Timestamp and Timezone Management


Following ANSI SQL semantics, TIMESTAMP is a data type that represents a reading of a wall clock and a calendar, e.g, 2024-04-09 18:25:00. Note that a TIMESTAMP does not represent an absolute point in time, as the exact same wall clock time may be read in different instants in time depending on where one is situated on Earth. For example, 2024-04-09 18:25:00 in California and in China were perceived at different absolute points in time, about 15 hours apart.

To represent absolute points in time, SQL defines a TIMESTAMP WITH TIMEZONE type, which conceptually represents a pair of a wall time and calendar read (say, 2024-04-09 18:25:00), and a timezone (PDT, or America/Los_Angeles). With these two values, one can unambiguously represent an absolute instant in time.

Naturally, a TIMESTAMP WITH TIMEZONE can be cast into a TIMESTAMP by just ignoring the timezone and keeping the timestamp wall time, and a TIMESTAMP can be cast into a TIMESTAMP WITH TIMEZONE by associating a timezone to it. The timezone can either be explicitly specified by the users, or implicitly taken from the user system or session information.

Physical Representation

Representing timestamps in memory as a string or a set of values for year, month, day, hour, and so on, is inefficient. Therefore, timestamps are usually stored in a columnar layout as a 64 bit integer representing the number of seconds elapsed since 1970-01-01 00:00:00. Negative values represent time prior to that.

However, note that the physical representation of the timestamp is orthogonal to its logical meaning. For example, the timestamp represented by the 0 integer was perceived at different absolute points in time depending on the observer’s timezone, and does not necessarily imply that it was observed in the UTC timezone. When a timestamp represents the number of seconds in UTC specifically (at that exact absolute instant in time), it may be called a unix epoch or unix time.

Velox Classes and APIs

Velox provides a few classes and APIs to allow developers to store, process, and convert timestamps across timezones:

Timestamp: In Velox, timestamps are represented by the Timestamp class. The Timestamp class stores two 64 bit integers, one containing the number of seconds from 1970-01-01 00:00:00, and one containing the nanoseconds offset in that particular second, in order to provide nanosecond precision. A few more observations:

  • While “seconds” can be negative to represent time before 1970-01-01 00:00:00, “nanoseconds” are always positive.

  • Although Velox supports nanoseconds precision, engines like Presto and Spark may only need milliseconds or microsecond precision.

  • The Timestamp class only offers a physical representation of timestamps, but does not carry logical information about its timezone. In other words, it cannot, by itself, represent an absolute point in time.

Timezone IDs: To physically represent timezones, Velox provides the TimezoneMap.h API. This API provides a 1:1 mapping from each available timezone to a monotonically increasing integer (a timezone ID), such that this integer can be used to efficiently represent timezones, preventing the use of inefficient timezone string names like America/Los_Angeles. Considering there are about 2k valid timezone definitions, 12 bits are enough to represent timezone IDs.

Timezone IDs in Velox are based on the id map used by Presto and are available here. They are automatically generated using this script. While timezone IDs are an implementation detail and ideally should not leak outside of Velox execution, they are exposed if data containing TimestampWithTimezones are serialized, for example.

TimestampWithTimezone: To represent an absolute point in time, Velox provides TimestampWithTimezone. This abstraction implements the TIMESTAMP WITH TIMEZONE SQL semantic discussed above, and is based on Presto’s implementation - therefore only supporting millisecond-precision.

TimestampWithTimezone physically packs two integers in a single 64 word, using 12 bits for timezone ID, and 52 bits for a millisecond-precision timestamp.

Note that to accelerate timestamp conversion functions, the timestamps stored in a TimestampWithTimezone are always relative to UTC - they are unix epochs. This means that converting a TimestampWithTimezone across timezones is efficiently done by just overwriting the 12 bits, and that comparisons can be done by just comparing the 52 bits relative to timestamp (ignoring the timezone ID).

However, unpacking/converting a TimestampWithTimezone into an absolute time definition requires a timezone conversion.

Conversions Across Timezones

A common operation required when processing timestamps and timezone is finding the wall clock and calendar read in a specific timezone given an absolute point in time described by a wall clock and calendar read in a different timezone. For example, at the exact point in time when UTC hits 1970-01-01 00:00:00, what was the wall clock read in China?

Timezone conversions are tricky since they are non-linear and depend on daylight savings time schedules and other local regulations, and these change over time. To enable such conversions, IANA periodically publishes a global source of authority database for timezone conversions, which is periodically pushed to systems using packages like tzdata for Linux.

