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Using a NTP Server in your Network

The Network Time Protocol server is used in computer networks all over the world. It keeps an entire network’s systems and devices synchronised to the same time, normally a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

But is a NTP time server a necessary requirement and can your computer network survive without one?  The short answer is perhaps yes, a computer network can survive without a NTP server but the consequences can be dramatic.

Computers are meant to make our lives easier but any network administrator will tell you they can cause an awful amount of difficulty when they inevitably go wrong and without adequate time synchronisation, identifying an error and putting it right can be nearly impossible.

Computers use the time in the form of a timestamp as the only reference they have to distinguish between two events. Whilst computers and networks will still function without adequate synchronisation they are extremely vulnerable. Not only is locating and correcting errors extremely difficult if machines are not synchronised the network will be vulnerable to malicious users and viral software that can take advantage of it.

Furthermore, failing to synchronise to UTC can cause problems if the network is to communicate with other networks that are synchronised. Any time sensitive transactions could fail and the system could be open to potential fraud or other legal implications as proving the time of a transaction could be near impossible.

NTP servers are easy to install and receive the UTC time signal from either long wave transmissions or the GPS satellite network which they then distribute amongst the network’s machines. As a dedicated NTP time server operates externally to the network firewall it does so without compromising security.

Differences in Time

We are all aware of the differences in time zones. Anybody that has travelled across the Atlantic or Pacific will feel the effects of jet lag caused by having to adjust our own internal body clocks. In some countries, such as the USA, several different time zones exist in the one country meaning there are several hours difference in time from the East Coast to the West.

This difference in time zones can cause confusion although for residents of countries that straddle more than one time zone they soon adapt to the situation. However, there are more timescales and differences in time than just time zones.

Different time standards have been developed for decades to cope with time zone differences and to allow for a single time standard that the whole world can synchronize too. Unfortunately since the first time standards were developed such as British Railway Time and Greenwich Mean Time, other standards have had to be developed to cope with different applications.

One of the problem of developing a time standard is choosing what to base it on. Traditionally, all systems of time have been developed on the rotation of the Earth (24 hours). However, following the development of atomic clocks, it was soon discovered that no two days are exactly the same length and quite often they can fall short of the expected 24 hours.

New time standards where then developed based on Atomic clocks as they proved to be far more reliable and accurate than using the Earth’s rotation as a starting point. Here is a list of some of the most common time standards in use. They are divided into two types, those that are based on Earth’s rotation and those that are based on atomic clocks:

Time standards based on Earth’s rotation
True solar time is based on the solar day – is the period between one solar noon and the next.

Sidereal time is based on the stars. A sidereal day is the time it takes Earth to make one revolution with respect to the stars (not the sun).

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) based upon when the sun is highest (noon) above the prime meridian (often called the Greenwich meridian). GMT used to be an international time standard before the advent of precise atomic clocks.

Time standards based on atomic clocks

International Atomic Time (TAI) is the international time standard from which the time standards below, including UTC, are calculated. TAI is based on a constellation of atomic clocks from all over the world.

GPS Time Also based on TAI, GPS time is the time told by atomic clocks aboard GPS satellites. Originally the same as UTC, GPS time is currently 17 seconds (precisely) behind as 17 leap seconds have been added to UTC since the satellites were launched.
Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is based on both atomic time and GMT. Additional Leap seconds are added to UTC to counter the imprecision of Earth’s rotation but the time is derived from TAI making it as accurate.

UTC is the true commercial timescale. Computer systems all over the world synchronize to UTC using NTP time servers. These dedicated devices receive the time from an atomic clock (either by GPS or specialist radio transmissions from organisations like NIST or NPL).

Does my Computer Network Need to be Synchronized to an Atomic Clock?

Time synchronization with network time protocol servers (NTP servers) is now a common consideration for network administrators, although, keeping exact time as told by an atomic clock on a computer network is often seen as unnecessary by some administrators

So what are the advantages of synchronizing to an atomic clock and is it necessary for your computer network?  Well the advantages of having accurate time synchronization are manifold but it is the disadvantages of not having it that are most important.

UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) is a global timescale that is kept accurate by a constellation of atomic clocks from all over the world. It is UTC time that NTP time servers normally synchronize too. Not just that it provides a very accurate time reference to for computer networks to synchronize too but also it is used by millions of such networks across the globe therefore synchronizing to UTC is equivalent to synchronizing a computer network to every other network on the globe.

For security reasons it is imperative that all computer networks are synchronized to a stable time source. This doesn’t have to be UTC any single time source will do unless the network conducts time sensitive transactions with other networks then UTC becomes crucial otherwise errors may occur and these can vary from emails arriving before they were despatched to loss of data.  However, as UTC is governed by atomic clocks it makes it a highly accurate and auditable source of time.

Some network administrators take the shortcut of using an internet time server as a source of UTC time, forgoing the need for a dedicated NTP device. However, there are security risks in doing such a thing. Firstly, the inbuilt security mechanism used by NTP, called authentication, which confirms a time source is where and who it claims it is, is unavailable across the internet. Secondly, internet time servers are outside the firewall which means a UDP port needs to be left open to allow the time signal traffic. This can be manipulated by malicious users or viral programs.

A dedicated NTP time server is external to the network and receives the UTC atomic clock time from with either the GPS satellite system (global positioning system) or specialist radio transmissions broadcast by national physics laboratories.

Time Synchronization Using the GPS Network

The GPS (Global Positioning System) systems has revolutionized navigation for pilots, mariners and drivers a like. Nearly every brand new car is sold with an inbuilt satellite navigation system already installed and similar detachable devices continue to sell in their millions.

Yet the GPS system is a multi purpose tool thanks mainly to the technology it employs to provide navigational information. Each GPS satellite contains an atomic clock which signal is used to triangulate positioning information.

GPS has been around since the late 1970’s but it was only in 1983 that is stopped from being purely a tool of the military and was opened up to allow free commercial access following an accidental shooting down of a passenger airliner.

To utilise the GPS system as a timing reference, a GPS clock or GPS time server is required. These devices usually rely on the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute the GPS time signal that arrives via the GPS antenna.

GPS time is not the same as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is normally used  NTP for time synchronization via radio transmissions or the internet. GPS time did originally match UTC in 1980 during its inception but sine that time there have been leap seconds added to UTC to counteract the variations of the earth’s rotation, however the on-board satellite clocks are corrected to compensate for the difference between GPS time and UTC, which is 17seconds, as of 2009.

By utilising a GPS time server an entire computer network can be synchronized to within a few milliseconds of UTC ensuring that all computers are safe, secure and able to deal effectively with time sensitive transactions.

Facts of Time

From wristwatches to atomic clocks and NTP time servers, the understanding of time has become crucial for many modern technologies such as satellite navigation and global communications.

From time dilation to the effects of gravity on time, time has many weird and wonderful facets that scientists are only beginning to understand and utilise. Here are some interesting, weird and unusual facts about time:

•    Time is not separate from space, time makes up what Einstein called four dimensional space time. Space time can be warped by gravity meaning that time slows down the greater the gravitational influence.  Thanks to atomic clocks, time on earth can be measured at each subsequent inch above the earth’s surface. That means that every bodies feet are younger than their head as time runs slower the lower to the ground you get.

•    Time is also affected by speed. The only constant in the universe is the speed of light (in a vacuum) which is always the same. Because of Einstein’s famous theories of relativity anybody travelling at close to the speed of light a journey to an observer that would have taken thousands of years would have passed within seconds. This is called time dilation.

•    There is nothing in contemporary physics that prohibits time travel both forward and backwards in time.

•    There are 86400 seconds in a day, 600,000 in a week, more than 2.6 million in a month and more than 31 million in a year. If you live to be 70 years old then you will have lived through over 5.5 billion seconds.

•    A nanosecond is a billionth of a second or roughly the time it takes for light to travel about 1 foot (30 cm).

