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Timing is everything: the far reaching potential of a National Timing Centre

(Image credit: Image Credit: Still Life Photography / Shutterstock)

The move to establish a National Timing Centre sends a strong message. The need for highly accurate timing is being felt across sectors, from Financial Services to Data Protection to Media. It shows this critical component of our national infrastructure is being taken seriously both by those in government and the private sector. This project is brings the UK closer to having the resilient timing network upon which a growing number of industry sectors rely.

Why companies need to go beyond standard Network Time Protocol (NTP)

Highly accurate timing in Financial Services is already the law in the UK and the US with MIFID II and CAT regulations, and the rest of the world looks set to follow suit. The introduction of traceable time stamps and the verification and authentication they can bring, mean Time as a Service is becoming a global consideration.

Most computer applications use the Network Time Protocol (NTP) to get time from internet sources, but this is no longer really an option. When implemented as an internet time service, NTP is generally only accurate to around 50 milliseconds.  These days, computers can execute thousands of transactions within that time: examples include Real Time Bidding (RTB) in digital advertising, synchronisation in IP Media streaming and trading in financial services.   As networks and applications get faster, clocks need to keep pace.  Otherwise everything will look like it happened at once, and causality will be lost.

Second, unless there is an unbroken chain of comparisons direct to a Stratum Zero time source (such as NPL, RISE or NIST), it is not possible to prove that timestamps are correct. Timestamps are the ideal way to settle disputes, but if you cannot rely on them as reference data because they do not have the unbroken chain of comparisons back to the trusted source, then the dispute needs to be settled in the absence of proof. 

Traceable time as a service addresses both of these problems; it can deliver accuracy levels of microseconds at the application level in a server, and because it is derived from a Stratum Zero trusted time source, it can provide full traceability on all time stamps.

Why the decision to establish the National Timing Centre is a vital move for the use of timing in different sectors

If government don’t invest in resilient timing infrastructure, we leave ourselves vulnerable to being dependent on other countries’ technologies and design decisions.  Satellite navigation services might become chargeable on a political whim, or withdrawn completely.  And they are dependent on a single technology which is susceptible to jamming, spoofing and space weather.

As more sectors lean on the digital world efforts must be made to ensure our national infrastructure can be independently resilient in case of security breaches, shifting geopolitical dynamics or technical failures. A National Timing Centre that is secure and resilient helps mitigate the dangers of integration and allows many sectors to benefit from incorporating accurate time that can be relied upon.

Why the financial industry can’t afford to rely on GPS alone

For today’s precision timing we need more than just one source. An accurate synchronised timing system requires a connection to a source of Universal Time (UTC) to acquire an accurate signal (usually via GPS) the installation of a Grandmaster clock (GMC) within a datacentre to synchronise with (UTC) and software on the servers to synchronise the local server clock with the GMC timing feed.  Multiple sources of UTC and multiple GMC will improve the resilience and the potential traceability of the system. By creating mutually resilient cloud timing hubs, consisting of three GMCs each connected to three different sources of UTC (a mix of GPS, Glonass, Galileo, BeiDou satellite systems and a terrestrial feed from RISE)  to create a far more resilient source of accurate traceable time.  For the UK to remain the world leader in financial services, it needs a level of timing accuracy and reliability that should reassure Financial Services that their transactions are being properly handled.

The benefits of traceable timing for regulation compliance

If all the devices in a distributed process don’t share the same time to sufficient accuracy, then the records they produce will put events in the wrong sequence and with incorrect intervals. Not only does this compromise the ability of the records to be used to reconstruct events to confirm outcomes or support customer or regulator audits, it undermines the reporting of causality, because when events are transposed in the record, effect can be presented as coming before cause. Clocks can easily drift, creating chasms of doubt in the data. Particularly in financial services, where thousands of transactions take place every second, the results of unsynchronised clocks can be chaotic. A transaction can appear to arrive at the recipient before it left the sender, two parties may disagree over the timeline of events and disputes cannot be easily resolved. This is the problem MIFID II and CAT seek to solve in Financial Services.

As recording data becomes more important to compliance and regulation, so does trust. Being confident that our time is correct and being able to prove it to others is important when virtual events have physical impacts for which someone must be held accountable. Highly accurate timing can be utilised to great effect to help enforce data protection regulation, like GDPR and PECR. When an action is applied to an individual’s personal data, such as sharing it with a third party, a timestamp (that is verifiable back down a chain of comparisons to UTC) can be attached and the event tracked. By creating a verifiable record of how personal data has been used, data protection can be better enforced. 

The establishment of a National Timing Centre is a bold step in the right direction for UK infrastructure. The potential of highly accurate timing to benefit many sectors is being brought into the mainstream, and for those that haven’t yet recognised the importance of timing it sends a clear message that now is the time to consider how it can make your business more efficient, resilient, and precise. In the years to come the UK will need to rely on highly accurate time for many facets of modern life, from high frequency trading to streaming a sports game to protecting our data, and the National Timing Centre is a welcome move towards realising this future.

Richard Hoptroff is CTO and founder of Hoptroff

Richard Hoptroff is CTO and founder of Hoptroff.