or created during since the last boot), moments in time are not monotonic. A simple example of this is that if a program creates two files sequentially, it cannot assume that the creation time of the second file is later than the creation time of the first file.

This is because NTP (the network time protocol) can arbitrarily change the system clock, and can even rewind time. This kind of time travel means that the "system time-line" is not continuous and monotonic, which is something that programmers very often forget when writing code involving machine times.

This design attempts to help programmers avoid some of the most egregious and unexpected consequences of this kind of "time travel".


Leap seconds, which cannot be predicted, mean that it is impossible to reliably add a number of seconds to a particular moment in time represented as a human date and time ("1 million seconds from 2015-09-20 at midnight").

They also mean that seemingly simple concepts, like "1 minute", have caveats depending on exactly how they are used. Caveats related to leap seconds create real-world bugs, because of how unusual leap seconds are, and how unlikely programmers are to consider "12:00:60" as a valid time.

Certain kinds of seemingly simple operations may not make sense in all cases. For example, adding "1 year" to February 29, 2012 would produce February 29, 2013, which is not a valid date. Adding "1 month" to August 31, 2015 would produce September 31, 2015, which is also not a valid date.

Certain human descriptions of durations, like "1 month and 35 days" do not make sense, and human descriptions like "1 month and 5 days" have ambiguous meaning when used in operations (do you add 1 month first and then 5 days or vice versa).

For these reasons, this RFC does not attempt to define a human duration with fields for years, days or months. Such a duration would be difficult to use in operations without hard-to-remember ordering rules.

For these reasons, this RFC does not propose APIs related to human concepts dates and times. It is intentionally forwards-compatible with such extensions.


Finally, many APIs that take a Duration can only do something useful with positive values. For example, a timeout API would not know how to wait a negative amount of time before timing out. Even discounting the possibility of coding mistakes, the problem of system clock time travel means that programmers often produce negative durations that they did not expect, and APIs that liberally accept negative durations only propagate the error further.

As a result, this RFC makes a number of simplifying assumptions that can be relaxed over time with additional types or through further RFCs:

It provides convenience methods for constructing Durations from larger units of time (minutes, hours, days), but gives them names like Duration.from_standard_hour. A standard hour is always 3600 seconds, regardless of leap seconds.

It provides APIs that are expected to produce positive Durations, and expects that APIs like timeouts will accept positive Durations (which is currently the case in Rust's standard library). These APIs help the programmer discover the possibility of system clock time travel, and either handle the error explicitly, or at least avoid propagating the problem into other APIs (by using unwrap).

It separates monotonic time (Instant) from time derived from the system clock (SystemTime), which must account for the possibility of time travel. This allows methods related to monotonic time to be uncaveated, while working with the system clock has more methods that return Results.

This RFC does not attempt to define a type for calendared DateTimes, nor does it directly address time zones.

Proposal

Types


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
pub struct Instant {
  secs: u64,
  nanos: u32
}

pub struct SystemTime {
  secs: u64,
  nanos: u32
}

pub struct Duration {
  secs: u64,
  nanos: u32
}
#}

Instant

Instant is the simplest of the types representing moments in time. It represents an opaque (non-serializable!) timestamp that is guaranteed to be monotonic when compared to another Instant.

In this context, monotonic means that a timestamp created later in real-world time will always be not less than a timestamp created earlier in real-world time.

The Duration type can be used in conjunction with Instant, and these operations have none of the usual time-related caveats.

  • Add a Duration to a Instant, producing a new Instant
  • compare two Instants to each other
  • subtract a Instant from a later Instant, producing a Duration
  • ask for an amount of time elapsed since a Instant, producing a Duration

Asking for an amount of time elapsed from a given Instant is a very common operation that is guaranteed to produce a positive Duration. Asking for the difference between an earlier and a later Instant also produces a positive Duration when used correctly.

This design does not assume that negative Durations are never useful, but rather that the most common uses of Duration do not have a meaningful use for negative values. Rather than require each API that takes a Duration to produce an Err (or panic!) when receiving a negative value, this design optimizes for the broadly useful positive Duration.


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
impl Instant {
  /// Returns an instant corresponding to "now".
  pub fn now() -> Instant;

  /// Panics if `earlier` is later than &self.
  /// Because Instant is monotonic, the only time that `earlier` should be
  /// a later time is a bug in your code.
  pub fn duration_from_earlier(&self, earlier: Instant) -> Duration;

  /// Panics if self is later than the current time (can happen if a Instant
  /// is produced synthetically)
  pub fn elapsed(&self) -> Duration;
}

impl Add<Duration> for Instant {
  type Output = Instant;
}

impl Sub<Duration> for Instant {
  type Output = Instant;
}

impl PartialEq for Instant;
impl Eq for Instant;
impl PartialOrd for Instant;
impl Ord for Instant;
#}

For convenience, several new constructors are added to Duration. Because any unit greater than seconds has caveats related to leap seconds, all of the constructors take "standard" units. For example a "standard minute" is 60 seconds, while a "standard hour" is 3600 seconds.

