[PATCH 17/17] Add timekeeping documentation

From: Zachary Amsden
Date: Tue Jun 15 2010 - 03:35:36 EST

Basic informational document about x86 timekeeping and how KVM
is affected.

Signed-off-by: Zachary Amsden <zamsden@xxxxxxxxxx>
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+ Timekeeping Virtualization for X86-Based Architectures
+ Zachary Amsden <zamsden@xxxxxxxxxx>
+ Copyright (c) 2010, Red Hat. All rights reserved.
+1) Overview
+2) Timing Devices
+3) TSC Hardware
+4) Virtualization Problems
+1) Overview
+One of the most complicated parts of the X86 platform, and specifically,
+the virtualization of this platform is the plethora of timing devices available
+and the complexity of emulating those devices. In addition, virtualization of
+time introduces a new set of challenges because it introduces a multiplexed
+division of time beyond the control of the guest CPU.
+First, we will describe the various timekeeping hardware available, then
+present some of the problems which arise and solutions available, giving
+specific recommendations for certain classes of KVM guests.
+The purpose of this document is to collect data and information relevant to
+time keeping which may be difficult to find elsewhere, specifically,
+information relevant to KVM and hardware based virtualization.
+2) Timing Devices
+First we discuss the basic hardware devices available. TSC and the related
+KVM clock are special enough to warrant a full exposition and are described in
+the following section.
+2.1) i8254 - PIT
+One of the first timer devices available is the programmable interrupt timer,
+or PIT. The PIT has a fixed frequency 1.193182 MHz base clock and three
+channels which can be programmed to deliver periodic or one-shot interrupts.
+These three channels can be configured in different modes and have individual
+counters. Channel 1 and 2 were not available for general use in the original
+IBM PC, and historically were connected to control RAM refresh and the PC
+speaker. Now the PIT is typically integrated as part of an emulated chipset
+and a separate physical PIT is not used.
+The PIT uses I/O ports 0x40h - 0x43. Access to the 16-bit counters is done
+using single or multiple byte access to the I/O ports. There are 6 modes
+available, but not all modes are available to all timers, as only timer 2
+has a connected gate input, required for modes 1 and 5. The gate line is
+controlled by port 61h, bit 0, as illustrated in the following diagram.
+ -------------- ----------------
+| | | |
+| 1.1932 MHz |---------->| CLOCK OUT | ---------> IRQ 0
+| Clock | | | |
+ -------------- | +->| GATE TIMER 0 |
+ | ----------------
+ |
+ | ----------------
+ | | |
+ |------>| CLOCK OUT | ---------> 66.3 KHZ DRAM
+ | | | (aka /dev/null)
+ | +->| GATE TIMER 1 |
+ | ----------------
+ |
+ | ----------------
+ | | |
+ |------>| CLOCK OUT | ---------> Port 61h, bit 5
+ | | |
+Port 61h, bit 0 ---------->| GATE TIMER 2 | \_.----
+ ---------------- _| )---- Speaker
+ / *----
+Port 61h, bit 1 -----------------------------------/
+The timer modes are now described.
+Mode 0: Single Timeout. This is a one shot software timeout that counts down
+ when the gate is high (always true for timers 0 and 1). When the count
+ reaches zero, the output goes high.
+Mode 1: Triggered One Shot. The output is intially set high. When the gate
+ line is set high, a countdown is initiated (which does not stop if the gate is
+ lowered), during which the output is set low. When the count reaches zero,
+ the output goes high.
+Mode 2: Rate Generator. The output is initially set high. When the countdown
+ reaches 1, the output goes low for one count and then returns high. The value
+ is reloaded and the countdown automatically resume. If the gate line goes
+ low, the count is halted. If the output is low when the gate is lowered, the
+ output automatically goes high (this only affects timer 2).
+Mode 3: Square Wave. This generates a sine wave. The count determines the
+ length of the pulse, which alternates between high and low when zero is
+ reached. The count only proceeds when gate is high and is automatically
+ reloaded on reaching zero. The count is decremented twice at each clock.
+ If the count is even, the clock remains high for N/2 counts and low for N/2
+ counts; if the clock is odd, the clock is high for (N+1)/2 counts and low
+ for (N-1)/2 counts. Only even values are latched by the counter, so odd
+ values are not observed when reading.
