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You know the expression: “Time is money.” For many workloads in the capital markets space, time accuracy is money. Depending on the application and applicable regulation, financial transactions need to be traceable down to the second, millisecond, or even microsecond. Financial institutions themselves are under scrutiny to prove the validity and traceability of these transactions. At Microsoft, we want to ensure our customers are aware of time accuracy and synchronization best practices, and how you can mitigate the risk of negative impact due to time synchronization issues on Azure.
Time accuracy for a computer clock generally refers to how close the computer clock is to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the current time standard. In turn, UTC is based on International Atomic Time (TAI), a measure of time that combines the output of some 400 atomic clocks worldwide that yield approximately 1 second of deviation from mean solar time at 0° longitude. While the most precise time accuracy can be achieved by reading the time from these reference clocks themselves, it is impractical to have a GPS receiver attached to every machine in a datacenter. Instead, a network of time servers, downstream from these systems of record, are used to achieve scalability. Each computer checks its own time against these time servers and adjusts time if needed. This is time synchronization in a nutshell.
Computer clocks are susceptible to time drift that is imperceptible to most users, but can have costly consequences. The technology clocks rely on are typically either inexpensive oscillator circuits or battery backed quartz crystals that can cause seconds of drift per day which, over time, can accumulate into significant discrepancies in time. This can be mitigated using a timekeeping program that checks with external sources periodically, corrects any drift that occurs within the computer clock, and synchronizes time globally. This must be implemented by systems that are optimized for sub-second accuracy. Certain FSI applications like high-frequency trading have a very low tolerance for time drift. Regulations like MiFID II in the E.U., the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s requirements, and FINRA Regulatory Notice 16-23 ensure oversight of this potential impact to their respective markets.
Time sync is just one of the ways that Microsoft is working with customers to create more secure and compliant applications. We’ll continue to update our security and compliance offerings, so stay tuned for more information. In the meantime, check out our Azure Trust Center to learn more about our security offerings. For detailed instructions on how Microsoft supports time synchronization on Azure, check out the How-To tutorials for Windows and Linux.