java – Is System.nanoTime() completely useless?-ThrowExceptions

Exception or error:

As documented in the blog post Beware of System.nanoTime() in Java, on x86 systems, Java’s System.nanoTime() returns the time value using a CPU specific counter. Now consider the following case I use to measure time of a call:

long time1= System.nanoTime();
long time2 = System.nanoTime();
long timeSpent = time2-time1;

Now in a multi-core system, it could be that after measuring time1, the thread is scheduled to a different processor whose counter is less than that of the previous CPU. Thus we could get a value in time2 which is less than time1. Thus we would get a negative value in timeSpent.

Considering this case, isn’t it that System.nanotime is pretty much useless for now?

I know that changing the system time doesn’t affect nanotime. That is not the problem I describe above. The problem is that each CPU will keep a different counter since it was turned on. This counter can be lower on the second CPU compared to the first CPU. Since the thread can be scheduled by the OS to the second CPU after getting time1, the value of timeSpent may be incorrect and even negative.

How to solve:

This answer was written in 2011 from the point of view of what the Sun JDK of the time running on operating systems of the time actually did. That was a long time ago! leventov’s answer offers a more up-to-date perspective.

That post is wrong, and nanoTime is safe. There’s a comment on the post which links to a blog post by David Holmes, a realtime and concurrency guy at Sun. It says:

System.nanoTime() is implemented using the QueryPerformanceCounter/QueryPerformanceFrequency API […] The default mechanism used by QPC is determined by the Hardware Abstraction layer(HAL) […] This default changes not only across hardware but also across OS versions. For example Windows XP Service Pack 2 changed things to use the power management timer (PMTimer) rather than the processor timestamp-counter (TSC) due to problems with the TSC not being synchronized on different processors in SMP systems, and due the fact its frequency can vary (and hence its relationship to elapsed time) based on power-management settings.

So, on Windows, this was a problem up until WinXP SP2, but it isn’t now.

I can’t find a part II (or more) that talks about other platforms, but that article does include a remark that Linux has encountered and solved the same problem in the same way, with a link to the FAQ for clock_gettime(CLOCK_REALTIME), which says:

  1. Is clock_gettime(CLOCK_REALTIME) consistent across all processors/cores? (Does arch matter? e.g. ppc, arm, x86, amd64, sparc).

It should or it’s considered buggy.

However, on x86/x86_64, it is possible to see unsynced or variable freq TSCs cause time inconsistencies. 2.4 kernels really had no protection against this, and early 2.6 kernels didn’t do too well here either. As of 2.6.18 and up the logic for detecting this is better and we’ll usually fall back to a safe clocksource.

ppc always has a synced timebase, so that shouldn’t be an issue.

So, if Holmes’s link can be read as implying that nanoTime calls clock_gettime(CLOCK_REALTIME), then it’s safe-ish as of kernel 2.6.18 on x86, and always on PowerPC (because IBM and Motorola, unlike Intel, actually know how to design microprocessors).

There’s no mention of SPARC or Solaris, sadly. And of course, we have no idea what IBM JVMs do. But Sun JVMs on modern Windows and Linux get this right.

EDIT: This answer is based on the sources it cites. But i still worry that it might actually be completely wrong. Some more up-to-date information would be really valuable. I just came across to a link to a four year newer article about Linux’s clocks which could be useful.


I did a bit of searching and found that if one is being pedantic then yes it might be considered useless…in particular situations…it depends on how time sensitive your requirements are…

Check out this quote from the Java Sun site:

The real-time clock and
System.nanoTime() are both based on
the same system call and thus the same

With Java RTS, all time-based APIs
(for example, Timers, Periodic
Threads, Deadline Monitoring, and so
forth) are based on the
high-resolution timer. And, together
with real-time priorities, they can
ensure that the appropriate code will
be executed at the right time for
real-time constraints. In contrast,
ordinary Java SE APIs offer just a few
methods capable of handling
high-resolution times, with no
guarantee of execution at a given
time. Using System.nanoTime() between
various points in the code to perform
elapsed time measurements should
always be accurate.