+Mode 4: Software Strobe. After programming this mode and loading the counter,
+ the output remains high until the counter reaches zero. Then the output
+ goes low for 1 clock cycle and returns high. The counter is not reloaded.
+ Counting only occurs when gate is high.
+Mode 5: Hardware Strobe. After programming and loading the counter, the
+ output remains high. When the gate is raised, a countdown is initiated
+ (which does not stop if the gate is lowered). When the counter reaches zero,
+ the output goes low for 1 clock cycle and then returns high. The counter is
+ not reloaded.
+In addition to normal binary counting, the PIT supports BCD counting. The
+command port, 0x43h is used to set the counter and mode for each of the three
+PIT commands, issued to port 0x43, using the following bit encoding:
+Bit 7-4: Command (See table below)
+Bit 3-1: Mode (000 = Mode 0, 101 = Mode 5, 11X = undefined)
+Bit 0 : Binary (0) / BCD (1)
+Command table:
+0000 - Latch Timer 0 count for port 0x40
+ sample and hold the count to be read in port 0x40;
+ additional commands ignored until counter is read;
+ mode bits ignored.
+0001 - Set Timer 0 LSB mode for port 0x40
+ set timer to read LSB only and force MSB to zero;
+ mode bits set timer mode
+0010 - Set Timer 0 MSB mode for port 0x40
+ set timer to read MSB only and force LSB to zero;
+ mode bits set timer mode
+0011 - Set Timer 0 16-bit mode for port 0x40
+ set timer to read / write LSB first, then MSB;
+ mode bits set timer mode
+0100 - Latch Timer 1 count for port 0x41 - as described above
+0101 - Set Timer 1 LSB mode for port 0x41 - as described above
+0110 - Set Timer 1 MSB mode for port 0x41 - as described above
+0111 - Set Timer 1 16-bit mode for port 0x41 - as described above
+1000 - Latch Timer 2 count for port 0x42 - as described above
+1001 - Set Timer 2 LSB mode for port 0x42 - as described above
+1010 - Set Timer 2 MSB mode for port 0x42 - as described above
+1011 - Set Timer 2 16-bit mode for port 0x42 as described above
+1101 - General counter latch
+ Latch combination of counters into corresponding ports
+ Bit 3 = Counter 2
+ Bit 2 = Counter 1
+ Bit 1 = Counter 0
+ Bit 0 = Unused
+1110 - Latch timer status
+ Latch combination of counter mode into corresponding ports
+ Bit 3 = Counter 2
+ Bit 2 = Counter 1
+ Bit 1 = Counter 0
+ The output of ports 0x40-0x42 following this command will be:
+ Bit 7 = Output pin
+ Bit 6 = Count loaded (0 if timer has expired)
+ Bit 5-4 = Read / Write mode
+ 01 = MSB only
+ 10 = LSB only
+ 11 = LSB / MSB (16-bit)
+ Bit 3-1 = Mode
+ Bit 0 = Binary (0) / BCD mode (1)
+2.2) RTC
+The second device which was available in the original PC was the MC146818 real
+time clock. The original device is now obsolete, and usually emulated by the
+system chipset, sometimes by an HPET and some frankenstein IRQ routing.
+The RTC is accessed through CMOS variables, which uses an index register to
+control which bytes are read. Since there is only one index register, read
+of the CMOS and read of the RTC require lock protection (in addition, it is
+dangerous to allow userspace utilities such as hwclock to have direct RTC
+access, as they could corrupt kernel reads and writes of CMOS memory).
+The RTC generates an interrupt which is usually routed to IRQ 8. The interrupt
+can function as a once a day alarm, a periodic alarm, and can issue interrupts
+after an update of the CMOS registers by the MC146818 is complete. The type of
+interrupt is signalled in the RTC status registers.
+The RTC will update the current time fields by battery power even while the
+system is off. The current time fields should not be read while an update is
+in progress, as indicated in the status register.
+The clock uses a 32.768kHz crystal, so bits 6-4 of register A should be
+programmed to a 32kHz divider if the RTC is to count seconds.
