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The Body Clock Natures Own NTP Server

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

Developing new methods of telling the time accurately and precisely has developed to a new obsession amongst chronologists in the twenty first century. Since the development of the first atomic clocks in the 1950’s with millisecond accuracy the race was started with organisation such as the US’s NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) and the UK’s NPL (National Physical Laboratory) developing increasingly accurate atomic clocks.

Atomic clocks are used as the time source for high technologies and applications such as satellite navigation and air traffic control, they are also the source for time signals used by NTP servers to synchronise computer networks.

An NTP server works by continually adjusting the computers system clock to ensure it matches the time relayed by the atomic clock. In doing this the NTP server can keep a computer network to within a few milliseconds of atomic clock controlled UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

However, as remarkable this technology may seem it appears Mother Nature has already been doing the very same thing with our own body clocks.

The human body clock is only just being understood by medical science (the study of which is called Chronobiology) but what is known is that the body clock extremely important in the functioning of our day to day lives; it is also highly accurate and works in a very similar way to the NTP server.

Whilst a NTP time server receives a time signal from an atomic clock and adjust the system clocks on computers to match, our body clocks do the very same thing. The body clock runs in a circadian rhythm in other words a 24 hour clock. When the sun rises in the morning part of the brain that governs the body clock called the suprachiasmatic nucleus – which is located in the brain’s hypothalamus, automatically corrects for the sun’s movement.

In this way the human body clock adjusts for the darker winters and lighter months of the summer which is why you may find it more difficult to wake in the winter. The body clock adjusts itself every day to ensure it is synchronised to the rotation of the sun just as a NTP time server synchronises a computer’s system clock to ensure it is running accurately  to its timing source – the atomic clock.

Common Network Time Synchronisation (NTP) Server Errors (Part 2)

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Radio signal goes dead for several hours

The long wave transmissions such as MSF (NPL) or WWVB (NIST) are broadcast from large antennas that often need maintenance. This often requires a shut down of the broadcast while it is being done. These outages are normally posted with at least three months notice on the websites of the signals controllers (and can be automatically emailed if you register) to give prior notice.

These outages only tend to last a few hours leaving your computer network reliant on the electronic system clocks but it is doubtful there will be too much drift in that time (and any drift will be accounted for once the signal is back on. If these outages could be a potential problem than a simple solution is to invest in a dual system that will receive both GPS time server and radio signals ensuring a continuous time signal.

No time signal coming in despite the time server being powered up

This is most often caused by either lack of power going to the antenna or failing to connect to site the antenna where it can have a clear view of the sky. GPS antennas may have battery or power connections so it is always worth checking before switching the device on. Ensuring the antenna can ‘view’ the satellites when using GPS time servers is also important, remembering that windows and skylights may prevent signals getting through.

When using radio time reference such as MSF, DCF or WWVB the NTP server antennas can receive the long wave signal indoors but they are vulnerable to topography and local interference. If there is no signal or only a weak signal then try moving the antenna around until the signal strength increases enough.

Often users of these time and frequency signals find that the signal is weak throughout the day but is boosted at night. This is because the signals are ground state but have a residual skywave which can bounce of the ionosphere during the coolness of the night (ionospheric propagation).

Some users of these signals may find that despite being well within range the local topography can prevent a strong enough signal from getting through.

Common Network Time Synchronisation (NTP) Server Errors (Part 1)

Monday, March 9th, 2009

NTP servers are the easiest, most accurate and secure method of receiving a UTC time source (Coordinated Universal Time). Most dedicated NTP time servers will run in the background automatically synchronising the devices on a network completely automatically.

However, there are some common problems that occasionally occur in using a network time server but fortunately most can be solved relatively easily.

Losing A GPS time signal

GPS is one of the most efficient sources of UTC time. The GPS signal is available literally anywhere on the planet where there is a clear view of the sky. At any one time there are at least three satellites within range of any location and unlike radio referenced transmissions there are no maintenance outages so the signal is always uninterrupted.