In Velox, Timezone conversions are done using std::chrono. Starting in C++20, std::chrono supports conversion of timestamp across timezones. To support older versions of the C++ standard, in Velox we vendor an implementation of this API at velox/external/date/. This class handles timezone conversions by leveraging APIs provided by the operating system, based on the tzdata database installed locally. If systems happen to have inconsistent or older versions of the tzdata database, Velox’s conversions may produce inconsistent results.

On Linux, you can check the tzdata installed in your system by:

$ rpm -qa | grep tzdata

Timezone conversions are done using special methods in the Timestamp class: Timestamp::toGMT() and Timestamp::toTimezone(). They can take either a timezone ID or a date::time_zone pointer. Providing a date::time_zone is generally more efficient, but std::chrono does not handle time zone offsets such as +09:00. Timezone offsets are only supported in the API version that takes a timezone ID.


This section describes examples of timestamp casts following ANSI SQL semantics, using Presto as a reference implementation, using set session legacy_timestamp = false; (see the section below for details).

Timestamp literals are created based on whether time zone information is found on the string on not:

SELECT typeof(TIMESTAMP '1970-01-01 00:00:00'); -- timestamp
SELECT typeof(TIMESTAMP '1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC'); -- timestamp with time zone

Converting a TimestampWithTimezone into a Timestamp works by dropping the timezone information and returning only the timestamp portion:

SELECT cast(TIMESTAMP '1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC' as timestamp); -- 1970-01-01 00:00:00.000
SELECT cast(TIMESTAMP '1970-01-01 00:00:00 America/New_York' as timestamp); -- 1970-01-01 00:00:00.000

To convert a Timestamp into a TimestampWithTimezone, one needs to specify a timezone. In Presto, the session timezone is used by default:

SELECT current_timezone(); -- America/Los_Angeles
SELECT cast(TIMESTAMP '1970-01-01 00:00:00' as timestamp with time zone); -- 1970-01-01 00:00:00.000 America/Los_Angeles

Conversion across TimestampWithTimezone can be done using the AT TIME ZONE construct.

The semantic of this operation is: at the absolute point in time described by the source TimestampWithTimezone (1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC), what would be the clock/calendar read at the target timezone (Los Angeles)?

SELECT TIMESTAMP '1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC' AT TIME ZONE 'America/Los_Angeles'; -- 1969-12-31 16:00:00.000 America/Los_Angeles
SELECT TIMESTAMP '1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC' AT TIME ZONE 'UTC'; -- 1970-01-01 00:00:00.000 UTC

Strings can be converted into Timestamp and TimestampWithTimezone:

SELECT cast('1970-01-01 00:00:00' as timestamp); -- 1970-01-01 00:00:00.000
SELECT cast('1970-01-01 00:00:00 America/Los_Angeles' as timestamp with time zone); -- 1970-01-01 00:00:00.000 America/Los_Angeles

One can also convert a TimestampWithTimezone into a unix epoch/time. The semantic of this operation is: at the absolute point in time described by the timestamp with timezone taken as a parameter, what was the unix epoch? Remember that unix epoch is the number of seconds since 1970-01-01 00:00:00 in UTC:

SELECT to_unixtime(TIMESTAMP '1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC'); -- 0.0
SELECT to_unixtime(TIMESTAMP '1970-01-01 00:00:00 America/Los_Angeles'); -- 28800.0

The opposite conversion can be achieved using from_unixtime(). The function may take an optional second parameter to specify the timezone, having the same semantic as AT TIME ZONE described above:

SELECT from_unixtime(0); -- 1970-01-01 00:00:00.000
SELECT from_unixtime(0, 'UTC'); -- 1970-01-01 00:00:00.000 UTC
SELECT from_unixtime(0, 'America/Los_Angeles'); -- 1969-12-31 16:00:00.000 America/Los_Angeles

Presto Cast Legacy Behavior

For historical reasons, Presto used to interpret a TIMESTAMP as an absolute point in time at the user’s time zone, instead of a timezone-less wall clock reading as the ANSII SQL defines it. More information can be found here.

Although this has been fixed in newer versions, a legacy_timestamp session flag was added  to preserve backwards compatibility. When this flag is set, timestamps have a different semantic:

SET SESSION legacy_timestamp = true;
SELECT cast(TIMESTAMP '1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC' as timestamp); -- 1969-12-31 16:00:00.000
SELECT cast('1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC' as timestamp); -- 1969-12-31 16:00:00.000

To support the two timestamp semantics, the core::QueryConfig::kAdjustTimestampToTimezone query flag was added to Velox. When this flag is set, Velox will convert the timestamp into the user’s session time zone to follow the expected semantic, although non-ANSI SQL compliant.

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