+This is the RAM map originally used for the RTC/CMOS:
+Location Size Description
+00h byte Current second (BCD)
+01h byte Seconds alarm (BCD)
+02h byte Current minute (BCD)
+03h byte Minutes alarm (BCD)
+04h byte Current hour (BCD)
+05h byte Hours alarm (BCD)
+06h byte Current day of week (BCD)
+07h byte Current day of month (BCD)
+08h byte Current month (BCD)
+09h byte Current year (BCD)
+0Ah byte Register A
+ bit 7 = Update in progress
+ bit 6-4 = Divider for clock
+ 000 = 4.194 MHz
+ 001 = 1.049 MHz
+ 010 = 32 kHz
+ 10X = test modes
+ 110 = reset / disable
+ 111 = reset / disable
+ bit 3-0 = Rate selection for periodic interrupt
+ 000 = periodic timer disabled
+ 001 = 3.90625 uS
+ 010 = 7.8125 uS
+ 011 = .122070 mS
+ 100 = .244141 mS
+ ...
+ 1101 = 125 mS
+ 1110 = 250 mS
+ 1111 = 500 mS
+0Bh byte Register B
+ bit 7 = Run (0) / Halt (1)
+ bit 6 = Periodic interrupt enable
+ bit 5 = Alarm interrupt enable
+ bit 4 = Update-ended interrupt enable
+ bit 3 = Square wave interrupt enable
+ bit 2 = BCD calendar (0) / Binary (1)
+ bit 1 = 12-hour mode (0) / 24-hour mode (1)
+ bit 0 = 0 (DST off) / 1 (DST enabled)
+OCh byte Register C (read only)
+ bit 7 = interrupt request flag (IRQF)
+ bit 6 = periodic interrupt flag (PF)
+ bit 5 = alarm interrupt flag (AF)
+ bit 4 = update interrupt flag (UF)
+ bit 3-0 = reserved
+ODh byte Register D (read only)
+ bit 7 = RTC has power
+ bit 6-0 = reserved
+32h byte Current century BCD (*)
+ (*) location vendor specific and now determined from ACPI global tables
+2.3) APIC
+On Pentium and later processors, an on-board timer is available to each CPU
+as part of the Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller. The APIC is
+accessed through memory mapped registers and provides interrupt service to each
+CPU, used for IPIs and local timer interrupts.
+Although in theory the APIC is a safe and stable source for local interrupts,
+in practice, many bugs and glitches have occurred due to the special nature of
+the APIC CPU-local memory mapped hardware. Beware that CPU errata may affect
+the use of the APIC and that workarounds may be required. In addition, some of
+these workarounds pose unique constraints for virtualization - requiring either
+extra overhead incurred from extra reads of memory mapped I/O or additional
+functionality that may be more computationally expensive to implement.
+Since the APIC is documented quite well in the Intel and AMD manuals, we will
+avoid repititon of the detail here. It should be pointed out that the APIC
+timer is programmed through the LVT (local vector timer) register, is capable
+of one-shot or periodic operation, and is based on the bus clock divided down
+by the programmable divider register.
+2.4) HPET
+HPET is quite complex, and was originally intended to replace the PIT / RTC
+support of the X86 PC. It remains to be seen whether that will be the case, as
+the de-facto standard of PC hardware is to emulate these older devices. Some
+systems designated as legacy free may support only the HPET as a hardware timer
+The HPET spec is rather loose and vague, requiring at least 3 hardware timers,
+but allowing implementation freedom to support many more. It also imposes no
+fixed rate on the timer frequency, but does impose some extremal values on
+frequency, error and slew.
+In general, the HPET is recommended as a high precision (compared to PIT /RTC)
+time source which is independent of local variation (as there is only one HPET
+in any given system). The HPET is also memory mapped, and its presence is
+indicated through ACPI table by the BIOS.
+Detailed specification of the HPET is beyond the current scope of this
+document, as it is also very well documented elsewhere.
+2.5) Offboard Timers
+Several cards, both proprietary (watchdog boards) and commonplace (e1000) have
+timing chips built into the cards which may have registers which are accessible
+to kernel or user drivers. To the author's knowledge, using these to generate
+a clocksource for a Linux or other kernel has not yet been attempted and is in
+general frowned upon as not playing by the agreed rules of the game. Such a
+timer device would require additional support to be virtualized properly and is
+not considered important at this time as no known operating system does this.
