Perfect Time Synchronization for Windows

Most Windows operating systems have an integrated time synchronisation service, installed by default that can synchronise the machine or indeed a network. However, for security reasons, it is highly recommended by Microsoft, amongst others, that an external time source is used.

NTP time servers
securely and accurately receive the UTC time signal from the GPS network or the WWVB radio transmissions (or European alternatives).  NTP time servers can synchronize a single Windows machine or an entire network to within fractions of a second of the correct UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time).

A NTP time server provides precise timing information 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year anywhere on the entire globe. A dedicated NTP time server is the only secure, safe and reliable method of synchronizing a computer network to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). External to the firewall, an NTP time server does not leave a computer system vulnerable to malicious attacks unlike Internet timing sources via the TCP-IP port.

A NTP time server is not only secure, it receives a UTC time signal direct from atomic clocks unlike Internet timing sources which are really time servers themselves. NTP servers and other time synchronization tools can synchronize entire networks, single PCs, routers and a whole host of other devices. Using either GPS or the North American WWVB signal, a dedicated NTP time server from will ensure all your devices are running to within a fraction of UTC time.

A NTP time server will:

•    Increase network security
•    Prevent data loss
•    Enable logging and tracking of errors or security breaches
•    Reduce confusion in shared files
•    Prevent errors in billing systems and time sensitive transactions
•    Can be used to provide incontestable evidence in legal and financial disputes

Computer Network Timing Solutions

Computer networks and the internet have dramatically changed the way we live our lives. Computers are now in constant communication with each other making possible transactions such as online shopping, seat reservation and even email.

However, all this is only possible thanks to accurate network timing and in particular the use of Network Time Protocol (NTP) used to ensure all machines on a network are running the same time.

Timing synchronization is crucial for computer networks. Computers use time in the form of timestamps as the only marker to separate two events, without synchronization computers have difficulty in establishing the order of events or indeed if an event has happened or not.

Failing to synchronize a network can have untold effects. Emails may arrive before they are sent (according to the computer’s clock), data may get lost or fail to store and worst-of-all, the entire network could be vulnerable to malicious users and even fraudsters.

Synchronization with NTP is relatively straight forward as most operating systems have a version of the time protocol already installed; however, choosing a timing reference to synchronize to is more challenging.

UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is a global timescale governed by atomic clocks and is used by nearly all computer networks across the globe. By synchronizing to UTC a computer network is essentially synchronizing the network time with ever other computer network in the world that uses UTC.

The internet has plenty of sources of UTC available but security issues with the firewall means the only safe method of receiving UTC is externally. Dedicated NTP time servers can do this using either long wave radio or GPS satellite transmissions.

Using Atomic Clocks to Synchronize a Network

Most computer networks have to be synchronized to some degree. Allowing the clocks on computers across a network to all be telling different times is really asking for trouble. All sorts of errors can occur such as emails not arriving, data getting lost, and errors get unnoticed as the machines struggle to makes sense of the paradoxes that unsynchronized time can cause.

The problem is computers use time in the form of timestamps as the only point of reference between different events. If these don’t match then computers struggle to establish not only the order of events but also if the events took place at all.

Synchronizing a computer network
together is extremely simple, thanks largely to the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol). NTP is installed on most computer operating systems including Windows and most versions of Linux.

NTP uses a single time source and ensures that every device on the network is synchronized to that time. For many networks this single time source can be anything from the IT manager’s wrist watch to the clock on one of the desktop machines.

However, for networks that have to communicate with other networks, have to deal with time sensitive transactions or where high levels of security are required then synchronization to a UTC source is a must.

Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is a global timescale used by industry all over the world. It is governed by a constellation of atomic clocks making it highly accurate (modern atomic clocks can keep time for 100 million years without losing a second).

For secure synchronization to UTC there is really only one method and that is to use a dedicated NTP time server. Online NTP servers are used by some network administrators but they are taking a risk not only with the accuracy of the synchronization but also with security as malicious users can imitate the NTP time signal and penetrate the firewall.

As dedicated NTP servers are external to the firewall, relying instead on the GPS satellite signal or specialist radio transmissions they are far more secure.

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.