Chronos, a DBMS for flash memories

Chronos is the result of a research project between EDF R&D and the LIRIS. For more information on Chronos design, principles and performance, refer to the PhD thesis of B. Chardin, chapter 4 (in French).

Chronos is a software library providing an ordered key-value store. It is designed to efficiently manage historization data on flash memory, but is also able – possibly at the cost of performance – to manage many kind of key-value data on many kind of devices, including hard disk drives.

To use Chronos for its data management, an application has to deal with: databases, tables, cursors and key-value pairs.

Key-value pairs are the fundamental data representation in Chronos. These data elements are not typed: Chronos manages only sequences of bytes. However, the application can (and should) establish a data structure to store multiple informations within a key or a value.

Chronos is written in C++, compiled and tested on Linux distributions (Ubuntu and Fedora). However, no known limitation should prevent it to be compiled and run using other operating systems.

Chronos databases

A Chronos database, represented by a chr_chronos object, is used to manage (create, drop, open and close) one or several tables on a single flash device (or file).


A chr_chronos object is initialized as follows:

chr_chronos(const char * flash_device_path, const char * persistence_folder_path);
  • flash_device_path is the path to the flash device. Chronos performs better on raw flash devices or partitions (which appear as special files, such as /dev/sda2) , but allows any file to be used to hold the database.
  • persistence_folder_path is the path to a folder used by Chronos to keep persistence-related files. These files are:
    • chronos.chr, which contains a description of the database with, for each table, its name (unique string identifier), the size of its keys, the size of its values and its B-tree root address.
    • device.chr, which contains the list of free sectors for this device.

For example, to open (or create) a Chronos database on the device /dev/sdb, with persistence files /var/chronos/chronos.chr and /var/chronos/device.chr:

chr_chronos * chronos = new chr_chronos("/dev/sdb", "/var/chronos/");

Warning: if the device (in the example /dev/sdb) has a file system, every file it contains is lost.


The persistence files are only written when the database is closed. The information maintained in these files can theoretically be rebuilt from the device's data, but this functionality is currently not implemented. It is therefore mandatory to properly close a database to retrieve its data on a subsequent access. To close a database, the chr_chronos object has to be destroyed:

delete chronos;

Chronos tables

A chr_table_ctx is a public wrapper for Chronos table objects (chr_table). Chronos tables store fixed-size key-value pairs using B-trees.

Note: keys are sorted with a lexicographical comparator (memcmp). Consequently, integers have to be stored in big-endian form to be compared accurately.


A new table can be created in a database:

chr_chronos::create_table(const char * table_id, size_t size_of_keys, size_t size_of_values);
  • table_id is a string used as a unique table identifier.
  • size_of_keys and size_of_values are the fixed size (in bytes) of keys and values for this table.

For example, to create a table named samples, whose key is the concatenation of a 32 bit integer and a 64 bit integer, and value is a double:

chronos->create_table("samples", sizeof(uint32_t) + sizeof(uint64_t), sizeof(double));

An SQL equivalent to create such a table would be:

CREATE TABLE samples (
  PRIMARY KEY (sensor_id, timestamp)


A table can be dropped, deleting all its content and reclaiming space on the device.

Note: table contents are not immediately erased when a table is dropped: its allocated sectors are simply allowed to be overwritten, which will happen eventually.

chr_chronos::drop_table(const char * table_id);
  • table_id is a string used as a unique table identifier.

For example, to drop the table samples:



To manage data in a table, it first has to be opened (and subsequently closed to correctly release resources).

Note: a table can be opened multiple times, but each context has to be closed.

chr_table_ctx * chr_chronos::open_table(const char * table_id);
  • table_id is a string used as a unique table identifier.

For example, to open the table samples:

chr_table_ctx * samples_ctx = chronos->open_table("samples");


The table context created with open_table has to be eventually closed to flush the B-tree root on disk and later correctly update the table's informations in the persistence file chronos.chr.

chr_chronos::close_table(chr_table_ctx * ctx);

For example:


Chronos cursors

In Chronos, data is managed using cursors. A table context can be used to open and close such cursors.


Multiple cursors can be opened concurrently for one or several tables. To open a cursor:

chr_table_ctx::open_cursor(const unsigned char * key, chr_pos_type type);
  • type can be:
    • CHR_KEY to open a cursor on a specific key,
    • CHR_FIRST to open a cursor on the first key of the table (key should be NULL),
    • CHR_LAST to open a cursor on the last key of the table (key should be NULL).

