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The Atomic Clock and the Network Time Server

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

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.

NTP Server 5 Steps to Network Synchronisation

Synchronising a network is often considered a headache by network administrators who fear that getting it wrong can lead to disastrous results and while there is no deny that a lack of synchronisation can cause unforeseen problems particularly with time sensitive transactions and security, perfect synchronisation is simple if these steps are followed:

1. Use a dedicated NTP server. The NTP server is a device that receives a single time source then distributes it amongst a network of computers using the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) one of the oldest Internet based protocols and by far the most widely used time synchronisation software. NTP is often packaged with modern operating systems such as Windows or Linux although there is no substitute for a dedicated NTP device.

2. Always use a UTC time source (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC is based on GMT (Greenwich Meantime) and International Atomic Time (TAI) and is highly accurate. UTC is used by computer networks all over the world ensuring that commerce and trade are all using the same timescale.

3. Use a secure an accurate time signal. Whilst time signals are available all over the Internet they are unpredictable in their accuracy and while some may offer decent enough precision an Internet time server is outside a networks firewall which if left open to receive a timecode will cause vulnerabilities in the security of the network. Either GPS (global positioning system) or a dedicated radio signal such as those transmitted by national physics laboratories (such as MSF – UK, WWVB – USA, DCF –Germany) offer secure and reliable methods of receiving a secure and accurate time signal.

4. Organise a network into stratum, levels. Strata ensure that the NTP server is not inundated with time requests and that the network bandwidth doesn’t become congested. A stratum tree is organised by a few select machines being stratum 2 devices in that they receive a time signal from the NTP server (stratum 1 device) these in turn distribute the time to other devices (stratum 3) and so on.

5. Ensure all machines are utilising UTC and the NTP server tree. A common error in time synchronisation is to not ensure all machines are properly synchronised, just one machine running inaccurate time can have unforeseen consequences.

The NTP Server and Understanding Timescales

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.

Leap Second Errors and Configuration

Apart from the usual celebrations and revelry the end of December brought with the addition of another Leap Second to UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time).

UTC is the global timescale used by computer networks across the world ensuring that everybody is keeping the same time. Leap Seconds are added to UTC by the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS) in response to the slowing of the Earth’s rotation due to tidal forces and other anomalies. Failure to insert a leap second would mean that UTC would drift away from GMT (Greenwich Meantime) – often referred to as UT1. GMT is based on the position of the celestial bodies so at midday the sun is at its highest above the Greenwich Meridian.

If UTC and GMT were to drift apart it would make life difficult for people like astronomers and farmers and eventually night and day would drift (albeit in a thousand years or so).

Normally leap seconds are added to the very last minute of December 31 but occasionally if more than one is required in a year then is added in the summer.

Leap seconds, however, are controversial and can also cause problems if equipment isn’t designed with leap seconds in mind. For instance, the most recent leap second was added on 31 December and it caused database giant Oracle’s Cluster Ready Service to fail. It resulted in the system automatically rebooting itself on New Year.

Leap Seconds can also cause problems if networks are synchronised using Internet time sources or devices that require manual intervention.  Fortunately most dedicated NTP servers are designed with Leap Seconds in mind. These devices require no intervention and will automatically adjust the entire network to the correct time when there is a Leap Second.

A dedicated NTP server is not only self-adjusting requiring no manual intervention  but also they are highly accurate being stratum 1 servers (most Internet time sources are stratum 2 devices in other words devices that receive time signals from stratum 1 devices then reissue it) but they are also highly secure being external devices not required to be behind the firewall.

The NTP Server Time Synchronisation Made Easy

Time synchronisation is often described as a ‘headache’ by network administrators. Keeping computers on a network all running the same time is increasingly important in modern network communications particularly if a network has to communicate with another network running independently.

For this reason UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) has been developed to ensure all networks are running the same accurate timescale. UTC is based on the time told by atomic clocks so it is highly precise, never losing even a second. Network time synchronisation is however, relatively straight forward thanks to the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol).

UTC time sources are widely available with over a thousand online stratum 1 servers available on the Internet. The stratum level describes how far away a time server is to an atomic clock (an atomic clock that generates UTC is known as a stratum 0 device). Most time servers available on the Internet are in fact not stratum 1 devices but stratum in that they get their time from a device that in turn receives the UTC time signal.

For many applications this can be accurate enough but as these timing sources are on the Internet there is very little you can do to ensure both their accuracy and their precision. In fact even if an Internet source is highly accurate the distance away form it can cause delays int eh time signal.

Internet time sources are also unsecure as they are situated outside of the firewall forcing the network to be left open for the time requests. For this reason network administrators serious about time synchronisation opt to use their own external stratum 1 server.

These devices, often called a NTP server, receive a UTC time source from a trusted and secure source such as a GPS satellite then distribute it amongst the network. The NTP server is far more secure than an Internet based time source and are relatively inexpensive and highly accurate.

NTP Server Time synchronisation for Dummies

Time synchronisation is extremely important for modern computer networks. In some industries time synchronisation is absolutely vital especially when you are dealing with technologies such as air traffic control or marine navigation where hundreds of lives could be put at risk by lack of precise time.

Even in the financial world, correct time synchronisation is vital as millions can be added or wiped off share prices every second. For this reason the entire world adheres to a global timescale known as coordinated universal time (UTC). However, adhering to UTC and keeping UTC precise are two different things.

