Posts by: Stuart

MSF Downtime No Signal 26th and 27th July

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The UK’s time and frequency signal MSF, provided by the National Physical Laboratory out of Cumbria, will be down for essential maintenance on 26 and 27 July.

The unplanned downtime is to allow essential maintenance to be carried out in safety. The MSF transmitter will stop broadcasting the MSF signal on 26 and 27 July between 08.00 and 20.00 (BST – 07:00 GMT/UTC) although it is possible the maintenance may be finished ahead of schedule in which case the signal will be turned on earlier.

Future maintenance is scheduled for the following times when the signal will also be turned off:

• 9 September 2010 from 10:00 BST to 14:00 BST
• 9 December 2010 from 10:00 UTC to 14:00 UTC
• 10 March 2011 from 10:00 UTC to 14:00 UTC

Problems for Time Synchronisation

Generally, most NTP time servers should be able to maintain a stable time during these brief outages and users of MSF time synchronisation devices should not experience any difficulties with the lack of MSF signal.

However, those users who require high levels of accuracy and reliability and find the MSF outages affect them should perhaps look to a GPS NTP server.

GPS time servers receive their time signals from the GPS network which is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and never experiences any outages.

MSF Downtime – No Signal 26/27 July

NTP Servers versus Internet Time What is the best method for Accurate Time?

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Accurate and reliable time is highly important and as networks and the internet gets faster and faster – accuracy becomes even more essential.

Computers internal clock systems are nowhere near accurate enough for many networked tasks. As simple quartz chronometers they will drift, by as a much as a second which perhaps wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that all the clocks on the network may drift at different rates.

And as the world becomes more global, ensuring computer networks can talk to each other is also important meaning that synchronisation to the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is now a prerequisite for most networks.

Methods of Synchronisation

There are currently, only two methods for getting truly accurate and reliable time:

  • Use of an internet based time server from places like NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) or Microsoft.
  • Use of a dedicated NTP time server – that receives external time sources such as from GPS

There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of sources – but which method is best?

Internet Time

Internet time has one great advantage – it is often free. However there are disadvantages to using an internet tie source. The first is distance. Distance across the internet can have a dramatic effect and as the internet gets quicker the distance has an even bigger effect meaning that accuracy become more tenuous.

Another disadvantage of internet time is the lack of authentication and the security risk it poses. Authentication is what the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) uses to establish the true identity of a time source.

Furthermore, an internet time source can only be accessed through a network firewall so a UDP port has to be kept open providing a possible entrance for software nasties or malicious users.

NTP Time Server

NTP time servers on the other hand are dedicated devices. They retrieve a source of UTC externally to the firewall from either GPS or a long wave radio transmission. These come direct from atomic clocks (in the cased of GPS the atomic clock is onboard the satellite) and so can’t be hijacked by malicious users or viruses.

NTP servers are also far more accurate and are not impinged by distance meaning that a network can have millisecond accuracy all the time.

Time to get accurate Atomic clock time servers for computer networks

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Accurate and precise time is increasingly becoming a necessity for computer systems. From corporate networks to public service technologies such as ATMs, traffic lights or CCTV cameras – precise time is what keeps them ticking.

Inaccurate or unsynchronised time is the root cause for many technology breakdowns and failures.  For instance, failing to synchronize a traffic lights system can lead to all sorts of confusion of the lights change at the wrong time – and the consequences for systems belonging to industries such as air traffic control could be even worse.

And even a standard computer network such as those used in most offices requires accurate synchronisation to prevent errors, enable debugging and to ensure the system is secure.

Most system administrators are now aware of the importance of accurate and precise time synchronisation but getting a source of accurate time is often where many people make mistakes.

Many network administrators are aware of the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) which is used to ensure accurate synchronisation between computers.

However, many administrators make the mistake of using a source of time from across the internet to distribute with NTP – a common pitfall that can have disastrous consequences.

The internet is not the best source of tine. While it is true, many online NTP servers are available as a source of atomic time or UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) but are they accurate. The truth is it is almost impossible to know. Internet time sources can be affected by the distance of the client (the network) from the time source – it also can’t be authenticated by NTP.

Even more important, internet time sources operate through the firewall which can allow the time signal to be hijacked by malicious programs.

The only secure and accurate method of synchronising a computer network or other technology system is to use an NTP server. These devices receive an external atomic clock time signal often by GPS or even by radio transmissions.

These signals are come direct from atomic clocks so are highly accurate they also can’t be hijacked as they are not connected to the internet.

The Worlds Atomic Clock Timekeepers

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When you set your watch to perhaps the speaking clock or the time on the internet, have you ever wondered who it is that sets those clocks and checks that they are accurate?

