It’s About Time: The Financial Implications of the World’s First National Timing Centre
As the UK looks to become more self-reliant after Brexit, ensuring critical national infrastructure continues to operate efficiently is a serious consideration. One vital, yet not widely known, component of that infrastructure is time.
Modern automation and computer systems, particularly in sensitive national industries like financial services, need accurate time to function efficiently and they depend heavily on satellite systems to provide it. Simon Kenny, CEO of Hoptroff, shares his insight on the importance of time as part of modern financial infrastructure.
Satellite Navigation Systems are today’s under-acknowledged global good. Knowing where you are appears to be yesterday’s problem; whip your phone out, and you can establish where you are and find where you need to go very easily using the GPS. However, the UK does not own or control a satellite timing and location system, we rely on the systems built by others, such as the USA, Russia, and the EU, to give us time and location.
We rely on them for our vital financial services industry to accurately execute transactions. If those systems were to be suddenly unavailable either because of accident, deliberate spoofing/jamming or because the provision policy of the owners were to change, then time accuracy would be heavily disrupted in the UK and so would the performance of automated systems that need accurate time to function. Financial services rely on stable time feeds to verify thousands of transactions a second and most of those time feeds are satellite derived, so in the absence of our own UK owned and operated system, we cannot take the risk of it suddenly being unavailable. This is why the UK Government is investing in the National Timing Centre, which will develop a system for distributing time across the UK that is independent of GPS and which would enable the tracking of transactions to continue should the satellite connections be lost.
Software – the efficient, reliable solution
A pound of butter is a pound of butter; it is part of a measurement of weight that it should not change suddenly. It is fixed, but time is cumulative, it is part of its nature that it should change. So, to know what the time is, you care about the total number of seconds that have elapsed and as even tiny errors happen, they quickly become noticeable and clocks begin to disagree. To correct this disagreement the only option is to reach a consensus between national standards bodies about what the time is and then share it freely. This consensus is UTC (Universal Time), the standard to which everybody regulates their clocks.
Financial services rely on stable time feeds to verify thousands of transactions a second and most of those time feeds are satellite derived, so in the absence of our own UK owned and operated system, we cannot take the risk of it suddenly being unavailable.
The importance of highly accurate and synchronised time across different points in a distributed process was made clear at the end of last year when the Bank of England discovered early access to Bank announcements was being sold as a service. An audio feed, set up to provide a resilient back up to the video stream, was received eight seconds earlier at key co-locations than the video. Eight seconds providing a clear window in which to arbitrage any market sensitive announcement by the bank.
To effectively release sensitive market information, it is necessary not just to release the information at the same time to everyone, but to also manage the delivery of that information vis different media so that it arrives simultaneously at sensitive market venues or Co-Locations. When early access to data can be leveraged into a trading advantage, accurate synchronization of devices is required to correct the distortion and allow markets to operate transparently.
The science of real time data can only be coherent if that time consensus can be distributed ubiquitously at low cost, and at greater accuracy than the speed with which machines make decisions and take actions. If the accuracy is not good enough, or access to reference source is lost altogether, then systems will be disrupted and records of what a machine has done will be unreliable. That sweet spot is around twenty microseconds today: the time is accurate enough to measure and monitor server activity, but it can be delivered through software and existing connectivity without the need for expensive timing infrastructure to be installed. If synchronized time is to become ubiquitous, then it needs to be cost effective and easy to manage.
Software timestamping is a great solution to help financial institutions comply with MiFID II and CAT timestamping requirements not only because it is very cost effective, but because it can accept a time feed from different sources; a satellite or via a network cable feed, if the satellite becomes unavailable. It has been tested and verified that existing telecoms networks can distribute accurate time to any major data centre reliably and at scale. It is not necessary to have satellite antennae at each data centre location to connect to GPS. Resilient network connections, plus a local “Armageddon clock”, which can take over timing in the event of an interruption in connectivity, are less expensive and easier to maintain. The National Timing Centre will serve to expand the availability of a UTC time signal via multiple fibre networks, so the UK finance industry will have a cost-effective and resilient alternative to satellite available for all financial services companies.
The potential of nationally distributed timing infrastructure
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. However, if the UK finance industry had cheap, ubiquitous, accurate time coming from a reference source, then UK market participants would be able to enjoy the benefits of a unique “Time Fabric” where all timestamps, in any application, would be verified and capable of acting as reference data in any analysis. Time intervals could be used to authenticate proper execution and identify early when a process is not performing as intended. A national timing infrastructure offers the potential to improve the quality and utility of market data not just in financial services, but in any industry using automated systems that chooses to adopt it.