Archive for November, 2010

Do I Really Need an NTP Time Server?

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

NTP (Network Time Protocol) is one of the oldest protocols still in use today. It was developed in the 1980’s when the internet was still in its infancy and was designed to help computers synchronise together, preventing drift and ensuring devices can communicate with unreliable time causing errors.

NTP is now packaged in most operating systems and forms the basis for time synchronisation in computers, networks and other technologies. Most technologies and networks use a network time server (commonly called an NTP time server) for this task.

These time servers are external devices that receive the time from a radio frequency or GPS signal (both generated by atomic clocks). This time signal is then distributed across the network using NTP ensuring all devices are using the exact same time.

As NTP is ubiquitous in most operating systems and the internet is awash with sources of atomic clock time, this begs the question of whether NTP time servers are still necessary for modern computer networks and technology.

There are two reasons why networks should always use a NTP time server and not rely on the internet as a source of time for synchronisation. Firstly, internet time can never be guaranteed. Even if the source of time is 100% accurate and kept true (incidentally most sources of internet time are derived using an NTP time server at the host’s end) the distance from the host can lead to discrepancies.

Secondly, and perhaps fundamentally more important to most business networks is security. NTP time servers work externally to the network. The source of time either radio of GPS, is secure, accurate and reliable and as it is external to the network it can’t be tampered with en-route, or used to disguise malicious software and bots.

NTP servers don’t require an open port in the firewall, unlike internet sources of time which can be used as an entry point by malicious users and software.

From Pennies to NTP Servers the Intricacies of Keeping Time

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Keeping accurate time is an essential aspect of our day to day lives. Nearly everything we do is reliant on time from getting up for work in the morning to arranging meetings, nights out or just when it’s time for dinner.

Most of us carry some kind of clock or watch with us but these timepieces are prone to drift which is why most people regularly use another clock of device to set their time too.

In London, by far the most common timepiece that people use to set their watches too is Big Ben. This world famous clock can be seen for miles, which is why so many Londoners use it to ensure their watches and clocks are accurate – but have you ever wondered how Big Ben keeps itself accurate?

Well the unlikely truth lies in a pile of old coins. Big Ben’s clock mechanism uses a pendulum but for fine tuning and ensuring accuracy a small pile of gold coins resting on the top of the pendulum.  If just one coin is removed then the clock’s speed will change by nearly half a second

Ensuring accuracy on a computer network is far less archaic. All computer networks need to run accurate and synchronised time as computers too are completely reliant on knowing the time.

Fortunately, NTP time servers are designed to accurately and reliably keep entire computer networks synchronised. NTP (Network Time Protocol) is a software protocol designed to keep networks accurate and it works by using a single time source that it uses to correct drift on

Most network operators synchronise their computers to a form of UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) as this is governed by atomic clocks (highly accurate timepieces that never drift – not for several thousand years, anyway).

A source of atomic clock time can be received by a NTP server by using either GPS satellite (Global Positioning System) signals or radio frequencies broadcast by national physics laboratories.

NTP servers ensure that computer networks all across the globe are synchronised, accurate and reliable.

Using Atomic Clock Time Signals

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Accuracy is becoming more and more relevant as technology becomes increasingly important to the functioning of our everyday lives. And as our economies become more reliant on the global marketplace, accuracy and synchronisation of time is very important.

Computers seem to control much our daily lives and time is essential for the modern computer network infrastructure. Timestamps ensure actions are carried out by computers and are the only point of reference IT systems have for error checking, debugging and logging. A problem with the time on a computer network and it could lead to data getting lost, transactions failing and security issues.

Synchronisation on a network and synchronisation with another network that you communicate with are essential to prevent the above mentioned errors. But when it comes to communicating with networks across the globe things can be even trickier as the time on the other-side of the world is obviously different as you pass each time-zone.

To counter this, a global timescale based on atomic clock time was devised. UTC – Coordinated Universal Time – does away with time-zones enabling all networks across the globe to use the same time source – ensuring that computers, no matter where they are in the world, are synchronised together.

To synchronise a computer network, UTC is distributed using the time synchronisation software NTP (Network Time Protocol). The only complication is receiving a source of UTC time as it is generated by atomic clocks which are multi-million dollar systems that are not available for mass use.

Fortunately, signals from atomic clocks can be received using a NTP time server. These devices can receive radio transmissions that are broadcast from physic laboratories which can be used as a source of time to synchronise an entire network of computers to.

Other NTP time servers use the signals beamed from GPS satellites as a source of time. The positioning information in these signals is actually a time signal generated by atomic clocks onboard the satellites (which is then triangulated by the GPS receivers).

Whether it’s a radio referenced NTP server or a GPS time server – an entire network of hundreds, and even thousands of machines can be synchronised together.

The Effects of No Time Signal

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) are an essential tool in the modern computer network. They control the time, ensuring every device on the network is synchronised.

Because of the importance of time in controlling nearly every aspect of computer networking accurate and synchronised time is essential which is why so many system administrators deploy a NTP time server.

These time servers use a single time source as a base to set all the clocks on a network to; the time is often got from the GPS network or radio signals broadcast from physics laboratories such as NPL in the UK (whose signal is broadcast from Cumbria).

Once this signal is received by the time server, the time protocol NTP then distributes it around the network – comparing the system clock of every device to the time reference and adjusting each device. By regularly assessing the drift of these devices and correcting for them NTP keeps clocks accurate to within milliseconds of the time signal and when this signal emanates from an atomic clock – it ensures the network is as accurate as physically possible, but what happens if you lose the time signal?

Damaged GPS antennas, maintenance of time signal transmitters or technical faults can lead to a NTP time sever failing to receive a time signal. Often, this is only temporary and normal service is resumed within a few hours but what happens if it doesn’t, and what is the effect of having a failed time signal?

Fortunately, NTP has back-up systems for just such an eventuality. If a time signal fails and there is no other source of time, NTP cleverly uses the average time from all the clocks on its network. So if some clocks have drifted a few milliseconds faster, and others a few milliseconds slower – then NTP takes the average of this drift ensuring that the time remains accurate for as long as possible.

Even if a signal has failed for several days – or even weeks – without knowledge of the system users, this does not mean the network will drift apart. NTP will still keep the entire network synchronised together, using the average drift, and while the longer the time signal remains off the les accurate the network will be it can still provide millisecond accuracy even after a few days of no time reference.