For example, to open a cursor on sensor_id=10 and timestamp="2008-10-21 14:15:16.123" (converted by the application in 1224598516123, as a unix timestamp with milliseconds):

unsigned char * key = (unsigned char *) malloc(sizeof(uint32_t) + sizeof(uint64_t));
/* assign values to key, in big-endian form */
*((uint32_t*) key) = htobe32(10);
*((uint64_t*) key+sizeof(uint32_t)) = htobe64(1224598516123);
chr_cursor * cur = samples_ctx->open_cursor(key, CHR_KEY);

Note: it can be useful to define utilities – such as preprocessor macros – to access key and value elements individually.

#define SENSOR_ID(key) (*((uint32_t*) ((unsigned char*)(key))))
#define TIMESTAMP(key) (*((uint64_t*) (((unsigned char*)(key)) + sizeof(uint32_t))))
#define VALUE(value) (*((double*) ((unsigned char*)(value))))

unsigned char * key = (unsigned char *) malloc(sizeof(uint32_t) + sizeof(uint64_t));
SENSOR_ID(key) = htobe32(10);
TIMESTAMP(key) = htobe64(1224598516123);
chr_cursor * cur = samples_ctx->open_cursor(key, CHR_KEY);


A cursor has to be closed to release resources:

chr_table_ctx::close_cursor(chr_cursor * cursor);

For example:



Once opened, a cursor can be moved to a specific key. A cursor is initially positioned just before the key specified during its opening.

chr_cursor::move(const unsigned char * key, chr_pos_type type, chr_pos_where where);
  • type can be:
    • CHR_KEY to open a cursor on a specific key,
    • CHR_FIRST to open a cursor on the first key of the table (key should be NULL),
    • CHR_LAST to open a cursor on the last key of the table (key should be NULL).
  • where can be:
    • CHR_BEFORE to move the cursor just before the key,
    • CHR_AFTER to move the cursor just after the key,
    • CHR_ON to move the cursor on the key.

For example, to position cur just before the first key of the table:



To maximize performances, keys subsequently inserted with the same cursor should be increasing. Otherwise, the cursor performs a move transparently before the insertion. In both cases, the cursor is moved just after the inserted key.

Note: chronos does not allow duplicate keys within a table.

chr_cursor::insert(const unsigned char * key, const unsigned char * value);

For example:

unsigned char * key = (unsigned char *) malloc(sizeof(uint32_t) + sizeof(uint64_t));
unsigned char * value = (unsigned char *) malloc(sizeof(double));
SENSOR_ID(key) = htobe32(10);
TIMESTAMP(key) = htobe64(1224598516123);
VALUE(value) = 3.14;
cur->insert(key, value);


To delete a key-value pair, the key must be specified.

chr_cursor::del(const unsigned char * key);

For example:


To delete a key-value pair with a specific value, the pair first has to be read and verified by the application.


Chronos can update a value associated with a key. The key remains the same, only the value is overwritten.

chr_cursor::update(const unsigned char * key, const unsigned char * value);

For example:

cur->update(key, value);

To update a key, the application has to (optionally read and) delete the original key-value pair, and then insert the updated key-value pair.


A cursor can be used to retrieve data with increasing keys.

chr_cursor::read_next(unsigned char * key, unsigned char * value);

For example, to read the content of the table samples:

while (cur->read_next(key, value) != CHR_EOF)
uint32_t sample_id = be32toh(SENSOR_ID(key));
uint64_t timestamp = be64toh(TIMESTAMP(key));
double sample = VALUE(value);

Return codes

Possible return codes for each method are defined in their header in the source code. To summarize, the following error codes are essential:

  • CHR_OK no error,
  • CHR_ERR table not available (create_table, drop_table, close_table),
  • CHR_EOF end of table reached (read_next),
  • CHR_NOTFOUND table not found (drop_table), or key not found (del, update),
  • CHR_DUPKEY insertion of duplicate keys (insert).


Chronos has several internal parameters that can be modified to fit a particular device or application. These parameters are defined in the header chr_common.h. The library must be recompiled to apply modifications made to the source code.

  • #define CHR_BLOCK_SIZE 4096 is the block (access unit for reading or writing) size in bytes. Performance-wise, this value should be a multiple of the flash block size.
  • #define CHR_EPSILON 10 is the number of key-value pairs that can be inserted out of order without performance loss. This value also increases the number of key-value pairs possibly lost during a failure.
  • #define CHR_DEV_THRESHOLD 0.25 is the minimum ratio of free sectors among every sectors on the device (i.e. free_sectors/all_sectors). Upon reaching this threshold, Chronos will attempt to expand the space used on the device by CHR_DEV_SIZE_INCR sectors.
  • #define CHR_DEV_SIZE_INCR 10 is the number of new sectors to allocate upon reaching a ratio of less than CHR_DEV_THRESHOLD free sectors.
  • #define CHR_FILE "chronos.chr" is the name of the file used to store the list of tables upon closing the database.
  • #define CHR_FLASH_FILE "device.chr" is the name of the file used to store the list of free sectors upon closing the database.