There is no single master clock used for the world’s timing but there are a constellation of clocks that are used as a basis for a universal timing system known as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

UTC enables all the world’s computer networks and other technology to talk to each other in perfect synchronicity which is vital in the modern world of internet trading and global communication.

But as mentioned controlling UTC is not down to one master clock, instead, a serious of highly precise atomic clocks based in different countries all work together to produce a timing source that is based on the time told by them all.

These UTC timekeepers include such notable organisations as the USA’s National Institute of Standards and Time (NIST) and the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) amongst others.

These organisations don’t just help ensure UTC is as accurate as possible but they also provide a source of UTC time available to the world’s computer networks and technologies.

To receive the time from these organisations, a NTP time server (Network Time Server) is required. These devices receive the broadcasts from places like NIST and NPL via long wave radio transmissions. The NTP server then distributes the timing signal across a network, adjusting individual system clocks to ensure that they are as accurate to UTC as possible.

A single dedicated NTP server can synchronize a computer network of hundreds and even thousands of machines and the accuracy of a network relying in UTC time from the broadcasts by NIST and NPL will also be highly precise.

The NIST timing signal is known as WWVB and is broadcast from Boulder Colorado in the heart of the USA whilst the UK’s NPL signal is broadcast in Cumbria in the North of England and is known as MSF – other countries have similar systems including the DSF signal broadcast out of Frankfurt, Germany.

NTP Time Servers Keeping Technology Precise

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Atomic clocks are much underrated technologies their development has revolutionised the way we live and work and has made possible technologies that would be impossible without them.

Satellite navigation, mobile phones, GPS, the internet, air traffic control, traffic lights and even CCTV cameras are reliant on the ultra precise timekeeping of an atomic clock.

The accuracy of an atomic clock is incomparable to other time keeping devices as they don’t drift by even a second in hundreds of thousands of years.

But atomic clocks are large sensitive devices that need team of experienced technicians and optimum conditions such as those found in a physics laboratory. So how do all these technologies benefit from the high precision of an atomic clock?

The answer is quite simple, the controllers of atomic clocks, usually national physics laboratories, broadcast via long wave radio the time signals that their ultra precise clocks produce.

To receive these time signals, servers that use the time synchronization protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) are employed to receive and distribute these timestamps.

NTP time servers, often referred to as network time servers, are a secure and accurate method of ensuring any technology is running accurate atomic clocks time. These time synchronization devices can synchronise single devices or entire networks of computers, routers and other devices.

NTP servers that use GPS signals to receive the time from the atomic clock satellites are also commonly used. These NTP GPS time servers are as accurate as those that receive the time from physics laboratories but use the weaker, line of sight GPS signal as their source.

Quantum Atomic Clocks The precision of the future

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The atomic clock is not a recent invention. Developed in the 1950’s, the traditional caesium based atomic clock has been providing us with accurate time for half a century.

The caesium atomic clock has become the foundation of our time – literally. The International System of Units (SI) define a second as a certain number of oscillations of the atom caesium and atomic clocks govern many of the technologies that we live with an use on a daily basis: The internet, satellite navigation, air traffic control and traffic lights to name but a few.

However, recent developments in optical quantum clocks that use single atoms of metals like aluminium or strontium are thousands of times more accurate than traditional atomic clocks. To put this in perspective, the best caesium atomic clock as used by institutes like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) or NPL (National Physical Laboratory) to govern the world’s global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), is accurate to within a second every 100 million years. However, these new quantum optical clocks are accurate to a second every 3.4 billion years – almost as long as the earth is old.

For most people, their only encounter with an atomic clock is receiving its time signal is a network time server or NTP device (Network Time Protocol) for the purposes of synchronising devices and networks and these atomic clock signals are generated using caesium clocks.

And until the world’s scientists can agreed on a single atom to replace caesium and a single clock design for keeping UTC, none of us will be able to take advantage of this incredible accuracy.

The Atomic Clock Scientific Precision

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Precision is becoming increasingly important in modern technologies and none more so than accuracy in time keeping. From the internet to satellite navigation, precise and accurate synchronicity is vital in the modern age.

In fact many of the technologies that we take for granted in today’s world, would not be possible if it wasn’t for the most accurate machines invented – the atomic clock.

Atomic clocks are just timekeeping devices like other clocks or watches. But what stands them apart is the accuracy they can achieve. As a crude example your standard mechanical clock, such as a town centre clock tower, will drift by as much as a second a day. Electronic clocks such as digital watches or clock radios are more accurate. These types of clock drift a second in about a week.

However, when you compare the precision of an atomic clock in which a second will not be lost or gained in 100,000 years or more the accuracy of these devices is incomparable.

Atomic clocks can achieve this accuracy by the oscillators they use. Nearly all types of clock have an oscillator. In general, an oscillator is just a circuit that regularly ticks.