•    A day is never 24 hours long. The earth’s rotation is speeding up gradually which means the global timescale UTC (coordinated universal time) has to have leap seconds added once or twice a year. These leap seconds are automatically accounted for in any clock synchronization that uses NTP (Network Time Protocol) such as a dedicated NTP time server.

Dealing With Time computers synchronisation and timestamps

Time is important for the smooth running of our day to day lives. Everything we do is either governed by or restrained because of time. Yet time is even more essential for computer systems as it is the only point of reference a computer has to distinguish between events and processes.

Everything a computer does is logged by the processor with what process was done and exactly when it was carried out. As computers can process hundreds if not thousands of transactions a second so the time stamp is vital for establishing the order of events.

Computers do not read and use the time in the same format that we do. A computer timestamp takes the form of a single digit that counts the number of seconds from a set point in time. In most systems this is known as the ‘prime epoch’ and is set from 00:00:00 UTC on January 1, 1970. So a timestamp for the date 23 June 2009 the timestamp would read: 1246277483 as this is the number of seconds from the prime epoch.

Computer timestamps are sent across networks and the internet, for instance every time an email is sent it is accompanied by a timestamp. When the email is replied to this too comes with a timestamp. Yet, when neither computer is synchronized the replied email could arrive back with an earlier code and this can cause untold confusion for a computer as according to its logs the email will have arrived back before the original was sent.

For this reason computer networks are synchronized to the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC is kept true by a constellation of atomic clocks which means that and computer network synchronised to a UTC source will be highly accurate.

Time synchronization on computers is dealt with by the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol). Special dedicated NTP servers are available the receive a secure time code from either the GPS network or from specialist radio transmissions broadcast by national physical laboratories and then synchronize entire networks to the single time source.

Synchronizing the Time on your Computer

Keeping accurate time is essential for many applications and dedicated NTP time servers make the job easy for network administrators. These devices receive an external time signal, often from GPS or sometimes from broadcast signals put out by organisations such as NIST, NPL and PTB (national physics labs from US, UK and Germany).

Synchronization with a NTP time server is made all the more easier thanks to NTP (network time protocol) this software protocol distributes the time source by constantly checking the time on all devices and adjusting any drift to match the time signal that is received.

Time synchronization is not just the concern of large networks. Even single machines and routers ought to be synchronised because at the very least it will help keep a system secure and make error detection a whole lot easier.

Fortunately, most versions of Windows contain a form of NTP. Often it is a simplified version but it is enough to allow a PC to be synchronized with the global time scale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). On most Windows machines this is relatively easy to do and can be achieved by double clicking on the clock icon in the task bar then selecting a time provider in the internet time tab.

These time sources are internet based meaning that they are external to the firewall so a UDP port has to be left open to allow the time signal to enter. This can cause some security issues so for those wanting perfect synchronization without any security issues then the best solution is to invest in a dedicated time server. These need not be expensive and as they receive an atomic clock time signal externally then here is no breach in the firewall leaving your network secure.

Dangers of Free Time

We are all looking for freebies, particularly in the present financial climate and the internet is not short of them. Free software, free films, free music, almost everything these days has a free version. Even critical applications for our computers and networks such as anti-virus can come free. So it is understandable that when network administrators want to synchronize the time on computer networks they turn to free sources of UTC time (UTC – Coordinated Universal Time) to synchronize their networks using the operating systems’ own inbuilt NTP server.

However, just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, free time sources come with a cost too. To start with all time servers on the internet that are available for the public to use are stratum 2 servers. This means they are devices that receive the time from another device (a stratum 1 time server) that gets it from an atomic clock. While this second hand time source shouldn’t lose too much time compared to the original, for high levels of accuracy there will be a noticeable drift.

Furthermore, internet time sources are based outside the network firewall. For access to the time server a UDP port needs to be left open. This will mean the network firewall will intrinsically have a hole in it which could be manipulated y a malicious user or aggressive malware.