+3) TSC Hardware
+The TSC or time stamp counter is relatively simple in theory; it counts
+instruction cycles issued by the processor, which can be used as a measure of
+time. In practice, due to a number of problems, it is the most complicated
+time keeping device to use.
+The TSC is represented internally as a 64-bit MSR which can be read with the
+RDMSR, RDTSC, or RDTSCP (when available) instructions. In the past, hardware
+limitations made it possible to write the TSC, but generally on old hardware it
+was only possible to write the low 32-bits of the 64-bit counter, and the upper
+32-bits of the counter were cleared. Now, however, on Intel processors family
+0Fh, for models 3, 4 and 6, and family 06h, models e and f, this restriction
+has been lifted and all 64-bits are writable. On AMD systems, the ability to
+write the TSC MSR is not an architectural guarantee.
+The TSC is accessible from CPL-0 and conditionally, for CPL > 0 software by
+means of the CR4.TSD bit, which disables CPL > 0 TSC access.
+Some vendors have implemented an additional instruction, RDTSCP, which returns
+atomically not just the TSC, but an indicator which corresponds to the
+processor number. This can be used to index into an array of TSC variables to
+determine offset information in SMP systems where TSCs are not synchronized.
+Both VMX and SVM provide extension fields in the virtualization hardware which
+allows the guest visible TSC to be offset by a constant. Newer implementations
+promise to allow the TSC to additionally be scaled, but this hardware is not
+yet widely available.
+3.1) TSC synchronization
+The TSC is a CPU-local clock in most implementations. This means, on SMP
+platforms, the TSCs of different CPUs may start at different times depending
+on when the CPUs are powered on. Generally, CPUs on the same die will share
+the same clock, however, this is not always the case.
+The BIOS may attempt to resynchronize the TSCs as a result during the poweron
+process and the operating system or other system software may attempt to do
+this as well. Several hardware limitations make the problem worse - if it is
+not possible to write the full 32-bits of the TSC, it may be impossible to
+match the TSC in newly arriving CPUs to that of the rest of the system,
+resulting in unsynchronized TSCs. This may be done by BIOS or system software,
+but in practice, getting a perfectly synchronized TSC will not be possible
+unless all values are read from the same clock, which generally only is
+possible on single socket systems or those with special hardware support.
+3.2) TSC and CPU hotplug
+As touched on already, CPUs which arrive later than the boot time of the system
+may not have a TSC value that is synchronized with the rest of the system.
+Either system software, BIOS, or SMM code may actually try to establish the TSC
+to a value matching the rest of the system, but a perfect match is usually not
+a guarantee.
+3.3) TSC and multi-socket / NUMA
+Multi-socket systems, especially large multi-socket systems are likely to have
+individual clocksources rather than a single, universally distributed clock.
+Since these clocks are driven by different crystals, they will not have
+perfectly matched frequency, and temperature and electrical variations will
+cause the cpu clocks, and thus the TSCs to drift over time. Depending on the
+exact clock and bus design, the drift may or may not be fixed in absolute
+error, and may accumulate over time.
+In addition, very large systems may deliberately slew the clocks of individual
+cores. This technique, known as spread-spectrum clocking, reduces EMI at the
+clock frequency and harmonics of it, which may be required to pass FCC
+standards for telecommunications and computer equipment.
+It is recommended not to trust the TSCs to remain synchronized on NUMA or
+multiple socket systems for these reasons.
+3.4) TSC and C-states
+C-states, or idling states of the processor, especially C1E and deeper sleep
+states may be problematic for TSC as well. The TSC may stop advancing in such
+a state, resulting in a TSC which is behind that of other CPUs when execution
+is resumed. Such CPUs must be detected and flagged by the operating system
+based on CPU and chipset identifications.
+The TSC in such a case may be corrected by catching it up to a known external
+3.5) TSC frequency change / P-states
+To make things slightly more interesting, some CPUs may change requency. They
+may or may not run the TSC at the same rate, and because the frequency change
+may be staggered or slewed, at some points in time, the TSC rate may not be
+known other than falling within a range of values. In this case, the TSC will
+not be a stable time source, and must be calibrated against a known, stable,
+external clock to be a usable source of time.