However, some people find that they keep losing their GPS signal when using a GPS NTP time server. Very rarely this can be caused by extra terrestrial occurrences (solar flares – not little green men), however more commonly signal loss occurs when there has been insufficient time give for the initial acquisition lock.

To ensure a continuous signal make sure you follow manufacturer’s recommendation for obtaining acquisition. This usually means leaving the GPS time server to get a good lock for at least 24 hours (so all satellites have been in view). If not enough time is given to this then it is possible the GPS time server will lose a satellite and therefore timing information.

One second delay in a radio clock compared to internet or GPS

This is a very frequent occurrence when using a radio time server using signals such as the MSF transmission broadcast by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory. This occurs normally after the insertion of a Leap Second. Leap seconds are introduced once or twice a year to compensate for the slowing of the Earth’s rotation and to keep UTC in line with the Greenwich Meridian.
While NTP will automatically account for leap seconds with signals like the MSF it can often take some time as there is no Leap Second announcement. This announcement normally allows NTP to prepare for the leap second (which normally occurs in the last second of the last day in June or December). As signals such as MSF do not announce the upcoming leap second it can take some time for it to be accounted for. In some cases it can take a few days in others minutes. A simple solution is to manually announce the leap second.

However, if this is not done, NTP will eventually discover the leap second and adjust the network clocks.

Contiued……

Atomic Clocks and the GPS Time Server

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Atomic clocks have been around since the 1950’s when NPL (National Physical Laboratory) in the UK developed the first reliable caesium based clock. Before atomic clocks, electronic clocks were the most accurate method of keeping track of time but while an electrical clock may lose a second in every week or so, a modern atomic clock will not lose a single second in hundreds of millions of years.

Atomic clocks are not just used to keep track of time. The atomic clock is an integral part of the GPS system (Global Positioning System) as each GPs satellite has its own onboard atomic clock that generates a time signal that is picked up by GPS receivers who can calculate their position by using the precise signal from three or more satellites.

Atomic clocks need to be used as the signal s from the satellites travel at the speed of light and as light travels nearly 300,000 km each second any slight inaccuracy could put navigation out by miles.

A GPS time server is a network time server that uses the time signal from the GPS network’s satellites to synchronise the time on computer networks. A GPS time server often uses NTP (Network Time Protocol) as a method of distributing time which is why these devices are often referred to as NTP GPS time servers.

Computer networks that are synchronised using a dedicated time server are normally synchronised to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) and while the GPS signal is not UTC, GPS time, like UTC, is based on International Atomic Time (TAI) and is easily converted by NTP.

Useful NTP server related resources

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

NTP homepage–  The home for the NTP Project who provides support and additional development resources for the Official Reference Implementation of NTP.

NTP Project support pages

THE NTP pool – list of public servers

NPL – The National Physical Laboratory in the UK who control the MSF radio signal.

The University of Delaware and David Mills’ information page, Professor Mills is the original inventor and developer of NTP

David Mills’ list of Public NTP Time Servers a list of public NTP servers

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who operate the USA’s WWVB radio signal

Europe’s largest supplier of NTP server related products.

Galleon UK – NTP server products for the UK

NTP Time Server .com  – one of the largest time and frequency suppliers in the United States

NTP – Wikipedia article on NTP

NTP server checker – free tool to ensure time server accuracy

The NTP Server and Accurate Time

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Accurate time on a network is essential for all businesses and institutions. Without an accurately synchronised system a computer network can be vulnerable to all sorts of problems, from malicious hackers and other security threats to fraud and data loss.
Network Time Protocol is the key to keeping accurate time it is a software algorithm that has been constantly developed for over two decades. NTP takes a single time source that is received by the NTP server and distributes it across a network ensuring all machines in that network are running to exact same time.