Most computer clocks are simple oscillators that will slowly drift either faster or slower. Unfortunately this means that no matter how accurate they are set on Monday they will have drifted by Friday. This drift may be only a fraction of a second but it soon won’t take long for the originally UTC time to be over a second out.

In many industries this may not mean a matter of life and death of the loss of millions in stocks and shares but lack of time synchronisation can have unforeseen consequences such as leaving a company less protected from fraud. However, receiving and keeping true UTC time is quite straight forward.

Dedicated network time servers are available that uses the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) to continually check the time of a network against a source of UTC time. These devices are often referred to as an NTP server, time server or network time server. The NTP server constantly adjusts all devices on a network to ensure that the machines are not drifting from UTC.

UTC is available from several sources including the GPS network. This is an ideal source of UTC time as it is secure, reliable and available everywhere on the planet. UTC is also available via specialist national radio transmissions which are broadcast from national physics laboratories although they are not available everywhere.

NTP Server History Acquiring Precision

When we take a glance at our watches or the office clock we often take for granted that the time we are given is correct. We may notice if our watches are ten minutes fast or slow but take little heed if they are a second or two out.

Yet for thousands of years mankind has strode to get ever increasingly accurate clocks the benefits of which are plentiful today in our age of satellite navigation, NTP servers, the Internet and global communications.

To understand how accurate time can be measured it is first important to understand the concept of time itself. Time as it has been measured on Earth for millennia is a different concept to time itself which as Einstein informed us was part of the fabric of the universe itself in what he described as a four dimensional space-time.

Yet we have historically measured time based not on the passing of time itself but the rotation of our planet in relation to the Sun and the Moon. A day is divided into 24 equal parts (hours) each of which is divided into 60 minutes and the minute is divided into 60 seconds.

However, it has now been realised that measuring time this way can not be considered accurate as the Earth’s rotation varies from day to day. All sorts of variable such as tidal forces, hurricanes, solar winds and even the amount of snow at the poles effects the speed of the Earth’s rotation. In fact when the dinosaurs first started roaming the Earth, the length of a day as we measure it now would have only been 22 hours.

We now base our timekeeping on the transition of atoms using atomic clocks with a second based on 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation emitted by the hyperfine transition of a unionized caesium atom in the ground state. Whilst this may sound complicated it really is just an atomic ‘tick’ that never alters and therefore can provide a highly accurate reference to base our time on.

Atomic clocks use this atomic resonance and can keep time that is so accurate a second isn’t lost in even a billion years. Modern technologies all take advantage of this precision enabling many of the communications and global trade we benefit from today with the utilisation of satellite navigation, NTP servers and air traffic control changing the way we live our lives.

The NTP Server and the Atomic Clock Reason for Precision

In an age of atomic clocks and the NTP server time keeping is now more accurate then ever with ever increasing precision having allowed many of the technologies and systems we now take for granted.

Whilst timekeeping has always been a preoccupation of mankind, it has only been in the last few decades that true accuracy has been possible thanks to the advent of the atomic clock.

Before atomic time, electrical oscillators like those found in the average digital watch were the most accurate measure of time and whilst electronic clocks like these are far more precise than their predecessors – the mechanical clocks, they can still drift by up to a second a week.

But why does time need to be so precise, after all, how important can a second be? In the day-to-day running of our lives a second isn’t that important and electronic clocks (and even mechanical ones) provide adequate timekeeping for our needs.

In our day-to-day lives a second makes little difference but in many modern applications a second can be an age.

Modern satellite navigation is one example. These devices can pinpoint a location anywhere on earth to within a few metres. Yet they can only do this because of the ultra-precise nature of the atomic clocks that control the system as the time signal sent from the navigation satellites travels at the speed of light which is nearly 300,000 km a second.

As light can travel such a vast distance in a second any atomic clock governing a satellite navigation system that was just one second out it would the positioning would be inaccurate by thousands of miles, rendering the positioning system useless.

There are many other technologies that require similar accuracy and also many of the ways we trade and communicate. Stocks and shares fluctuate up and down every second and global trade requires that everybody all over the world has to communicate using the same time.

Most computer networks are controlled by using a NTP server (Network Time Protocol). These devices allow computer networks to all use the same atomic clock based timescale UTC (coordinated universal time). By utilising UTC via a NTP server, computer networks can be synchronised to within a few milliseconds of each other.

NTP Server running a network (Part 2)

Organising Strata

Stratum levels describe the distance between a device and the reference clock. For instance an atomic clock based in a physics laboratory or GPS satellite is a stratum 0 device. A stratum 1 device is a time server that receives time from a stratum 0 device so any dedicated NTP server is stratum 1. Devices that receive the time from the time server such as computers and routers are stratum 2 devices.

NTP can support up to 16 stratum levels and although there is a drop-off in accuracy the further away you go stratum levels are designed to allow huge networks to all receive a time from a single NTP server without causing network congestion or a blockage in the bandwidth.

When using a NTP server it is important to not overload the device with time requests so the network should be divided with a select number of machines taking requests from the NTP server (the NTP server manufacturer can recommend the number of requests it can handle). These stratum 2 devices can ten be used as time references for other devices (which become stratum 3 devices) on very large networks these can then be used as time references themselves.