Java also has a caveat for the nanoTime() method:

This method can only be used to
measure elapsed time and is not
related to any other notion of system
or wall-clock time. The value returned
represents nanoseconds since some
fixed but arbitrary time (perhaps in
the future, so values may be
negative). This method provides
nanosecond precision, but not
necessarily nanosecond accuracy. No
guarantees are made about how
frequently values change. Differences
in successive calls that span greater
than approximately 292.3 years (263
nanoseconds) will not accurately
compute elapsed time due to numerical

It would seem that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that nanoTime() cannot be relied upon as an accurate value. As such, if you do not need to measure times that are mere nano seconds apart then this method is good enough even if the resulting returned value is negative. However, if you’re needing higher precision, they appear to recommend that you use JAVA RTS.

So to answer your question…no nanoTime() is not useless….its just not the most prudent method to use in every situation.


No need to debate, just use the source.
Here, SE 6 for Linux, make your own conclusions:

jlong os::javaTimeMillis() {
  timeval time;
  int status = gettimeofday(&time, NULL);
  assert(status != -1, "linux error");
  return jlong(time.tv_sec) * 1000  +  jlong(time.tv_usec / 1000);

jlong os::javaTimeNanos() {
  if (Linux::supports_monotonic_clock()) {
    struct timespec tp;
    int status = Linux::clock_gettime(CLOCK_MONOTONIC, &tp);
    assert(status == 0, "gettime error");
    jlong result = jlong(tp.tv_sec) * (1000 * 1000 * 1000) + jlong(tp.tv_nsec);
    return result;
  } else {
    timeval time;
    int status = gettimeofday(&time, NULL);
    assert(status != -1, "linux error");
    jlong usecs = jlong(time.tv_sec) * (1000 * 1000) + jlong(time.tv_usec);
    return 1000 * usecs;


Since Java 7, System.nanoTime() is guaranteed to be safe by JDK specification. System.nanoTime()‘s Javadoc makes it clear that all observed invocations within a JVM (that is, across all threads) are monotonic:

The value returned represents nanoseconds since some fixed but arbitrary origin time (perhaps in the future, so values may be negative). The same origin is used by all invocations of this method in an instance of a Java virtual machine; other virtual machine instances are likely to use a different origin.

JVM/JDK implementation is responsible for ironing out the inconsistencies that could be observed when underlying OS utilities are called (e. g. those mentioned in Tom Anderson’s answer).

The majority of other old answers to this question (written in 2009–2012) express FUD that was probably relevant for Java 5 or Java 6 but is no longer relevant for modern versions of Java.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that despite JDK guarantees nanoTime()‘s safety, there have been several bugs in OpenJDK making it to not uphold this guarantee on certain platforms or under certain circumstances (e. g. JDK-8040140, JDK-8184271). There are no open (known) bugs in OpenJDK wrt nanoTime() at the moment, but a discovery of a new such bug or a regression in a newer release of OpenJDK shouldn’t shock anybody.

With that in mind, code that uses nanoTime() for timed blocking, interval waiting, timeouts, etc. should preferably treat negative time differences (timeouts) as zeros rather than throw exceptions. This practice is also preferable because it is consistent with the behaviour of all timed wait methods in all classes in java.util.concurrent.*, for example Semaphore.tryAcquire(), Lock.tryLock(), BlockingQueue.poll(), etc.

Nonetheless, nanoTime() should still be preferred for implementing timed blocking, interval waiting, timeouts, etc. to currentTimeMillis() because the latter is a subject to the “time going backward” phenomenon (e. g. due to server time correction), i. e. currentTimeMillis() is not suitable for measuring time intervals at all. See this answer for more information.

Instead of using nanoTime() for code execution time measurements directly, specialized benchmarking frameworks and profilers should preferably be used, for example JMH and async-profiler in wall-clock profiling mode.


