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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.

NTP Server running a network (Part 1)

NTP servers are a vital tool for any business that needs to communicate globally and securely. NTP servers distribute Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the world’s global timescale based on the highly accurate time told by atomic clocks.

NTP (Network Time Protocol) is the protocol used to distribute the UTC time across a network it also ensures all time is accurate and stable. However, there are many pitfalls in setting up a NTP network, here are the most common:

Using the correct time source

Attaining the most suitable time source is fundamental in setting up a NTP network. The time source is going to be distributed amongst all machines and devices on a network so it is vital that it is not only accurate but also stable and secure.

Many system administrators cut corners with a time source. Some will decide to use an Internet based time source although these are not secure as the firewall will require an opening and also many internet sources are either wholly inaccurate or too far away to afford any useful precision.

There are two highly secure methods of receiving a UTC time source. The first is to utilise the GPS network which although doesn’t transmit UTC, GPS time is based on International atomic time and is therefore easy for NTP to convert. GPS time signals are also readily available all over the globe.

The second method is to use the long wave radio signals broadcast by some national physical laboratories. These signals, however, are not available in every country and they have a finite range and are susceptible to interference and local topography.

NTP Server Configuration for Windows and Linux

Network Time Protocol has been developed to keep computers synchronized. All computers are prone to drift and accurate timing is essential for many time critical applications.

A version of NTP is installed on most versions of Windows (although a stripped down version called SNTP –Simplified NTP- is in older versions) and Linux but is free to download from NTP.org.

When synchronising a a network it is preferable to use a dedicated NTP server that receives a timing source from an atomic clock either via specialist radio transmissions or the GPS network. However, many Internet time references are available, some more reliable than others, although it must be noted Internet based time sources can’t be authenticated by NTP, leaving your computer vulnerable to threats.

NTP is hierarchical and arranged into stratum. Stratum 0 is timing reference, while stratum 1 is a server connected to a stratum 0 timing source and a stratum 2 is a computer (or device) attached to a stratum 1 server.

The Basic configuration of NTP is done using the /etc/ntp.conf file you have to edit it and place the IP address of stratum 1 and stratum 2 servers. Here is an example of a basic ntp.conf file:

server xxx.yyy.zzz.aaa prefer (time server address such as time.windows.com)

server 123.123.1.0

server 122.123.1.0 stratum 3

Driftfile /etc/ntp/drift

The most basic ntp.conf file will list 2 servers, one that it wishes to synchronise too and an IP address for itself. It is good housekeeping to have more than one server for reference in case one goes down.

A server with the tag ‘prefer’ is used for a trusted source ensuring NTP will always use that server when possible. The IP address will be used in case of problems when NTP will synchonise with itself is. The drift file is where NTP builds a record of the system clock’s drift rate and automatically adjusts for it.

NTP will adjust your system time but only slowly. NTP will await at least ten packets of information before trusting the time source. To test NTP simply change your system clock by half an hour at the end of the day and the time in the morning should be correct.

Atomic Clock Synchronization using WWVB

Accurate time using Atomic Clocks is available across North America using the WWVB Atomic Clock time signal transmitted from Fort Collins, Colorado; it provides the ability to synchronize the time on computers and other electrical equipment.

The North American WWVB signal is operated by NIST - the National Institute of Standards and Technology. WWVB has high transmitter power (50,000 watts), a very efficient antenna and an extremely low frequency (60,000 Hz). For comparison, a typical AM radio station broadcasts at a frequency of 1,000,000 Hz. The combination of high power and low frequency gives the radio waves from WWVB a lot of bounce, and this single station can therefore cover the entire continental United States plus much of Canada and Central America.

The time codes are sent from WWVB using one of the simplest systems possible, and at a very low data rate of one bit per second. The 60,000 Hz signal is always transmitted, but every second it is significantly reduced in power for a period of 0.2, 0.5 or 0.8 seconds: • 0.2 seconds of reduced power means a binary zero • 0.5 seconds of reduced power is a binary one. • 0.8 seconds of reduced power is a separator. The time code is sent in BCD (Binary Coded Decimal) and indicates minutes, hours, day of the year and year, along with information about daylight savings time and leap years.

The time is transmitted using 53 bits and 7 separators, and therefore takes 60 seconds to transmit. A clock or watch can contain an extremely small and relatively simple antenna and receiver to decode the information in the signal and set the clock’s time accurately. All that you have to do is set the time zone, and the atomic clock will display the correct time.

Dedicated NTP time servers that are tuned to receive the WWVB time signal are available. These devices connect o a computer network like any other server only these receive the timing signal and distribute it to other machines on the network using NTP (Network Time Protocol).

It could be the last Leap Second tonight as there are calls to have it scrapped

At midnight on tonight an extra second will be added as recommended by the International Earth rotation and Reference systems Service (IERS). That means for the last minute of 2008 there will 61 seconds.

Leap Seconds have been added nearly every year since the inception of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) in the 1970’s. The extra second is added to ensure UTC keeps in synch with GMT (Greenwich Meantime or sometimes called UT1). GMT is the traditional 24 hour clock system where a day is defined as the rotation of the Earth which takes 86,400 seconds for a complete revolution.

Unfortunately the Earth can often be a little tardy in its spin and if the extra seconds were no added at the end of the year to compensate eventually the two systems (UTC and GMT) would drift apart. In a millennium the time difference would only be an hour but many argue to a have a time system that does no correspond to the movement of the heavens would be irrational and occupations such as farming and astronomy would be made more difficult.

However, not everybody sees it that way wit some arguing that as te entire world’s computer networks are synchronised to UTC using NTP servers then the fudging of the extra second causes untold amounts of trouble.

Now a group within the International Telecommunications Union, called has recommended abolishing the leap second. Group member Elisa Felicitas Arias, of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, France, argues that a timescale that doesn’t need regular tweaking is essential in an increasingly interconnected world. What’s more, she says, ships and aircraft now navigate via GPS rather than the old time system. GPS runs on a version of atomic time.

Next year, member states of the ITU are due to vote on the proposal. If 70 per cent support the idea, an official decision will be made at the World Radio Conference in 2011. According to a report co-authored by Felicitas Arias, most member states support the idea. The UK, however, is against reworking its laws, which include the solar timescale Greenwich Mean Time. Without the UK abolition may be difficult, says Felicitas Arias.

“In theory, adding a second is as easy as flipping a switch; in practice, it rarely works that way,” says Dennis McCarthy of the US Naval Research Laboratory, which provides the time standard used by the US military. Most likely to be affected are IT systems that need precision of less than a second. In 1998 – two leap seconds ago – cellphone communications blacked out over part of the southern US. Different regions of service had slipped into slightly different times, preventing proper relaying of signals.

All quotes attributed to the BBC