Q. How often do Windows Azure VMs synchronize their internal clocks to ensure they are keeping accurate time?
A. This basic question comes up occassionally, usually when there is concern around correlating timestamps across instances, such as for log files or business events. Over time, like mechanical clocks, computer clocks can drift, with virtual machines (especially when sharing cores) effected even more. (This is not specific to Microsoft technologies; for example, it is apparently an annoying issue on Linux VMs.)
I can’t find any official stats on how much drift happens generally (though some data is out there), but the question at hand is what to do to minimize it. Specifically, on Windows Azure Virtual Machines (VMs) – including Web Role, Worker Role, and VM Role – how is this handled?
According to this Word document – which specifies the “MICROSOFT ONLINE SERVICES USE RIGHTS SUPPLEMENTAL LICENSE TERMS, MICROSOFT WINDOWS SERVER 2008 R2 (FOR USE WITH WINDOWS AZURE)” – the answer is once a week. (Note: the title above includes “Windows Server 2008 R2” – I don’t know for sure if the exact same policies apply to the older Windows Server 2008 SP2, but would guess that they do.)
Here is the full quote, in the context of which services you can expect will be running on your VM in Windows Azure:
Windows Time Service. This service synchronizes with time.windows.com once a week to provide your computer with the correct time. You can turn this feature off or choose your preferred time source within the Date and Time Control Panel applet. The connection uses standard NTP protocol.
So Windows Azure roles use the time service at time.windows.com to keep their local clocks up to snuff. This service uses the venerable Network Time Protocol (NTP), described most recently in RFC 5905.
The documentation around NTP indicates it is based on User Datagram Protocol (UDP). While Windows Azure roles do not currently support you building network services that require UDP endpoints (though you can vote up the feature request here!), the opposite is not true: Windows Azure roles are able to communicate with non-Azure services using UDP, but only within the Azure Data Center. This is how some of the key internet plumbing based on UDP still works, such as the ability to do Domain Name System (DNS) lookups, and – of course – time synchronization via NTP.
This may lead to some confusion since UDP support is currently limited, while NTP being already provided.
The document cited above mentions you can “choose your preferred time source” if you don’t want to use time.windows.com. There are other sources from which you can update the time of a computing using NTP, such as free options from National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST).
Here are the current NTP Server offerings as seen in the Control Panel on a running Windows Azure Role VM (logged in using Remote Desktop Connection). The list includes time.windows.com and four options from NIST:
Interestingly, when I manually tried changing the time on my Azure role using a Remote Desktop session, any time changes I made were immediately corrected whenever I tried to make changes. Not sure if it was doing an automatic NTP correction after any time change, but my guess is something else was going on since the advertised next time it would sync via NTP did not change based on this.
When choosing a different NTP Server, it did not always succeed (sometimes timing out), but also I did see it succeed, as in the following:
The interesting part of seeing any successful sync with time.nist.gov is that it implies UDP traffic leaving and re-entering the Windows Azure data center. This, in general, is just not allowed – all UDP traffic leaving or entering the data center is blocked (unless you use a VM Role with Windows Azure Connect). To prove this for yourself another way, configure your Azure role VM to use a DNS server which is outside of the Azure data center; all subsequent DNS resolution will fail.
If “weekly” is Not Enough
If the weekly synchronization frequency is somehow inadequate, you could write a Startup Task to adjust the frequency to, say, daily. This can be done via the Windows Registry (full details here including all the registry settings and some tools, plus there is a very focused summary here giving you just the one registry entry to tweak for most cases).
How frequently is too much? Not sure about time.windows.com, but time.nist.gov warns:
All users should ensure that their software NEVER queries a server more frequently than once every 4 seconds. Systems that exceed this rate will be refused service. In extreme cases, systems that exceed this limit may be considered as attempting a denial-of-service attack.
Of further interest, check out the NIST Time Server Status descriptions:
|time-a.nist.gov||188.8.131.52||NIST, Gaithersburg, Maryland||ntp ok, time,daytime busy, not recommended|
|time-b.nist.gov||184.108.40.206||NIST, Gaithersburg, Maryland||ntp ok, time,daytime busy, not recommended|
|time-nw.nist.gov||220.127.116.11||Microsoft, Redmond, Washington||ntp, time ok, daytime busy, not recommended|
|time.nist.gov||18.104.22.168||NCAR, Boulder, Colorado||All services busy, not recommended|
They recommend against using any of the servers, at least at the moment I grabbed these Status values from their web site. I find this amusing since – other than the default time.windows.com – these are the only four servers offered as alternatives in the User Interface of the Control Panel applet. As I mentioned above, sometimes these servers timed out on an on-demand NTP sync request I issued through the applet user interface; this may explain why.
It may be possible to use a commercial NTP service, but I don’t know if the Windows Server 2008 R2 configuration supports it (at least I did not see it in the user interface), and if there was a way to specify it (such as in the registry), I am not sure that the Windows Azure data center will allow the UDP traffic to that third-party host. (They may – I just don’t know. They do appear to allow UDP requests/responses to NIST servers. Not sure if this is a firewall/proxy rule, and if so, is it for NTP, or just NTP to NIST?)
And – for the (good kind of) hacker in you – if you want to play around with accessing an NTP service from code, check out this open source C# code.
Is this useful? Did I leave out something interesting or get something wrong? Please let me know in the comments! Think other people might be interested? Spread the word!