Do Your Systems Have the Correct Time?

How to secure your time service via private interconnection

Roshan Kumar

Have you ever thought about the importance of timing and how getting out of synch can impact your life? For example, think about the domino effect of sleeping in past your alarm. You are probably late getting the kids off to school, which makes you miss your train to work, which makes you late to your first meeting that gets cancelled and needs to be rescheduled because you weren’t there.

Now imagine the timing of a critical system getting out of synch such as rocket going into space. Recently NASA learned a hard lesson about system timing when the unmanned CST-100 Starliner space taxi missed its planned rendezvous with the International Space Station due to a timing glitch. In its last test flight before a manned mission was to be scheduled, a planned orbital insertion burn didn’t happen. The cause of the misfire was an incorrect timestamp from computers on the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket that launched the capsule. As a result, ground controllers scrambled to upload commands to get the autonomously controlled spacecraft into a stable orbit, but in the process, so much thruster fuel was used up that the boosting maneuvers for getting to the space station had to be canceled.[i]

Why Enterprises Need a Time as a Service for Digital Edge

In this analyst report, IDC considers the importance and value of time and Time as a service (TaaS) across industries and use cases. The report examines the current technological alternatives available to organizations requiring time-related capabilities, interviews from enterprises for whom time and time services are integral to their applications and operational processes.

Download the White Paper Now
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Time synchronization controls everything, but is it secure?

The Network Time Protocol (NTP) is one of the oldest internet protocols in use and provides computer clock synchronization over the internet. NTP is designed to mitigate the effects of variable network latency so that systems can access NTP services without delays that would otherwise cause network time synchronization to…well, go out of synch.

The benefit of NTP is that it is a simple, lightweight protocol and public NTP servers are free, offering time as a service to any device on the public internet. However, public NTP servers’ time synchronization packets are not encrypted, so they are insecure and prone to distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Attempts to secure NTP services have failed as they make the protocol “heavy” and slow.

All of this comes down to a public NTP source being pretty risky for the following reasons:

  • There’s no traceability back to the universal time clock (UTC): Without traceability to the UTC, you cannot guarantee that the timestamps attached to transactions and records are true. As a result, you can’t trust your systems’ timestamp on logs, videos, emails, etc.
  • There’s no promise of accuracy: Jitter in the network may displace the time whenever the client systems synchronize with the master system. And some devices just stop synchronizing their system clocks with time servers if there is any type of disruption.
  • They provide no control over time configuration changes: If there is deliberate or inadvertent time configuration changes on computer systems, NTP services will not correct them. The computer systems would have to go back and resynch with the NTP service.
  • There’s no guarantee of high availability: Public NTP services are not typically  redundant, so if a service or network connection goes down, there is no backup to keep accurate time.

Potential impacts from tapping into unreliable NTPs

All the risks outlined above can lead to chaotic behavior of computer systems across a network. That could result in critical impacts. For example:

  • Without traceability to the source of time, you cannot produce a time-related record such as a financial transaction, or cell phone calls or closed-caption TV video footage as evidence in the court.
  • Tasks that improve the productivity of systems sending and receiving emails or transaction processing applications could be negatively impacted. Think of the havoc inaccurate system timing would have on distributed ledger technology (DLT) transactions, such as block chain. For financial services firms, it could mean an insurmountable loss of revenue.
  • Services may be disrupted due to systems not being in synch with critical workflows. For example, an email server may stop sending and receiving emails if the time on the server is in the past or future. Transactions may fail with wrong timestamps such as e-commerce applications may not fulfilling orders for past or future items in the shopping cart.
  • Security protections may no longer work because security certificates and tokens expire after a certain date. This puts applications that depend on them at risk and they may stop working. It could also cause a business to violate privacy and compliance regulations because sensitive data would also be more vulnerable.
  • Critical data may not get to systems that need it to make data-driven decisions due to lack of control over sequencing messages while communicating across devices, such as with the Internet of Things (IoT). 

 

It may be a good time to look at time as a service

A secure time as a service for computers systems on Platform Equinix® will provide direct and secure connectivity via Equinix Cloud Exchange Fabric™ (ECX Fabric™) between source NTP servers and distributed systems and devices. For example, by leveraging private interconnection across distributed metros via ECX Fabric, you could have a master NTP server in New York and systems in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The latter three systems can get their time from the master NTP server in New York without going over the public internet, thereby avoiding many of the issues that threaten system accuracy, coordination, security and reliability.

Learn more about Time as a Service.

 

[i] Geekwire, “NASA and Boeing trace roots of Starliner’s bad timing — and prepare for landing,” December 2019.

Roshan Kumar
Roshan Kumar Principal Product Manager