Resilient timing synchronisation infrastructure: beyond GPS

By Simon Kenny, CEO, Hoptroff London.

If you have needed accurate timing for your operations over the last few decades, chances are you have been using a purely satellite based solution with just one source: GPS (global positioning system). While this system has served us well, relying on just one time source is no longer enough when satellites are becoming increasingly vulnerable to jamming and spoofing.

Calls for a more resilient provision of time appropriate to support the rapid advancement of 21st century technology are not only coming from the private sector, but also from governments around the world. Both the US and UK governments have announced millions of dollars in funding to invest in resilient timing infrastructure that could take over as a source of traceable time in the event of delivery of GPS being disrupted. Some firms specialising in highly accurate traceable time have already been refining exceptionally resilient timing solutions that use alternative infrastructure.

Hoptroff is one such example of a firm that is innovating in the field of timing and has built a highly resilient and reliable time feed network. By incorporating a time signal from three different satellite constellations, GPS, Glonass and BeiDou, into a single time feed and constantly comparing each signal to produce an average, a very accurate and traceable time feed is realised. By building three mutually resilient cloud timing hubs in New York, London and Tokyo, each consisting of three GMC (Grandmaster Clocks) connected to different sources of UTC, Hoptroff is able to deliver traceable UTC timing to any major data centre location in the world.

Even in the event that all three satellite feeds were to be disrupted simultaneously by space weather or fall foul to increasingly common terrestrial jamming or spoofing, each grandmaster clock has a built-in holdover of 1.5us per 24 hours. So, all the satellites could be down for weeks and the cloud timing feed would still be comfortably accurate to better than 100 microseconds.

Finally, to make the timing network even more resilient, a terrestrial source of UTC is also integrated into the time feed from the RISE Institute of Sweden’s stratum-zero-time source, which is one of the primary sources for GPS. Even in the highly unlikely event every satellite were to fail and never recover, a time signal accurate to under 100 microseconds would still be delivered.

When thousands of transactions take place every second this level of accuracy and reliability is required to give Financial Services customers confidence that their transactions are being properly handled. For MIFID II and CAT regulation, Finance Firms cannot allow the clocks that govern their transactions to vary by more than 100 microseconds and 50 milliseconds, respectively, from UTC. A highly accurate timing solution like the one outlined above is ready to be rolled out as the world moves beyond GPS to ensure continuity of service, even in the event of satellite failures.

If an activity is required to comply with regulation, but is specialized and complex in nature and not part of the core skill set of employees of the business, it is often better to acquire it as a service, rather than do it yourself. Traceable timing is an example of such a service.

If a company decides to do it for themselves, they need to install, integrate and manage grandmaster clocks and satellite antenna wherever traceable timing is required. This can be a lengthy project, and even when it is complete, it is not something that you can, “install and forget.” Clocks drift and need regular correction, so when you decide to handle traceable timing for yourself, you take on a burden of permanent monitoring.

If, however, you outsource to a software timing solution then there are no clocks to buy and maintain and no satellite antenna to install. Hoptroff monitors the clocks, makes the corrections, and maintains connections to the primary time source for you, often using your existing connectivity setup. This means the service costs is less to operate, it is more resilient than a satellite fed system and will release important staff resources to go back to working on the core business instead of focusing on compliance. Depending on the distribution of data centres and numbers of servers, customers can save up to 50% on the costs of installing and maintaining their own physical installation by employing a resilient software system such as this.

For Financial Services, timing is an essential part of their IT infrastructure and accuracy and reliability should be top concerns so that any audit trail can be reconstructed reliably. This is not just for regulators, but for insights into the efficiency of the system itself. Resilient timing is moving up the agenda both of governments and the private sector and innovators in timing are now ready to offer reliable and cost effective solutions which make it easier and cheaper to acquire than in the recent past.”

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