Another consideration is the inbuilt security that the time transfer protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) uses to assess the time signal it receives is genuine. This is referred to as authentication but is unavailable across the internet. Meaning the time source may not be what it claims to be and with a hole in the firewall it could result in a malicious attack.

Internet time sources can also be unreliable. Many are too far from clients to provide any real accuracy some time sources available on the internet are wildly out (some by hours not just minutes). There are however, more reputable stratum 2 servers available and the NTP pool has details of those.

For real accuracy with none of the security threats the best solution is to use an external time source. The best method for doing this is to utilise a dedicated NTP server. These devices work exterior to the firewall and receive the time either direct from GPS satellites or via broadcasts by national physics labs such as NIST or NPL.

A Guide to Using a GPS Clock

The Global Positioning System much loved by drivers, pilots and sea-farers as a method of finding location offers much more than just satellite navigation information. The GPS system work by using atomic clocks that broadcast signals that are then triangulated by the computer in a satellite navigation system.

Because these atomic clocks are highly accurate and don’t drift by as much as a second even in a million years, they can be utilised as a method of synchronizing computer systems. GPS time, the time relayed by the GPS atomic clocks, is not strictly speaking the same as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), the world’s global timescale, but as they are both based on International Atomic Time it can easily be converted. (GPS time is actual 17 seconds slower than UTC as there have been 17 leap seconds added to the global timescale since the GPS satellites where sent in to orbit).

A GPS clock is a device that receives the GPS signal and then translates it into the time. Most GPS clocks are dedicated time servers too as there is little point in receiving the exact time if you are to do nothing with it. GPS time servers use the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) which is one of the internet’s oldest protocols and designed to distribute timing information across a network.

A GPS clock, or GPS time server works by receiving a signal directly from the satellite. This unfortunately means the GPS antenna has to have a clear view of the sky to receive a signal. The time is then distributed from the time server to all devices on the network. The time on each device is regularly checked by NTP and if differs to the time from the GPS clock then it is adjusted.

Setting up a GPS clock for time synchronization is relatively easy. The time server (GPS clock) are often designed to fill a 1U space on a server rack. This is connected to the GPS antenna (usually on the roof) via a length of coax cable. The server is connected to the network and once it has locked on to the GPS system it can be set to begin synchronizing the network.

What Atomic Clocks Have Done for Us

Atomic clocks, as many people know they are highly accurate devices but the atomic clock is one of the most important inventions of the last 50 years and has given rise to numerous technologies and applications that have completely revolutionised our lives.

You may think how a clock could be so important regardless of how accurate it is, however, when you consider that precision, that a modern atomic clock doesn’t lose a second in time in tens of millions of years when compared to the next best chronometers – electronic clocks – that can lose a second a day you get to realise just how accurate they are.

In fact, atomic clocks have been crucial in identifying the smaller nuances of our world and the universe. For instance we have for millennia assumed that a day is 24 hours long but in fact, thanks to atomic clock technology we now know that the length of each day slightly differs and in general the earth’s rotation is slowing down.

Atomic clocks have also been used to accurately measure the earth’s gravity and have even proved Einstein’s theories of how gravity can slow time by accurately measuring the difference in the passing of time at each subsequent inch above the earth’s surface. This has been crucial when it comes to placing satellites in orbit as time passes quicker that high above the earth than it does on the ground.

Atomic clocks also form the basis for many of the technologies that we employ in our day to day lives. Satellite navigation devices rely on atomic clocks in GPS satellites. Not only do they have to take into account the differences in time above the orbit but it as sat navs use the time sent from the satellites to triangulate positions, a one second inaccuracy would see navigational information inaccurate by thousands of miles (as light travels nearly 180,000 miles every second).

Atomic clocks are also the basis for the world’s global timescale – UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), which is utilised by computer networks throughout the world. Time synchronization to an atomic clock and UTC is relatively straight forward with a NTP time server. These use the time signal from the GPS system or special transmissions broadcast from large scale physics labs and then distribute it across the internet using the time protocol NTP.