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Symmetricom’s SyncServer S200 Raises the Bar on Accurate and Synchronised Network Time Keeping
[March 13, 2006]

Symmetricom’s SyncServer S200 Raises the Bar on Accurate and Synchronised Network Time Keeping

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The importance of time keeping can be best illustrated by many real life needs. Accurate and synchronised timing has become very crucial for areas such as I.T systems security, IP telephony and data centre operations. Networks and applications face escalating threats and vulnerabilities and for that the I.T security officer or system administrator uses log files for timely identification and responses to security or system incidents. The log files are a necessity for monitoring and enforcing corporate network and system usage policies. You probably use tools that provide real-time event monitoring, advanced correlation analysis and alerting to get comprehensive real-time security intelligence. Or you could be attempting forensics and investigative analysis while searching through archived data for off the cuff verification or attack analytics (to track the route an intruder took on your network highway by observing the chronological order of significant events recorded by your network residents). Or you could even be using custom built tools to collect and aggregate log data from your network residents (routers, switches, firewalls, IDS/IPS, AV, SPAM/Spyware, and platforms based on multiple operating systems) to fight security threats and meet regulatory compliance requirements across your IT enterprise.
For the above situations, what if each of your network residents reported sequential events based on inaccurate timing? Imagine the chaos!  For all of the above it is pivotal to keep accurate and synchronised time.
The implications are even more drastic in the voice over IP world as it could impact your financial bottom line especially when the call spans across operators, service providers, gateways and networks. Communication facilities are the lifeline of successful businesses and often the most draining expenditures. Our call detail records (CDR) and communication facility usage reports could loose their sanctity if timing on which they are based are inaccurate. Just one look at some call centre metrics such as Peak Hour Traffic (PHT), Busy Hour Traffic (BHT), Average Handling Time (AHT), Average Speed of Answer (ASA) etc. is enough to convey to us the important role time plays in all such activities. Comprehensive traffic reporting highlights the grade of service, peak hours, call volumes and these reports assist in determining whether the network is over/under utilized. These very metrics would be used to estimate the agent staffing requirements, for dimensioning trunk groups and for calculating Voice over IP (VoIP) bandwidth. Things can get really skewed if the communication systems are plagued with inaccuracies for traffic analysis or when call rerouting algorithms use time as the trigger and that time is inaccurate. Often it us much more than that; it is about revenue, billing, forecasting, monitoring, cost allocation, chargeback, billing integration, invoice management, productivity and allocating communication management expenses etc.( a seemingly endless list)  to a host of other services like unified messaging, videoconferencing, bandwidth on demand, and other real-time provisioning services.


