How to Speak Like a Data Center Geek

How to Speak Like a Data Center Geek: Network Time Synchronization

Fundamental Tools for a Digital Transformation

Rodney Elder
Eric Zehnder

Taken for granted, except by the most technical of network architects (“geeks” to the rest of the world), accurate clock and network time synchronization of computing resources is required for many industries. Banking and finance, media and entertainment, manufacturing and municipal services depend on precision timing for efficient processing, communications and data management.

Why We Need Network Time Synchronization

If you’ve never given a thought to the importance of network time synchronization in daily activities, a few specific examples illustrate the widespread role of timing in ensuring precision and accuracy.

  • File-system updates carried out by multiple computers distributed across a network depend on synchronized clock times.
  • Voice and video must be precisely synchronized in streaming applications and online gaming to provide an engaging experience.
  • Electronic trading, such as stock purchases and sales, requires accurate timestamps to properly determine the correct sequence for processing the trades.
  • Manufacturing processes controlled by multiple computers and programmable logic controllers require precise coordination of the timing and sequence of manufacturing tasks.
  • Wireless sensor networks that drive IoT applications or monitor municipal activities require accurate timing to correctly coordinate and log events.

Without precise and accurate time synchronization, these activities might best be described as “chaos.”

The Tools of Time Synchronization

Network time synchronization is the process of ensuring the clocks of computers connected to the network are coordinated. The key components and concepts involved in providing the service can include:

GPS Satellite – 24 orbiting satellites, each with an atomic clock on-board, transmit a radio signal that provides precise timing and location messages.

GPS Antenna – Receive radio frequency timing from satellites and transmits it to an embedded receiver that decodes the signals.

Radio Timing Source -Dedicated terrestrial radio transmitters emit a time code synchronized with an atomic clock.

Radio-Controlled Clock – A device that is automatically synchronized to a time code transmitted by a radio transmitter connected to a time standard such as an atomic clock.

Timing Server Appliance -A hardware device that synchronizes to a timing source (GPS or radio time broadcast) and provides a network with an accurate source of time.

Timing Client – Software that requests time from a designated reference timing source appliance to synchronize a computer’s clock. 

Network Time Protocol (NTP) – Provides clock synchronization among computer systems over packet-switched, variable-latency data networks. One of the oldest Internet protocols in use.

Precision Time Protocol (PTP) – Provides sub-microsecond clock accuracy required for financial transactions, measurement and control systems, cell tower transmissions and networks that don’t have access to GPS satellite signals.

An enterprise may employ any combination of these hardware tools and services. However, as an enterprise expands its network infrastructure, hosting data and applications on different cloud environments or moving applications to the network edge to optimize performance, the logistical difficulty of procuring and deploying these timing tools becomes apparent.

Why We Need a Better Network Time Synchronization Method

In the cloud era where services are deployed via a desktop UI, the traditional approach to implementing network time synchronization has become outdated. Some of the key factors that drive the need for a better method of implementing network time synchronization include:

  • Hybrid and multicloud environments that allow enterprises to quickly deliver new services to new markets. Protracted provisioning of timing services for these cloud environments significantly delays time to market.
  • Compliance requirements are driving the need for microsecond accuracy and synchronization. For enterprises requiring greater timing precision than the default provided by GPS, detailed paperwork justifying their need must be submitted to government authorities, adding to the delay of implementing new services.
  • Security vulnerabilities inherent in GPS solutions provided via the public internet pose a risk of hacker attacks.

In the cloud era, procuring and installing GPS antennae and timing hardware, security risks and the need for greater precision are demanding a new approach to implementing network time synchronization.

Consider Network Time Synchronization as a Service

We’re certain that no network geek relishes the idea of implementing and maintaining a traditional network timing synchronization system. Procurement, paperwork, on-site installation and ongoing maintenance are all deterrents to rapid deployment and cost-efficient operations.

The cloud has created an expectation of “as-a-service” resource provisioning. In a matter of minutes, IT professionals provision needed capabilities globally without the protracted delays of hardware deployment. That’s why we think the industry is prime for network time synchronization as a service that:

  • Eliminates hardware procurement and installation by providing and managing the connections to high-precision GPS antennae and timing server appliances, and offering global connectivity to coordinate accurate, precise network time synchronization.
  • Delivers 50-microsecond precision and guaranteed accuracy by calculating network jitter to automatically correct for any delays.
  • Provides an added level of security by propagating timing signals via secure, private network connections to eliminate security risks initiated via the internet.

As a provider of the world’s largest ecosystem of interconnected partners and providers—Platform Equinix, we’re already helping thousands of enterprises running multiple cloud environments deploy encryption key management and virtual network functions, on-demand, as-a-service. We’re confident that enterprises are looking for a cloud-era method to deploy and manage timing across hybrid and multicloud environments. We’re working to make network time synchronization-as-a-service a widely-accepted geek-speak term. Watch this blog space for timely updates regarding this initiative.

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Rodney Elder Global Principal, GSE/SSI
Eric Zehnder
Eric Zehnder Global Solutions Architect