Sourcing the correct time for network synchronisation is only possible thanks to atomic clocks. Compared to standard timing devices and atomic clock is millions of times more accurate with the latest designs providing accurate time to within a second in a 100,000 years.
Atomic clocks use the unchanging resonance of atoms during different energy states to measure time providing an atomic tick that occurs nearly 9 billion times a second in the case of the caesium atom. In fact the resonance of caesium is now the official definition of a second having been adopted by the International System of Unit (SI).
Atomic clocks are the base clocks used for the international time, UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). And they also provide the basis for NTP servers to synchronise computer networks and time sensitive technologies such as those used by air traffic control and other high level time sensitive applications.
Finding an atomic clock source of UTC is a simple procedure. Particularly with the presence of online time sources such as those provided by Microsoft and the National Institute for Standards and Time (windows.time.com and nist.time.gov).
However, these NTP servers are what are known as stratum 2 devices that mean they are connected to another device which in turn gets the time from an atomic clock (in other words a second-hand source of UTC).
While the accuracy of these stratum 2 servers is unquestionable, it can be affected by the distance the client is from the time servers, they are also outside the firewall meaning that any communication with an online time server requires an open UDP (User Datagram Protocol) port to allow the communication.
This can cause vulnerabilities in the network and are not used for this reason in any system that requires complete security. A more secure (and reliable) method of receiving UTC is to use a dedicated NTP time server. These time synchronisation devices receive the time direct from atomic clocks either broadcast on long wave by places like NIST or NPL (National Physical Laboratory – UK). Alternatively UTC can be derived from the GPS signal broadcast by the constellation of satellites in the GPS network (Global Positioning System).