Category: atomic clocks

Using Internet Time for Computer Synchronization

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Ensuring your network is synchronized is a vital part of modern computing. Failure to do so, and having different machines telling different times is a recipe for disaster and can cause untold problems, not to mention making it almost impossible to debug or log errors.

And it is not just your own network you need to synchronize to either. With so many networks talking to each other, it is important that all networks synchronize to the same time-scale.

UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is just such a global timescale. It is controlled by an international constellation of atomic clocks and enables computers all over the world to talk to each other in perfect synchronicity.

But how do you sync to UTC?

The internet is awash with sources of internet time. Most modern operating systems, especially in the Windows flavour, are set up to do this automatically (just by clicking the time/date tab on the clock menu). The computer will then regularly check the time server (usually at Microsoft or NIST, although others can be used) and adjust the computer to ensure its time matches.

Most internet time servers are known as stratum 2 devices. This means they take the time from another device but where does that get the time from?

NTP time servers

The answer is that somewhere on the stratum tree there will be a stratum 1 device. This will be a time server that receives the time direct from an atomic clock source. Often this is by GPS but there are radio referenced alternatives in several countries. These stratum 1 NTP (Network Time Protocol) time servers then provide the stratum 2 devices with the correct time – and its these devices we get our internet time from.

Drawbacks to Internet time

There are several drawbacks to relying on the Internet for time synchronisation. Accuracy is one consideration. Normally, a stratum 2 device will provide ample enough precision for most networks; however, for some users who require high levels of accuracy or deal in a lot of time sensitive transactions a stratum 2 time server may not be accurate enough.

Another problem with internet time servers is that they require an open port in the firewall. Keeping the NTP access on UDP port 123 open all the time could lead to security issues, especially as internet time sources can’t be authenticated or guaranteed.

Using a Stratum 1 NTP Time server

Stratum 1 NTP time servers are easily installed on most networks. Not only will they provide a higher accurate source of time but as they receive the time externally (from GPS or radio) they are highly secure and can’t be hijacked by malicious users or viral software.

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

The World Cup and the NTP Server

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As half the world is engrossed in the four yearly football tournament, it is a good opportunity to highlight the importance of accurate time and how it enables the entire world to watch events such as the Fifa World Cup.

Many of us have been glued to the love football coverage that is being broadcast by a multitude of different broadcasters and TV companies to nearly all countries across the globe.

But nearly all the technologies that enable this mass global live transmission: from the communication satellites that beam the signal across the globe, to the receivers that distribute them to our dishes, cable boxes and aerials.

And with online broadcasting now part and parcel of the whole live sporting event package – accurate time is even more important.

NTP time servers

With signals being bounced from football stadiums to satellites and then to our homes, it is essential that all the technologies involved are synchronised as accurately as possible. Failure to do so could cause the signals to get lost, create interferences or cause a qhole host of other problems.

Most technologies rely on time servers to ensure accuracy and synchronisation. Most time synchronisation servers use the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute time across technology networks.

These devices use a single time source, often acquired from an external atomic clock that is used to set all system clocks on devices to.

Most modern computer networks have a NTP time server that controls the time. These devices are simple to set up and in a modern, global world, are a must have for anybody conscious about accuracy and security (Many security and malicious network attacks are caused due to a lack of synchronisation).

A single NTP time server can keep a network of hundreds and even thousands of machines accurate to within a few milliseconds to the world’s global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

Ensure Accurate Time with an Atomic Wall Clock

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Written By Richard Williams for Galleon Systems

Accuracy in timekeeping is forever becoming more important in the modern global economy. Industries and business around the globe are now often communicating with each despite the time zone differences.

There was a time when a few minutes here or there rarely mattered but now, knowing exactly what time it is has become more and more important as conference calls and over-the-internet webinars are often scheduled as part of regular business.

Global Timescale

Fortunately, to prevent the headache of working out all the different time-zones you may have to deal with, there is a global timescale that is now adopted by the global community. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is an atomic clock controlled time used globally and kept precise and accurate by physics laboratories around the world.

