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In the past, enterprise admins relied on NTP and Microsoft Active Directory (AD), but vendors of time-sensitive applications called for better solutions. Highly time-sensitive environments, such as financial institutions, needed a solution for more precise time-keeping.
Precision Time for Windows overview
Microsoft's native time synchronization service for Windows is w32Time with built-in support for NTP. However, it was mostly developed for syncing host clocks in an AD domain to support authentication protocols. W32Time's architecture is plugin-based.
You can register one or more DLL as time providers. One of the providers is NTPClient, which is available by default for time synchronization with NTP servers. If there are multiple providers present, W32Time chooses which one to use by comparing their accuracy and reliability.
The diagram below gives an overview of the architecture of VMware Precision Time.
The Precision Clock device receives time from the hypervisor core, the VMkernel, via a dedicated internal channel. A Precision Clock device is a virtual clock device that provides a virtual machine with access to the system time of the primary ESXi host.
VMware Time Provider details
VMware has worked on the problem and introduced VMware Time Provider (vmwTimeProvider), which is a new W32Time plugin bundled within VMware tools for Windows VMs. It is able to provide time from a new virtual device, called the precision clock virtual device, to W32Time.
The virtual device was introduced with vSphere 7.0 Update 2 and allows the VM to access the system time on the ESXi host.
The device bypasses the virtual and guest networking stack and uses a dedicated VM Hypervisor proprietary paravirtual channel, reliable synchronization accuracy.
Note: VMware does not recommend configuring your domain controllers as Precision Time Protocol (PTP) clients, as DCs usually rely on NTP, and it's fine.
Enable PTP in a Windows VM
The process is pretty easy but will need some downtime. You'll have to power down your VM first. Then click Add new device > Precision clock.
The VM's hardware compatibility level must be at least VM Version 17 or higher, so if you have just upgraded from vSphere 6.7 or migrated this VM from elsewhere, you'll need to upgrade the VM's virtual hardware first.
In our case, we're running vSphere 7.0 Update 2 with default VM compatibility, which is VM version 19. The VM has the latest virtual hardware.
When done, you have to configure it so that the VM will use the ESXi host for time sync.
Enable vmwTimeProvider plugin
To activate the vmwTimeProvider plugin, select the VMware Time Provider component in the VMware Tools installer setup during installation/upgrade. This component is deselected by default. So be sure to select this component.
Next, you have to reboot the VM.
Enable PTP protocol for ESXi host
Yes, you can also enable the PTP protocol for the ESXi host itself. The process is simple. You just select your host, then select Configure > Time configuration. Be sure to disable NTP if enabled. Then click the edit button next to the PTP time configuration.
Then click Enable.
And we need to do one last step. We need to start the service on the host. You must connect to the host console (directly to the host) and start the PTP daemon there.
Go to Manage > Services > ptpd > Start.
You should be sure that the policy for the service is set to "start and stop" with the host, as shown in the screenshot below. Otherwise, the service won't start when you reboot your host.
The default NTP time services provide accurate time information to OS clients; however, the accuracy is at about the milliseconds level. If you need anything more precise because you're using a special application, then VMware Precision Time is the way to go.
VMware does a great job allowing you to do the config on a per-VM level, as usually you only need it on some specific VM(s) within your organization, not all of them.
The vmwTimeProvider receives time from the Precision Clock virtual device available in vSphere 7.0 U2 and transmits it to the W32Time side over a closed and fast channel (paravirtualization), bypassing the network stack.
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The ESXi host is usually synchronized with CMOS RTC time on the host. It is important to still configure an external NTP source for the ESXi host, as the CMOS clock can drift.
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