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NTP Servers Which Signal is Best Radio or GPS?

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) are an essential aspect of any computer or technology network. So many applications require accurate timing information that failing to synchronize a network adequately and precisely can lead to all sorts of errors and problems – especially when communicating with other networks.

Accuracy, when it comes to time synchronization, means only one thing – atomic clocks. No other method of keeping time is as accurate or reliable as an atomic clock. In comparison to an electronic clock, such as a digital watch, which will lose up to a second a day – an atomic clock will remain accurate to a second over 100,000 years.

Atomic clocks are not something that can be housed in an average server room though; atomic clocks are very expensive, fragile and require full time technicians to control so are usually only found in large scale physics laboratories such as the ones run by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time – USA) and NPL (National Physical Laboratory – UK).

Getting a source of accurate time from an atomic clock is relatively easy. For a secure and reliable source of atomic clock time there are only two options (the internet can neither be described as secure nor reliable as a source of time):

  • GPS time
  • UTC time broadcast on long-wave

GPS time, from the USA’s Global Positioning System, is a time stamp generated onboard the atomic clocks on the satellites. There is one distinct advantage about using GPS as a source of time: it is available anywhere on the planet.

All that is required to receive and utilise GPS time is a GPS time sever and antenna; a good clear view of the sky is also needed for an assured signal. Whilst not strictly UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) being broadcast by GPS (UTC has had 17 leap seconds added to it since the satellites were launched) the timestamp included the information needed for NTP to convert it to the universal time standard.

UTC, however, is broadcast directly from physics laboratories and is available by using a radio referenced NTP server. These signals are not available everywhere but in the USA (the signal is known as WWVB) and most of Europe (MSF and DCF) are covered. These too are highly accurate atomic clock generated time sources and as both methods come from a secure source the computer network will remain secure.

The Worlds Atomic Clock Timekeepers

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

When you set your watch to perhaps the speaking clock or the time on the internet, have you ever wondered who it is that sets those clocks and checks that they are accurate?

There is no single master clock used for the world’s timing but there are a constellation of clocks that are used as a basis for a universal timing system known as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

UTC enables all the world’s computer networks and other technology to talk to each other in perfect synchronicity which is vital in the modern world of internet trading and global communication.

But as mentioned controlling UTC is not down to one master clock, instead, a serious of highly precise atomic clocks based in different countries all work together to produce a timing source that is based on the time told by them all.

These UTC timekeepers include such notable organisations as the USA’s National Institute of Standards and Time (NIST) and the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) amongst others.

These organisations don’t just help ensure UTC is as accurate as possible but they also provide a source of UTC time available to the world’s computer networks and technologies.

To receive the time from these organisations, a NTP time server (Network Time Server) is required. These devices receive the broadcasts from places like NIST and NPL via long wave radio transmissions. The NTP server then distributes the timing signal across a network, adjusting individual system clocks to ensure that they are as accurate to UTC as possible.

A single dedicated NTP server can synchronize a computer network of hundreds and even thousands of machines and the accuracy of a network relying in UTC time from the broadcasts by NIST and NPL will also be highly precise.

The NIST timing signal is known as WWVB and is broadcast from Boulder Colorado in the heart of the USA whilst the UK’s NPL signal is broadcast in Cumbria in the North of England and is known as MSF – other countries have similar systems including the DSF signal broadcast out of Frankfurt, Germany.

European Time Synchronisation with DCF-77

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

The DCF 77 signal is a long wave transmission broadcast at 77 KHz from Frankfurt in Germany. DCF -77 is transmitted by Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, the German national physics laboratory.

DCF-77 is an accurate source of UTC time and is generated by atomic clocks that ensure its precision. DCF-77 is a useful source of time that can be adopted all over Europe by technologies needing an accurate time reference.

Radio controlled clocks and network time servers receive the time signal and in the case of time servers distribute this time signal across a computer network. Most computer network use NTP to distribute the DCF 77 time signal.

There are advantages of using a signal like DCF for time synchronisation. DCF is long wave and is therefore susceptible to interference from other electrical devices but they can penetrate buildings that give the DCF signal an advantage over that other source of UTC time generally available – GPS (Global Positioning System) – which requires a open view of the sky to receive satellite transmissions.

Other long wave radio signals are available in other countries that are similar to DCF-77. In the UK the MSF -60 signal is broadcast by NPL (National Physical Laboratory) from Cumbria while in the USA, NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) transmit the WVBB signal from Boulder, Colorado.

NTP time servers are an efficient method of receiving these long wave transmissions and then using the time code as a synchronisation source. NTP servers can receive DCF, MSF and WVBB as well as many of them also being able to receive the GPS signal too.