The Xairos Time Appliance (XTA)

Facebook likes time: A giant leap forward for the time and synchronization industry

By Tanya Ramond, MBA PhD

In August 2021, Facebook announced the release of its Time Appliance, a PCIe card that accesses master time from GPS, preserves that time accuracy by means of its miniaturized atomic clock and distributes the time via NTP.  This turns any computer server into a time reference source without dependence on internet connectivity.  It also allows multiple computers in a network to be synchronized together with nanosecond accuracy. 

The Facebook Time Appliance advances the performance of time appliances from the millisecond range into the microsecond PTP distribution, and nanosecond time resolution.  While this sounds impressive on its own—and it is—what is monumental is the fact that the entire design for this Time Appliance is open source.  The full design and blueprints can be found online, and anyone who can populate a PCB can make their own for less than $2k.  This moves the time appliance hardware into the realm of the affordable for countless new users, democratizing the time server. 

This was arguably the biggest leap forward in computing in a decade.  Why?  Facebook’s motivations for open sourcing this hardware were multiple.  They claim that the decision to open source was to ‘set the industry free from vendor lock’.  Current time and synch hardware is proprietary, which makes it difficult to keep up with upgrades.  If a component is faulty, the part must be shipped back to the vendor for repair, or else replaced.  Addressing security concerns is difficult or impossible to do.  Closed source 20 year old code is a security risk, which is a big concern for database managers.  With an open source approach, security concerns can be addressed right away.  The time and synch industry has remained ‘unchanged for the last 20-25 years and it was time to move it forward.

Facebook started the Time Appliance Project in March 2020.  This is an open community led by engineers at Facebook and NVIDIA, with project leads hailing from heavy-hitting companies such as Broadcom, Equinix, Nokia, Seagate, Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Intel.  The purpose is to ‘provide a platform to bring together, discuss, standardize and share technologies and solutions across industries with the datacenter applications and datacenter network infrastructure as the main interest… to enable datacenter time-sensitive applications such as consistency in distributed systems, edge computing, AR/VR and IoT’. In short, however, the upshot will be opening up new markets based on more, better, and more accessible timing solutions. 

There are multiple use cases that open up.  These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Database performance efficiency:  Better timing in distributed databases means that less computational overhead is required to compensate for timing uncertainty.  A recent blog post from NVIDIA cites that ‘making the timekeeping 80x more precise (making any time discrepancies 80x smaller) made a distributed database run 3x faster — an incredible performance boost on the same server hardware, just from keeping more accurate and more reliable time.’
  • Autonomous vehicles:  Autonomous vehicles have a multitude of sensors where data ingest over all sensor streams, synthesis, and processing must be done at a minimum of latency and high precision. 
  • Gaming:  What teenage (or older) kid would not salivate over eliminating time lag on pulling the trigger and being the first to conquer [insert otherworldly beast name here]? 
  • 5G:  Delivering the Gigabit/sec data bandwidths and fast internet connectivity that 5G promises relies on precise timing solutions

Xairos is uniquely positioned within this ecosystem to ride this new wave of market expansion.  Xairos offers its own Timing Appliance (Xairos Timing Appliance or XTA) that in principle operates the same way as the Facebook Time Appliance, but with unsurpassed accuracy and security.  Because the XTA transfers time independent of GPS, it is not spoofable like current GPS-based methods.  And the XTA uses quantum-based optical methods which unlock 1000x better time transfer accuracy than GPS.  All delivered via a satellite-based platform to deliver the geographic reach global users require.

XTA uses quantum-based optical methods which unlock 1000x better time transfer accuracy than GPS