Whilst NTP can maintain synchronisation of a network to within a few milliseconds it is only as good as the time source it receives. A dedicated NTP server will use a time signal from an external source and so keep the network secure as the firewall will not have to be disturbed.

The two preferred methods for most users of NTP servers is the GPS network (Global Positioning System) or specialist time and frequency transmissions put out be several national physics labs such as the UK’s NPL.

These time signals are UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is the world’s civil timescale. An NTP server receiving time source from either a frequency transmission or the GPS network can realistically provide accuracy to within a few milliseconds of UTC

Network time servers are preferred as a synchronisation tool rather than the much simpler internet time servers because they are far more secure. Using the internet as a basis for time information would mean using a source outside the firewall which could allow malicious users to take advantage.

Network time servers on the other hand work inside the firewall, both of these type of signals are incredibly accurate and secure with each method providing millisecond accuracy to UTC. However, there are downsides to both systems. The radio signals broadcast by nation time and frequency laboratories are susceptible to interference and locality, while the GPS signal, although available literally everywhere on the globe can occasional be lost too (often due to bad weather interfering with the line-of-sight GPS signals.

For computer networks where high levels of accuracy are imperative, dual systems are often incorporated. These dual network time servers receive the time signal from both the GPS network and the radio transmissions and select an average for even more accuracy.  However, the real advantage of using a dual system is that if one signal fails, for what ever the reason, the network will not have to rely on the inaccurate system clocks as the other method of receiving UTC time should still be operational.

Does My Business Need Accurate Time Synchronisation Five question (part 2)

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Keeping accurate time on a network with a NTP time server is highly important here is the second part of the article that explains why.

Legal protection – Whether it is a payment dispute with a supplier or customer or even a case of fraud committed against your company only an accurate method of synchronisation will be accepted as a legal defence. An NTP time server is legally auditable and can be used as evidence in a court of law.

Company Credibility:
Being victim to any of these potential hazards can have devastating effects on your own business but also that of your suppliers and customers. Once word gets out too it will soon become common knowledge amongst your competitors, customers and suppliers as news travels quickly in the business world. Keeping credibility is a good enough reason in itself to ensure a computer network is adequately synchronised.

If you have answered yes to any of the above questions then it is time your company invested in a dedicated NTP time server to accurately synchronise you computer network to.  Dedicated time servers use the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) as a method of distributing a single time source around the internet. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is the preferred time standard that most networks are synchronised to.

An NTP time server can receive a secure and accurate UTC time signal from the GPS network or from long wave radio transmissions broadcast by several national physics laboratories.

The Atomic Clock and the Network Time Server

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

The atomic clock is the culmination of mankind’s obsession of telling accurate time. Before the atomic clock and the nanosecond accuracy they, employ time scales were based on the celestial bodies.

However, thanks to the development of the atomic clock it has now been realised that even the Earth in its rotation is not as accurate a measure of time as the atomic clock as it loses or gains a fraction of a second each day.

Because of the need to have a timescale based somewhat on the Earth’s rotation (astronomy and farming being two reasons) a timescale that is kept by atomic clocks but adjusted for any slowing (or acceleration) in the Earth’s spin. This timescale is known as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) as employed across the globe ensuring commerce and trade utilise the same time.

Computer networks use network time servers to synchronise to UTC time. Many people refer to these time server devices as atomic clocks but that is inaccurate. Atomic clocks are extremely expensive and highly sensitive pieces of equipment and are only usually to be found in universities or national physics laboratories.

Fortunately national physics laboratories like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time – USA) and NPL (National Physical Laboratory – UK) broadcast the time signal from their atomic clocks. Alternatively the GPS network is another good source of accurate time as each GPS satellite has onboard its own atomic clock.

The network time server receives the time from an atomic clock and distributes it using a protocol such as NTP (Network Time Protocol) ensuring the computer network is synchronised to the same time.

Because network time servers are controlled by atomic clocks they can keep incredibly accurate time; not losing a second in hundreds if not thousands of years. This ensures that the computer network is both secure and unsusceptible to timing errors as all machines will have the exact same time.