Disclaimer: I am the developer of this library

You might like this better:

But it copies a DLL or Unix .so (shared object) file into the current user’s home directory so that it can call JNI.

Some background information is on my site at:


Linux corrects for discrepancies between CPUs, but Windows does not. I suggest you assume System.nanoTime() is only accurate to around 1 micro-second. A simple way to get a longer timing is to call foo() 1000 or more times and divide the time by 1000.


Absolutely not useless. Timing aficionados correctly point out the multi-core problem, but in real-word applications it is often radically better than currentTimeMillis().

When calculating graphics positions in frame refreshes nanoTime() leads to MUCH smoother motion in my program.

And I only test on multi-core machines.


I have seen a negative elapsed time reported from using System.nanoTime(). To be clear, the code in question is:

    long startNanos = System.nanoTime();

    Object returnValue = joinPoint.proceed();

    long elapsedNanos = System.nanoTime() - startNanos;

and variable ‘elapsedNanos’ had a negative value. (I’m positive that the intermediate call took less than 293 years as well, which is the overflow point for nanos stored in longs 🙂

This occurred using an IBM v1.5 JRE 64bit on IBM P690 (multi-core) hardware running AIX. I’ve only seen this error occur once, so it seems extremely rare. I do not know the cause – is it a hardware-specific issue, a JVM defect – I don’t know. I also don’t know the implications for the accuracy of nanoTime() in general.

To answer the original question, I don’t think nanoTime is useless – it provides sub-millisecond timing, but there is an actual (not just theoretical) risk of it being inaccurate which you need to take into account.


This doesn’t seem to be a problem on a Core 2 Duo running Windows XP and JRE 1.5.0_06.

In a test with three threads I don’t see System.nanoTime() going backwards. The processors are both busy, and threads go to sleep occasionally to provoke moving threads around.

[EDIT] I would guess that it only happens on physically separate processors, i.e. that the counters are synchronized for multiple cores on the same die.


No, it’s not… It just depends on your CPU, check High Precision Event Timer for how/why things are differently treated according to CPU.

Basically, read the source of your Java and check what your version does with the function, and if it works against the CPU you will be running it on.

IBM even suggests you use it for performance benchmarking (a 2008 post, but updated).


I am linking to what essentially is the same discussion where Peter Lawrey is providing a good answer.
Why I get a negative elapsed time using System.nanoTime()?

Many people mentioned that in Java System.nanoTime() could return negative time. I for apologize for repeating what other people already said.

  1. nanoTime() is not a clock but CPU cycle counter.
  2. Return value is divided by frequency to look like time.
  3. CPU frequency may fluctuate.
  4. When your thread is scheduled on another CPU, there is a chance of getting nanoTime() which results in a negative difference. That’s logical. Counters across CPUs are not synchronized.
  5. In many cases, you could get quite misleading results but you wouldn’t be able to tell because delta is not negative. Think about it.
  6. (unconfirmed) I think you may get a negative result even on the same CPU if instructions are reordered. To prevent that, you’d have to invoke a memory barrier serializing your instructions.

It’d be cool if System.nanoTime() returned coreID where it executed.


Java is crossplatform, and nanoTime is platform-dependent. If you use Java – when don’t use nanoTime. I found real bugs across different jvm implementations with this function.


The Java 5 documentation also recommends using this method for the same purpose.

This method can only be used to
measure elapsed time and is not
related to any other notion of system
or wall-clock time.

Java 5 API Doc


Also, System.currentTimeMillies() changes when you change your systems clock, while System.nanoTime() doesn’t, so the latter is safer to measure durations.


nanoTime is extremely insecure for timing. I tried it out on my basic primality testing algorithms and it gave answers which were literally one second apart for the same input. Don’t use that ridiculous method. I need something that is more accurate and precise than get time millis, but not as bad as nanoTime.

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