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Precise Time – A Data Centre Utility

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Endace suggests the Commission should require any of these venues that offer co-location services to make GPS timing signals available to users of the venues at a “reasonable cost”.

This has already been advocated in an article I wrote for Equinix’s Winter 2010/2011 Newsletter. If you missed it first time around, here’s a ‘reprint’:

We’ve all heard about the “cost of a microsecond” and the “latency arms race”. The relentless increase in price and transaction data rates in electronic trading, and the drive to remain competitive, are forcing financial markets participants to invest in the latest technology to support spiralling bandwidth requirements and to drive down data flow latency. This has in turn given birth to a whole new industry in latency monitoring solutions, based on the premise that in order to manage something, you have to be able to measure it.

This evolution has now played out to the point where traditional measurement techniques are no longer sufficiently accurate. The latency of hardware and software components used in trading systems is typically quoted in microseconds. Measurement solutions must therefore have resolution and accuracy in the sub-microsecond realm. At TS-Associates we call this field Precision Instrumentation.

The foundation of Precision Instrumentation is precise time keeping. This means having access to an accurate reference clock and a means of distributing time synchronisation. The traditional network-based time synchronisation protocol NTP is no longer suitable. Better solutions such as PTP or various analogue signalling techniques are able to provide the necessary accuracy.

The universal reference clock in common use is GPS time. Each GPS satellite has an onboard atomic clock that provides a stable and precise time reference. However, access to GPS time requires that a GPS antenna be positioned with line of sight to GPS satellites – usually on the roof of a data centre facility. In any multi-tenant facility that permits cable routes to the roof, you will find many GPS antennae, one or more for each tenant. This approach is obviously neither scalable nor cost effective, and indeed problematic for some buildings.

Data centres are in the business of providing the essential utilities – space, power, cooling and connectivity. We propose that the next service to drop into the essential utility layer will be access to a precise time reference.

Henry Young is CEO of TS-Associates.

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