Mechanical clocks use pendulums and springs to provide a regular oscillation while electronic clocks have a crystal (usually quartz) that when an electric current is run through, provides an accurate rhythm.

Atomic clocks use the oscillation of atoms during different energy states. Often caesium 133 (and sometimes rubidium) is used as its hyperfine transitional oscillation is over 9 billion times a second (9,192,631,770) and this never changes. In fact, the International System of Units (SI) now officially regards a second in time as 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation from the caesium atom.

Atomic clocks provide the basis for the world’s global timescale – UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). And computer networks all over the world stay in sync by using time signals broadcast by atomic clocks and picked up on NTP time servers (Network Time Server).

Network Time Protocol And Network Time Synchronization

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Synchronization of computer networks is something that many administrators take for granted. Dedicated network time servers can receive a time source and distribute it amongst a network, accurately, securely and precisely.

However, accurate time synchronization is only made possible thanks the time protocol NTP – Network Time Protocol.

NTP was developed when the internet was still in its infancy and Professor David Mills and his team from Delaware University were trying to synchronise the time on a network of a few machines. They developed the very earliest rendition of NTP which has continued to be developed to this very day, nearly thirty years after its first inception.

NTP was not then, and is not now, the only time synchronisation software, there are other applications and protocol that do a similar task but NTP is the most widely used (by far with over 98% of time synchronisation applications using it). It is also packaged with most modern operating systems with a version of NTP (usually SNTP – a simplified version) installed on the latest Windows 7 operating system.

NTP has played an important part in creating the internet we know and love today. Many online applications and tasks would not be possible without accurate time synchronization and NTP.

Online trading, internet auctions, banking and debugging of networks all rely on accurate time synchronisation. Even sending an email requires time synchronisation with email server – otherwise computers would not be able to handle emails coming from unsynchronised machines as they may arrive before they were sent.

NTP is a free software protocol and is available online from However, most computer networks that require secure and accurate time mostly use dedicated NTP servers that operate external to the network and firewall obtaining the time from atomic clock signals ensuring millisecond accuracy with the world’s global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

Rubidium Oscillators Additional Precision for NTP Serve (Part 2)

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However, there are some occasions when a time server can lose connection with the atomic clock and not receive the time code for a prolonged period of time. Sometimes this may be because of downtime by the atomic clock controllers for maintenance or that nearby interference is blocking the transmission.

Obviously the longer the signal is down the more potential drift may occur on the network as the crystal oscillator in the NTP server is the only thing keeping time. For most applications this should never be a problem as the most prolonged period of downtime is not normally more than three or four hours and the NTP server would not have drifted by much in that time and the occurrence of this downtime is quite rare (maybe once or twice a year).

However, for some ultra precise high end applications rubidium crystal oscillators are beginning to be used as they don’t drift as much as quartz. Rubidium (often used in atomic clocks themselves instead of caesium) is far more accurate an oscillator than quartz and provides better accuracy for when there is no signal to a NTP time server allowing the network to maintain a more accurate time.

Rubidium itself is an alkali metal, similar in properties to potassium. It is very slightly radioactive although poses no risk to human health (and is often used in medicine imaging by injecting it into a patient). It has a half life of 49 billion years (the time it takes to decay by half – in comparison some of the most lethal radioactive materials have half-lives of under a second).

The only real danger posed by rubidium is that it reacts rather violently to water and can cause fire

Rubidium Oscillators Additional Precision for NTP Serve (Part 1)

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Oscillators have been essential in the development of clocks and chronology. Oscillators are just electronic circuitry that produces a repetitive electronic signal. Often crystals such as quartz are used to stabilise the frequency of the oscillation,

Oscillators are the primary technology behind electronic clocks. Digital watches and battery powered analogue clock are all controlled by an oscillating circuit usually containing a quartz crystal.

And while electronic clocks are many times more accurate than a mechanical clock, a quartz oscillator will still drift by a second or two each week.

Atomic clocks of course are far more accurate. They still, however, use oscillators, most commonly caesium or rubidium but they do so in a hyper fine state often frozen in liquid nitrogen or helium. These clocks in comparison to electronic clocks will not drift by a second in even a million years (and with the more modern atomic clocks 100 million years).

To utilise this chronological accuracy a network time server that uses NTP (Network Time Protocol) can be used to synchronise complete computer networks. NTP servers use a time signal from either GPS or long wave radio that comes direct from an atomic clock (in the case of GPS the time is generated in a clock onboard the GPS satellite).

NTP servers continually check this source of time and then adjust the devices on a network to match that time. In between polls (receiving the time source) a standard oscillator is used by the time server to keep time. Normally these oscillators are quartz but because the time server is in regular communication with the atomic clock say every minute or two, then the normal drift of a quartz oscillator is not a problem as a few minutes between polls would not lead to any measurable drift.

To be continued…