The "standard" terminology comes from JodaTime.


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
impl Duration {
  /// a standard minute is 60 seconds
  /// panics if the number of minutes is larger than u64 seconds
  pub fn from_standard_minutes(minutes: u64) -> Duration;

  /// a standard hour is 60 standard minutes
  /// panics if the number of hours is larger than u64 seconds
  pub fn from_standard_hours(hours: u64) -> Duration;

  /// a standard day is 24 standard hours
  /// panics if the number of days is larger than u64 seconds
  pub fn from_standard_days(days: u64) -> Duration;
}
#}

SystemTime

This type should not be used for in-process timestamps, like those used in benchmarks.

A SystemTime represents a time stored on the local machine derived from the system clock (in UTC). For example, it is used to represent mtime on the file system.

The most important caveat of SystemTime is that it is not monotonic. This means that you can save a file to the file system, then save another file to the file system, and the second file has an mtime earlier than the second.

This means that an operation that happens after another operation in real time may have an earlier SystemTime!

In practice, most programmers do not think about this kind of "time travel" with the system clock, leading to strange bugs once the mistaken assumption propagates through the system.

This design attempts to help the programmer catch the most egregious of these kinds of mistakes (unexpected travel back in time) before the mistake propagates.


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
impl SystemTime {
  /// Returns the system time corresponding to "now".
  pub fn now() -> SystemTime;

  /// Returns an `Err` if `earlier` is later
  pub fn duration_from_earlier(&self, earlier: SystemTime) -> Result<Duration, SystemTimeError>;

  /// Returns an `Err` if &self is later than the current system time.
  pub fn elapsed(&self) -> Result<Duration, SystemTimeError>;
}

impl Add<Duration> for SystemTime {
  type Output = SystemTime;
}

impl Sub<Duration> for SystemTime {
  type Output = SystemTime;
}

// An anchor which can be used to generate new SystemTime instances from a known
// Duration or convert a SystemTime to a Duration which can later then be used
// again to recreate the SystemTime.
//
// Defined to be "1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC" on all systems.
const UNIX_EPOCH: SystemTime = ...;

// Note that none of these operations actually imply that the underlying system
// operation that produced these SystemTimes happened at the same time
// (for Eq) or before/after (for Ord) than the other system operation.
impl PartialEq for SystemTime;
impl Eq for SystemTime;
impl PartialOrd for SystemTime;
impl Ord for SystemTime;

impl SystemTimeError {
    /// A SystemTimeError originates from attempting to subtract two SystemTime
    /// instances, a and b. If a < b then an error is returned, and the duration
    /// returned represents (b - a).
    pub fn duration(&self) -> Duration;
}
#}

The main difference from the design of Instant is that it is impossible to know for sure that a SystemTime is in the past, even if the operation that produced it happened in the past (in real time).


Illustrative Example:

If a program requests a SystemTime that represents the mtime of a given file, then writes a new file and requests its SystemTime, it may expect the second SystemTime to be after the first.

Using duration_from_earlier will remind the programmer that "time travel" is possible, and make it easy to handle that case. As always, the programmer can use .unwrap() in the prototype stage to avoid having to handle the edge-case yet, while retaining a reminder that the edge-case is possible.

Drawbacks

This RFC defines two new types for describing times, and posits a third type to complete the picture. At first glance, having three different APIs for working with times may seem overly complex.

However, there are significant differences between times that only go forward and times that can go forward or backward. There are also significant differences between times represented as a number since an epoch and time represented in human terms.

As a result, this RFC chose to make these differences explicit, allowing ergonomic, uncaveated use of monotonic time, and a small speedbump when working with times that can move both forward and backward.

Alternatives

One alternative design would be to attempt to have a single unified time type. The rationale for not doing so is explained under Drawbacks.

Another possible alternative is to allow free math between instants, rather than providing operations for comparing later instants to earlier ones.

In practice, the vast majority of APIs taking a Duration expect a positive-only Duration, and therefore code that subtracts a time from another time will usually want a positive Duration.

The problem is especially acute when working with SystemTime, where it is possible for a question like: "how much time has elapsed since I created this file" to return a negative Duration!

This RFC attempts to catch mistakes related to negative Durations at the point where they are produced, rather than requiring all APIs that take a Duration to guard against negative values.

Because Ord is implemented on SystemTime and Instant, it is possible to compare two arbitrary times to each other first, and then use duration_from_earlier reliably to get a positive Duration.

Unresolved Questions

This RFC leaves types related to human representations of dates and times to a future proposal.