u-blox timing technology to speed up Facebook's data centres

Monday, 18 October, 2021 | Supplied by: u-blox Singapore Pte Ltd

u-blox, a global provider of positioning and wireless communication technologies and services, has announced that Facebook has chosen the u-blox ZED-F9T global navigation satellite system (GNSS) receiver module for its timekeeping solution.

By improving the synchronisation of networked computers, Facebook’s Time Card can significantly speed up the performance of the company’s data centres and distributed databases. Furthermore, by open-sourcing its designs, Facebook has bolstered the adoption of timing solutions based on u-blox technology. These solutions can easily be adopted by other industries requiring nanosecond-level timing, such as 5G cellular networks or smart power grids.

Facebook set out to create a precise timing solution that reduces the computational overhead required when synchronising the timing between different computers in a network. The company used a u-blox ZED-F9T multi-band GNSS receiver to sync up its solution with the atomic clocks onboard dozens of orbiting GNSS satellites. To bridge possible gaps in GNSS coverage and keep clock drift to a minimum, the Time Card also contains a backup source of timing: a miniaturised atomic clock that is continuously synchronised with GNSS time.

Easy access to nanosecond-level timing accuracy — based on the u-blox RCB-F9T timing board, which hosts the u-blox ZED-F9T GNSS receiver — opens avenues in industry segments that rely on highly synchronised signals, such as 5G network base stations that require tighter synchronisation than those of previous generations. Furthermore, as power distribution networks become more complex to accommodate a growing share of decentralised renewable energy, they are becoming more reliant on accurate timing solutions. Finally, following Facebook’s example, data centres and computer networks will be able to modernise infrastructure management to speed up performance and reduce latencies.

To maximise the impact of the solution, Facebook decided to open-source the design of its Time Card, which fits onto a PCIe form factor. As a result, anyone with experience working with microelectronics can turn any PC built on an x86 architecture and featuring a network interface controller into a nanosecond-level-accurate timing and synchronisation solution. Facebook has shared the GitHub repository including the specs, the schematics, the mechanics, the bill of materials and the source code in partnership with the Open Compute Project (OCP) under the Time Appliance Project (TAP).

Image caption: The Facebook Time Card.

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