+Whether the TSC runs at a constant rate or scales with the P-state is model
+dependent and must be determined by inspecting CPUID, chipset or various MSR
+In addition, some vendors have known bugs where the P-state is actually
+compensated for properly during normal operation, but when the processor is
+inactive, the P-state may be raised temporarily to service cache misses from
+other processors. In such cases, the TSC on halted CPUs could advance faster
+than that of non-halted processors. AMD Turion processors are known to have
+this problem.
+3.6) TSC and STPCLK / T-states
+External signals given to the processor may also have the affect of stopping
+the TSC. This is typically done for thermal emergency power control to prevent
+an overheating condition, and typically, there is no way to detect that this
+condition has happened.
+3.7) TSC virtualization - VMX
+VMX provides conditional trapping of RDTSC, RDMSR, WRMSR and RDTSCP
+instructions, which is enough for full virtualization of TSC in any manner. In
+addition, VMX allows passing through the host TSC plus an additional TSC_OFFSET
+field specified in the VMCS. Special instructions must be used to read and
+write the VMCS field.
+3.8) TSC virtualization - SVM
+VMX provides conditional trapping of RDTSC, RDMSR, WRMSR and RDTSCP
+instructions, which is enough for full virtualization of TSC in any manner. In
+addition, SVM allows passing through the host TSC plus an additional offset
+ield specified in SVM control block.
+3.9) TSC feature bits in Linux
+In summary, there is no way to guarantee the TSC remains in perfect
+synchronization unless it is explicitly guaranteed by the architecture. Even
+if so, the TSCs in multi-sockets or NUMA systems may still run independently
+despite being locally consistent.
+The following feature bits are used by Linux to signal various TSC attributes,
+but they can only be taken to be meaningful for UP or single node systems.
+X86_FEATURE_TSC : The TSC is available in hardware
+X86_FEATURE_RDTSCP : The RDTSCP instruction is available
+X86_FEATURE_CONSTANT_TSC : The TSC rate is unchanged with P-states
+X86_FEATURE_NONSTOP_TSC : The TSC does not stop in C-states
+X86_FEATURE_TSC_RELIABLE : TSC sync checks are skipped (VMware)
+4) Virtualization Problems
+Timekeeping is especially problematic for virtualization because a number of
+challenges arise. The most obvious problem is that time is now shared between
+the host and, potentially, a number of virtual machines. This happens
+naturally on X86 systems when SMM mode is used by the BIOS, but not to such a
+degree nor with such frequency. However, the fact that SMM mode may cause
+similar problems to virtualization makes it a good justification for solving
+many of these problems on bare metal.
+4.1) Interrupt clocking
+One of the most immediate problems that occurs with legacy operating systems
+is that the system timekeeping routines are often designed to keep track of
+time by counting periodic interrupts. These interrupts may come from the PIT
+or the RTC, but the problem is the same: the host virtualization engine may not
+be able to deliver the proper number of interrupts per second, and so guest
+time may fall behind. This is especially problematic if a high interrupt rate
+is selected, such as 1000 HZ, which is unfortunately the default for many Linux
+There are three approaches to solving this problem; first, it may be possible
+to simply ignore it. Guests which have a separate time source for tracking
+'wall clock' or 'real time' may not need any adjustment of their interrupts to
+maintain proper time. If this is not sufficient, it may be necessary to inject
+additional interrupts into the guest in order to increase the effective
+interrupt rate. This approach leads to complications in extreme conditions,
+where host load or guest lag is too much to compensate for, and thus another
+solution to the problem has risen: the guest may need to become aware of lost
+ticks and compensate for them internally. Although promising in theory, the
+implementation of this policy in Linux has been extremely error prone, and a
+number of buggy variants of lost tick compensation are distributed across
+commonly used Linux systems.
+Windows uses periodic RTC clocking as a means of keeping time internally, and
+thus requires interrupt slewing to keep proper time. It does use a low enough
+rate (ed: is it 18.2 Hz?) however that it has not yet been a problem in
+4.2) TSC sampling and serialization
+As the highest precision time source available, the cycle counter of the CPU
+has aroused much interest from developers. As explained above, this timer has
+many problems unique to its nature as a local, potentially unstable and
+potentially unsynchronized source. One issue which is not unique to the TSC,
+but is highlighted because of it's very precise nature is sampling delay. By
+definition, the counter, once read is already old. However, it is also
+possible for the counter to be read ahead of the actual use of the result.
