Timing errors

When writing to tags, you must ensure that the values are time stamped with sufficient accuracy. This appendix discusses the various sources of timing error that you might need to take into account. In addition, means of correcting for them are suggested.

Clock drift

The system clock can drift markedly, e.g. because of temperature variations in the computer case causing shifts in the resonance frequency of the quartz oscillator. It is advisable to correct for this drift when you need to log over long periods of time or need to correlate tags to data time stamped using a different clock, e.g. data acquired on a different PC. Several services/clients exist that perform such correction. Typically these are included with the operating system. Before enabling such a service, ensure that it performs its job by gradually throttling the system clock instead performing the correction in a single discontinuous jump. The most standard, open, and widely available method is the Network Time Protocol (NTP). It is risky to expose measurement machines to the internet or an intranet. To allow the NTP protocol to work inside a private subnet you will have to provide for at least one well-secured machine that runs an NTP daemon (e.g. OpenNTPD) and talks to both the subnet and the wider internet or intranet. There also exists router and gateway appliances that include an NTP daemon in their firmware.

Clock resolution

All reads of the system clock are done through the library/Library Time.vi included in the Lua for LabVIEW distribution which wraps "Get Date/Time In Seconds". This function has a resolution of 1/100th of a second on LabVIEW 7.0 for Windows. Under Linux, the resolution is much better. To determine the clock resolution for your OS and LabVIEW version, call library/Library Time.vi in a loop and look for the smallest non-zero time difference between successive readings. To get better resolution than that, change the implementation of the VI to make use of a different time source. Because all access of the system clock is done through this VI, this will replace the system clock throughout the system. Note though that the VI is likely to be called frequently. Performance might suffer when your alternate time source takes a long time to read.

Acquisition latency

When you acquire values to be written to a tag from an instrument, there can be a delay between the actual physical value being sampled and the resulting value becoming available through the device driver to LabVIEW. This holds in particular for instruments that are interfaced via a slow bus or instruments that buffer readings before making them available. The default time stamping will cause the times of such a tag to be off  by an amount equal to this acquisition latency. This can be a problem when you want to correlate data in different tags acquired from instruments with different latencies. To correct for such errors measure the latency, e.g. by comparing the readings of an instrument with negligible latency to the long latency instrument and applying the same pulse or step signal to both. When the latency does not vary much from reading to reading, most of the timing error can be corrected for simply by subtracting the average latency so determined from the system time as returned by the "Library Time.vi" or the Lua for LabVIEW time function and using that to timestamp the values written to the tag.

Scheduling latency and acquisition jitter

When the scheduler interrupts your program between acquiring the value and reading the system clock, the timestamp will be off by the amount of time it takes for your program to be rescheduled. Typically there is tiny window of opportunity so that this occurs only rarely. Also, latencies are usually small, on the order of a couple of milliseconds on a system with little load. However, rare worst-case latencies can easily be on the order of 100 ms, depending on your operating system and system load. See the Lua for LabVIEW manual appendix on performance to learn how to measure such latencies for your system. The regularity of timing of software acquisition will also be limited by the scheduling latency. Similar jitter and time stamping errors can be caused when the driver of an instrument requires a variable amount of time to return its value. 

It is possible to reduce the probability of scheduling latencies by increasing the chance that a CPU core is available to service your acquisition task. This can be done by lowering the system load or buying a faster PCs. In particular, using a PC with multiple CPUs or with multiple cores per CPU can help reduce latencies. Also, try to avoid irregular time-consuming tasks by not using the PC for things other than acquisition. Graphical user interface (GUI) windows in particular are an important cause of latencies when updated or operated. The client-server support provides you with the option to remove GUI-related latencies by allowing you to run the client on a machine other than the server. Some useful statistics for assessing latency and jitter are displayed when using the "Stats" button of the "Tag Manager" GUI.

Aside from using a real time operating system, the only way to completely avoid software timing variations is through hardware timing. This involves synchronising the acquisition via a trigger input to some clock. Unfortunately, the system clock in typical PCs does not output synchronisation signals. Thus, either a separate clock is required or you must switch over to a custom time source that provides synchronisation outputs. A separate clock is typically integrated with an instrument and fronted by a divide-down counter that allows the acquisition rate to be tuned. For example, a card that performs buffered acquisition allows you to infer the time that has passed since acquisition has started from the sequence number of the read values multiplied by the scan period. Unfortunately, converting such relative times into timestamps synchronised with the system clock is not as easy as adding an offset since the clocks can mutually drift. (//todo: explain how to do so)

When you require the accuracy that only hardware timing can provide, the ideal to strive for is to synchronise all instruments relative to the same clock. By using divide-down counters or programming scan lists, this can be made to work while supporting different acquisition rates for different channels. Unfortunately, such synchronisation is usually not practicable when using a diverse collection of instrumentation.

Representational resolution

The timestamps are represented as 64-bit floating-point numbers (doubles) containing the number of seconds since the LabVIEW epoch (1-Jan-1904, 00:00:00 GMT). Though LabVIEW offers 128-bit fixed-point timestamps as of version 7.0, doubles were chosen instead to save disk space. Doubles provide roughly 16 digits worth of mantissa. Because of the large number of seconds since the epoch, the number of bits after the floating point, that is, the representational resolution of the fractional seconds, is limited and degrades by a factor of two when the time since the epoch is doubled. Since 1972, the resolution is at 0.48 microseconds. In 2040, the resolution will halve to 0.95 microseconds. For typical data rates this is plenty of resolution. However, if you want to very precisely timestamp events or need to perform accurate calculations based on differences between timestamps, the limited resolution can cause trouble. In such a case you may want to change the time stamping to use a more recent epoch, e.g. by changing the implementation of library/Library Time.vi to subtract an offset before converting to double precision. Beware though that when doing so all time to/from date conversion functions will also need to be changed to first apply an opposite offset since they operate relative to the LabVIEW epoch.

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