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Whose clock are you using, anyway?

Assigning timestamps to events is even more difficult when events can be buffered at several points in the system. For example, consider a mobile app that reports events for usage metrics to a server. The app may be used while the device is offline, in which case it will buffer events locally on the device and send them to a server when an internet connection is next available (which may be hours or even days later). To any consumers of this stream, the events will appear as extremely delayed stragglers.

In this context, the timestamp on the events should really be the time at which the user interaction occurred, according to the mobile device’s local clock. However, the clock on a user-controlled device often cannot be trusted, as it may be accidentally or deliberately set to the wrong time (see “Clock Synchronization and Accuracy” on page 289). The time at which the event was received by the server (according to the server’s clock) is more likely to be accurate, since the server is under your control, but less meaningful in terms of describing the user interaction.

To adjust for incorrect device clocks, one approach is to log three timestamps [82]:

  • • The time at which the event occurred, according to the device clock
  • • The time at which the event was sent to the server, according to the device clock
  • • The time at which the event was received by the server, according to the server clock

By subtracting the second timestamp from the third, you can estimate the offset between the device clock and the server clock (assuming the network delay is negligible compared to the required timestamp accuracy). You can then apply that offset to the event timestamp, and thus estimate the true time at which the event actually occurred (assuming the device clock offset did not change between the time the event occurred and the time it was sent to the server).

This problem is not unique to stream processing—batch processing suffers from exactly the same issues of reasoning about time. It is just more noticeable in a streaming context, where we are more aware of the passage of time.

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