A History of Atomic Clocks

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

The atomic clock is the culmination of mankind’s ability to keep time that has spanned several millennia. Humans have always been preoccupied with keeping track of time ever since early man noticed the regularity of the celestial bodies.

The sun, moon, stars and planets soon became the basis for out timescales with periods of time such as years, months, days and hours based solely on the regulation of the Earth’s rotation.

This worked for thousands of years as a reliable guide to how much time has past but over the last few centuries humans have strode to find even more reliable methods for keeping track of time. Whilst the Sun and celestial bodies were an affective way sundials didn’t work on cloudy days and as the days and night s altered during the year only noon (when the sun is at its highest) could be reasonably relied upon.

The first foray into an accurate timepiece that was not reliant on celestial bodies and was not a simple time (such as a candle taper or water clock) but actually told time over a prolonged period was the mechanical clock.

These first devices dating as far back as the twelfth century were crude mechanisms using a verge and foliot escapement (a gear and lever) to control the ticks of the clock. After a few centuries and a myriad of designs the mechanical clock took its next step forward with the pendulum. The pendulum gave clocks their first true accuracy as it controlled with more precision the ticks of the clock.

However, it wasn’t until the twentieth century when clocks entered the electronic age did they become truly accurate. The digital and electronic clock had its ticks controlled by using the oscillation of a quartz crystal (its changed energy state when a current is based through) which proved so accurate that rarely a second a week was lost.

The development of atomic clocks in the 1950’s used the oscillation of a single atom which generates over 9 billion ticks a second and can maintain precise time for millions of years without losing a second. These clocks now form the basis of our timescales with the entire world synchronised to them using NTP servers, ensuring wholly accurate and reliable time.

The NTP Server and Understanding Timescales

Monday, January 19th, 2009

There are several timescale used throughout the world. Most NTP servers and other network time servers use UTC as a base source however, there are others:

When we are asked the time it is very unlikely we would respond with ‘for which timescale’ yet there are several timescales used all over the globe and each is based on different methods of keeping track of the time.
GMT

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is the local time on the Greenwich meridian based on the hypothetical mean sun. As the Earth’s orbit is elliptical and its axis is tilted, the actual position of the sun against the background of stars appears a little ahead or behind the expected position. The accumulated timing error varies through the year in a smoothly periodic manner by up to 14 minutes slow in February to 16 minutes fast in November. The use of a hypothetical mean sun removes this effect. Before 1925 astronomers and navigators measured GMT from noon to noon, starting the day 12 hours later than in civil usage which was also commonly referred to as GMT. To avoid confusion astronomers agreed in 1925 to change the reference point from noon to midnight, and a few years later adopted the term Universal Time (UT) for the “new” GMT. GMT remains the legal basis of the civil time for the UK.

UT

Universal Time (UT) is mean solar time on the Greenwich meridian with 0 h UT at mean midnight, and since 1925 has replaced GMT for scientific purposes. By the mid-1950s astronomers had much evidence of fluctuations in the Earth’s rotation and decided to divide UT into three versions. Time derived directly from observations is called UT0, applying corrections for movements of the Earth’s axis, or polar motion, gives UT1, and removing periodic seasonal variations generates UT2. The differences between UT0 and UT1 are of the order of thousandths of a second. Today, only UT1 is still widely used as it provides a measure of the rotational orientation of the Earth in space..


The world time standard
(UTC):

Although TAI provides a continuous, uniform, and precise time scale for scientific reference purposes, it is not convenient for everyday use because it is not in step with the Earth’s rate of rotation. A time scale that corresponds to the alternation of day and night is much more useful, and since 1972, all broadcast time services distribute time scales based on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). UTC is an atomic time scale that is kept in agreement with Universal Time. Leap seconds are occasionally

Information courtesy of the National Physical Laboratory UK.