For hospitality industry- hotels, motels, resorts, hospitals and bill back telephony environments time equates to revenue and is a steady source of profit. Time is a common denominator for billing, for exception management reports which highlight long call durations, cost and charge back call cost consolidations, service comparisons, management of misuse and abuse and network management.
All of the above discussions, this far reveals that they are all reliant, yes all of them are  reliant on one single and very important task of accurate and synchronised network time keeping. I researched the market for a simple, accurate and synchronised network time keeping solution and then decided to put the well known Symmetricom’s SyncServer S200 under the scanner. With this latest iteration Symmetricom is hoping to raise the bar on high bandwidth, accurate and synchronised time keeping feature sets.
The S200 trumpets an array of features like Stratum 1 operation via Global positioning System (GPS) satellites or Stratum 2 operation via NTP servers, nanosecond time accuracy to UTC, and supports- SSH, SSL, SCP, SNMP v1/v2/v3, Custom MIB, HTTP/SSL/HTTPS, NTP- unicast, broadcast, and multicast, SNTP v4 for -IPv4, IPv6 & OSI, SMTP Forwarding, DHCP, MD5 authentication, telnet, fully numeric keypad, high resolution vacuum fluorescent display, 3 independent 10/100Base-T Ports etc.  The S200 includes an intuitive and secure web interface access for its control and maintenance; it says S200 is IPv6/IPv4 compliant and that it can send out an email to alert you on alarms or errors. Further it promises right timing even of only a single GPS satellite is visible.  
For upgrades Symmetricom offers you Rubidium & OCXO oscillators. The S200 additionally supports IBM mainframe sysplex systems through a dedicated sysplex timer port output, which sends out serial time strings for such systems.
For ports on the SyncServer S200 you get -dual USB ports, console RS-232 port,sysplex timer-out port, GPS antenna port and three independent 10/100 Base-T Ethernet ports (they can aid in various network topology deployments. The ports are labelled as LAN 1(you run management and time protocols), LAN 2, and LAN 3 (you run time protocols).
S200 can be deployed in a basic configuration mode thanks to it’s built in 12-channel GPS receiver. It will derive its time directly from the GPS reference signal i.e. from the atomic clocks of the visible GPS satellites. What happens if you are unable to track a GPS satellite i.e. if no satellites are visible? There is no need to panic as Symmetricom engineers have perfectly understood our continuous need for accurate and reliable time keeping. They have incorporated options like- when you are unable to track satellites then you go to Stratum 2 mode and retrieve time from other designated network time servers. Or you upgrade the S200 with an internal rubidium atomic oscillator and then you get to deploy a resilient configuration for improved holdover performance. If you need a redundant, resilient and secure configuration then you can incorporate a rubidium oscillator in the primary server and introduce peering to another server for backup redundancy. These techniques ensure that your network resident’s time clients always have a reliable time source.
The S200 appliance package includes- a GPS antenna, antenna mounting mast and clamps, coax cable, power cord, rack mount kit, SymmTime NTP client for MS windows, serial and ethernet port connection cables, the S200’s enterprise MIB software etc. It has everything to get you started. It is now time to put the SyncServer S200 through its paces.
Operational Testing
To the 1U rack mounted S200’s Ethernet LAN 1 port I connected a test PC and to the GPS antenna port the RF cable. I then sent the RF cable up to a GPS antenna on the mast (so that the S200 can see the GPS satellites).  Powering on, the multi-line vacuum fluorescent display immediately sprang to life displaying all the start-up tasks attempted by the appliance (starting sync server, POST, loading OS etc). The front panel tri colour LEDS for sync, network, NTP and alarm score very high as visual indicators. At a glance you get to see the current status of the network time server (e.g. when the sync LED is red the unit is not synchronised to a time reference and the stratum is 16; when it is orange the time reference is a remote NTP server; when it is green then the time reference is the GPS and the stratum is 1.) The keypad gives you the ability to scroll and check things out instantaneously. I used the menu key for some quick and minimal required configuration settings like - LAN 1 port IP parameters, display brightness level etc.The unit’s quick start guide is designed to get you up and running in a jiffy. Using the keypad I setup the desired Ethernet IP parameters for LAN1 port and then through the PC browser accessed the unit.
The moment you type the S200’s IP address you get a graphic login page with user configurable monitoring dashboard of system information (e.g. NTP status, hardware clock status, GPS receiver status and satellite Count, Highest Severity Alarm, Version Information and Uptime, IP Addresses for all Configured LAN Ports) . 
Further as I got into the system I saw on the left hand side various buttons labelled as -status, network, NTP, timing, system, admin, services, logs wizards and help. Clicking on these I could drill down further to customise the S200 to suit my specific needs and requirements.
Under the timing tab you will find it noteworthy for the three modes it supports–survey mode (the normal mode and on survey completion it goes into the Position Hold mode) or the dynamic mode (the GPS receiver updates its position continuously) or the Position Hold mode (you can enter the best known GPS position and put the receiver in this mode). Indeed this mode is useful to get your time from fewer GPS satellites.
I used the SymmTime NTP software (MS windows based client) accompanying the S200 to carry out the client time synchronization tests. The user guide is so very comprehensive that even a novice can read and install the unit.  Symmetricom has made configuration backup and restore tasks easy and simple (plug in a compatible USB flash drive into the front panel USB port and then it is just a few clicks on the keypad).  
I subjected the unit to an assortment of functional tests. S200 is definitely packed with features. By the time I finished the testing I was impressed by its ease of use and installation thanks to its intuitive keypad/display and the web user interface combination.
It is good to remember that accurate and synchronised network time keeping is clearly one very important piece of the I.T communications and security landscape.  On their own your network residents may not keep accurate and synchronised time  but you can enforce accurate and synchronised time keeping by pointing them towards an appliance such as the S200.      
I would like to see a provision for locking the front panel keypad after use to prevent unauthorized access.  
The Symmetricom’s SyncServer S200 is a “Fit it! Set it! Forget it unit!”  Symmetricom makes accurate network time keeping easy; it is easy with the SyncServer S200 as it takes the pain out of network time keeping
Biju Oommen is a Telecommunications & Networking Solutions Consultant with a special focus on enterprise products and solutions.

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