Time-as-a-Service: How is time revolutionising business?
Business Management

Time-as-a-Service: How is time revolutionising business?

This is a contributed article by Simon Kenny, CEO, HopTroff London


"There's no clock in the forest." Orlando's rebuke to Rosalind in William Shakespeare's As You Like It signals to the young woman that the woodland residents among whom she finds herself perceive time differently to their courtly counterparts, for whom it constitutes a strict regulatory framework.

Orlando's words continue to ring true today. Our lives are silently governed by an implicit awareness of the passing of time, often down to the minute or even second. We know when we need to leave the house to catch the train that gets us into work on time, and how long we need to keep a teabag in the cup to get exactly the right shade. We all maintain internal clocks that keep us, more or less, in the right place, doing the right things at the right time.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for computers, whose internal clocks can often be inaccurate relative to their speed of execution, which can make it very difficult to work out whether they've done the right things at the right time - or if they've even done them at all.

Misalignment of computer clocks is a major and growing issue in a range of sectors, including financial services, broadcasting, and the betting industry, where many routine processes are automated in distributed systems, and huge numbers of transactions take place over very short intervals. If the computers running these processes aren't aligned to the same time, it can be extremely difficult to work out the order in which events took place and establish their causal relationships.

Take currency trading; if computer A trades with computer B, and computer A's clock has drifted one microsecond fast, while computer B's time is a microsecond slow, and the process takes one microsecond to complete, the timestamp record for the whole transaction will show computer B acting before computer A when the reverse was true.

 It may seem insignificant, but when computers with misaligned clocks are running millions of automated trades with each other every day, it's not hard to see how transaction records can become chaotic. If computer A belongs to bank A, and computer B belongs to bank B, the organisations could disagree about when trades took place, whether they were executed correctly, and even whether they happened at all.

That's an issue both for the customers of the companies who operate these systems, and for the regulatory bodies overseeing the sector. Without the ability to verify the order in which transactions take place, it's impossible to establish responsibility.

For this reason, financial regulators in the US and EU have introduced the CAT and MiFID II respectively, to ensure transactions are recorded in a coherent sequence with traceable timestamps. These regulations require market participants to synchronise the clocks on their trading servers with universal time to a level of accuracy that will give every computer decision a unique timestamp, so that processes can be accurately reconstructed after an event from the machine records.

More broadly, in the EU, GDPR means that companies must be able to justify why they have any individual's personal data and, if requested, explain how an automated system used it to arrive at a decision that might affect the individual concerned. Without reliably timestamped transaction logs, retrieving this information can be a difficult and expensive task.

So how can organisations ensure that their computer systems are synchronised with traceable timing? An in-house solution is one option, but it can be prohibitively expensive for many companies: traceable timing requires either three grandmaster clocks, or a resilient connection to a primary UTC source, (neither of which is cheap, or easy to implement and maintain) at every location where servers need to be synchronized.

A cost-effective alternative to installing clocks everywhere is to connect to a traceable cloud timing feed. By linking grandmaster clocks to multiple primary UTC sources in a timing hub, cloud timing providers can syndicate highly accurate time to servers in any data centre in the world via low-latency fiber cables.  This service ensures CAT, MiFID II and GDPR compliance without the need to install additional timing hardware.

Synchronisation software then adjusts the clock on the server to match the time feed, measures the internal latency and creates timing logs, which are then stored in the cloud. The service treats issues inside each machine independently, instead of assuming that timing will remain accurate no matter the workload that the machine is running. Maintenance requirements are minimal, as providers run the entire process as a managed service.

By making it possible to clearly establish causal relationships between events from transaction records within minimal new infrastructure, Traceable Time as a Service (TTaaS) makes it possible for companies to both comply with regulators and extract meaningful latency insights from operational records.

For financial services companies, this may mean fine-tuning algorithms to ensure more profitable trading activity. Elsewhere, as broadcasters begin transitioning to internet protocol distribution, where ensuring accurate and traceable timing globally will be critical, TTaaS would provide a cost-effective and reliable way of ensuring synchronised timing of broadcast feeds around the world.   

The difficulties and expense of implementing on-premise time synchronisation solutions have proven to be a barrier to widespread adoption so far. However, with TTaaS emerging as a low-maintenance, cost-effective, resilient, and compliant alternative to hardware, it appears that the times are set to change for businesses all over the world.

Simon Kenny is CEO of Hoptroff London. A media industry veteran, Kenny worked as an advertising executive at Young & Rubicam and an Executive VP at both Walt Disney International TV and Warner Bros International TV, before becoming the President of Digital Distribution at Warner Bros in Los Angeles in 2006. His experience covers all aspects of TV content distribution (including advertising barter), Satellite Channel development and operation, plus new digital models such as SVOD, YouTube MCNs and digital streaming platforms.


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