+This is a consequence of the superscalar execution of the instruction stream,
+which may execute instructions out of order. Such execution is called
+non-serialized. Forcing serialized execution is necessary for precise
+measurement with the TSC, and requires a serializing instruction, such as CPUID
+or an MSR read.
+Since CPUID may actually be virtualized by a trap and emulate mechanism, this
+serialization can pose a performance issue for hardware virtualization. An
+accurate time stamp counter reading may therefore not always be available, and
+it may be necessary for an implementation to guard against "backwards" reads of
+the TSC as seen from other CPUs, even in an otherwise perfectly synchronized
+4.3) Timespec aliasing
+Additionally, this lack of serialization from the TSC poses another challenge
+when using results of the TSC when measured against another time source. As
+the TSC is much higher precision, many possible values of the TSC may be read
+while another clock is still expressing the same value.
+That is, you may read (T,T+10) while external clock C maintains the same value.
+Due to non-serialized reads, you may actually end up with a range which
+fluctuates - from (T-1.. T+10). Thus, any time calculated from a TSC, but
+calibrated against an external value may have a range of valid values.
+Re-calibrating this computation may actually cause time, as computed after the
+calibration, to go backwards, compared with time computed before the
+This problem is particularly pronounced with an internal time source in Linux,
+the kernel time, which is expressed in the theoretically high resultion
+timespec - but which advances in much larger granularity intervals, sometimes
+at the rate of jiffies, and possibly in catchup modes, at a much larger step.
+This aliasing requires care in the computation and recalibration of kvmclock
+and any other values derived from TSC computation (such as TSC virtualization
+4.4) Migration
+Migration of a virtual machine raises problems for timekeeping in two ways.
+First, the migration itself may take time, during which interrupts can not be
+delivered, and after which, the guest time may need to be caught up. NTP may
+be able to help to some degree here, as the clock correction required is
+typically small enough to fall in the NTP-correctable window.
+An additional concern is that timers based off the TSC (or HPET, if the raw bus
+clock is exposed) may now be running at different rates, requiring compensation
+in some may in the hypervisor by virtualizing these timers. In addition,
+migrating to a faster machine may preclude the use of a passthrough TSC, as a
+faster clock can not be made visible to a guest without the potential of time
+advancing faster than usual. A slower clock is less of a problem, as it can
+always be caught up to the original rate. KVM clock avoids these problems by
+simply storing multipliers and offsets gainst the TSC for the guest to convert
+back into nanosecond resolution values.
+4.5) Scheduling
+Since scheduling may be based on precise timing and firing of interrupts, the
+scheduling algorithms of an operating system may be adversely affected by
+virtualization. In theory, the effect is random and should be universally
+distributed, but in contrived as well as real scenarios (guest device access,
+causes virtualization exits, possible context switch), this may not always be
+the case. The effect of this has not been well studied (ed: has it? any
+published results?).
+In an attempt to workaround this, several implementations have provided a
+paravirtualized scheduler clock, which reveals the true amount of CPU time for
+which a virtual machine has been running.
+4.6) Watchdogs
+Watchdog timers, such as the lock detector in Linux may fire accidentally when
+running under hardware virtualization due to timer interrupts being delayed or
+misinterpretation of the passage of real time. Usually, these warnings are
+spurious and can be ignored, but in some circumstances it may be necessary to
+disable such detection.
+4.7) Delays and precision timing
+Precise timing and delays may not be possible in a virtualized system. This
+can happen if the system is controlling physical hardware, or issues delays to
+compensate for slower I/O to and from devices. The first issue is not solvable
+in general for a virtualized system; hardware control software can't be
+adequately virtualized without a full real-time operating system, which would
+require an RT aware virtualization platform.
+The second issue may cause performance problems, but this is unlikely to be a
+significant issue. In many cases these delays may be eliminated through
+configuration or paravirtualization.
+4.8) Covert channels and leaks
+In addition to the above problems, time information will inevitably leak to the
+guest about the host in anything but a perfect implementation of virtualized
+time. This may allow the guest to infer the presence of a hypervisor (as in a
+red-pill type detection), and it may allow information to leak between guests
+by using CPU utilization itself as a signalling channel. Preventing such
+problems would require completely isolated virtual time which may not track
+real time any longer. This may be useful in certain security or QA contexts,
+but in general isn't recommended for real-world deployment scenarios.

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