UTC enables accurate communication and forms and is used by many high end technologies to ensure accuracy such as the network time server (NTP server – Network Time Protocol). Often these devices receive the UTC time directly from atomic clocks thanks to radio broadcasts from people like NIST (USA’s National Institute for Standards and Time) and NPL (UK’s National Physical Laboratory)

Atomic Wall Clocks

And when it comes to people telling the time, these same radio signals can also be utilised by an atomic wall clock. Atomic wall clocks, despite what the name suggests, are not atomic clocks. In essence they are comprised of a standard clock device and a radio antenna and receive. The atomic clocks signals broadcast by the physics laboratories can be received and the clock regularly adjusts itself to ensure that the clock is accurate to UTC to the second.

Competition for GPS Ever Closer

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Written by Richard N Williams for Galleon Systems

Since its release to the civilian population the Global Positioning System (GPS) has greatly improved and enhanced our world. From satellite navigation to the precise time used by NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) and much or our modern world’s technology.

And GPS has for several years been the only Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and is used the world over, however, times are now changing.

There are now three other GNSS systems on the horizon that will not only act as competition for GPS but will also increase its precision and accuracy.

Glonass is a Russian GNSS system that was developed during the Cold War. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union the system fell into disrepair but it has finally been revamped and is now back up and running.

The Glonass system is now being used as a navigational aid by Russian airlines and their emergency services with in-car GNSS receivers also being rolled out for the general population to use. And the Glonass system is also allowing time synchronisation using NTP time servers as it uses the same atomic clock technology as GPS.

And Glonass is not the only competition for GPS either. The European Galileo system is on track with the first satellites expected to be launched at the end of 2010 and the Chinese Compass system is also expected to be online soon which will make four fully operational GNSS systems orbiting above Earth’s orbit.

And this is good news for those interested in ultra high time synchronisation as the systems should all be interoperable meaning anyone looking to GNSS satellites can use multiple systems to ensure even greater accuracy.

It is expected that interoperable GNSS NTP time servers will soon be available to make use of these new technologies.

Understanding GPS Time in Relation to UTC

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Accurate time is so important for modern computer systems that it is now unimaginable for any network administer to configure a computer system without any regard to synchronisation.

Ensuring all machines are running an accurate and precise time, and that the entire network is synchronised together, will prevent problems arising such as data loss, failure of time sensitive transactions and enable debugging and error management which can be near impossible on networks that lack synchronicity.

There are many sources of accurate time for use with NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol). NTP servers tend to use time that is controlled by atomic clocks to ensure accuracy, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each system.

Ideally as a source of time you want it to be a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) as this is the international time standard as used by computer systems worldwide. But UTC is not always accessible but there is an alternative.

GPS time

GPS time is the time as relayed by the atomic clocks on board GPS satellites. These clocks form the basic technology for the Global Positioning System and their signals are what are used to work out positing information.

But GPS time signals can also provide an accurate source of time for computer networks – although strictly speaking GPS time does differ to UTC.

No Leap Seconds

GPS time is broadcast as an integer. The signal contains the number of seconds from when the GPS clocks were first turned on (January 1980).

Originally GPS time was set to UTC but since GPS satellite have been in space the last thirty years, unlike UTC, there has been no increase to account for leap seconds – so currently GPS is running exactly 17 seconds behind UTC.


Whilst GPS time and UTC are not strictly the same as they were originally based on the same time and only the lack of leap seconds not added to GPS makes the difference, and as this is exact in seconds, conversion of GPS time is simple.

Many GPS NTP servers will convert GPS time to UTC time (and local time if you so wish) ensuring you can always have an accurate, stable, secure and reliable source of atomic clock based time.

Choosing a Source of Time for Computer Network Synchronization

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You don’t need me to tell you how important computer network time synchronization is. If you are reading this then you are probably well aware of the importance in ensuring all your computers, routers and devices on your network are running the same time.

Failure to synchronize a network can cause all sorts of problems, although with a lack of synchronicity the problems may go unnoticed as error finding and debugging a network can be nigh on impossible without a source of synchronized time.

There are multiple options for finding a source of accurate time too. Most time sources used for synchronisation are a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is the international timescale.
However, there are pro’s and con’s to all sources:

Internet time

There are an almost an endless number of sources of UTC time on the internet. Some of these time sources are wholly inaccurate and unreliable but there are some trusted sources put out by people like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) and Microsoft.

However, regardless of how trusted the time source is, there are two problems with internet time sources. Firstly, an internet time server is actually a stratum 2 device. In other words, an internet time server is connected to another time server that gets its time from an atomic clock, usually from one of the sources below. So an internet source of time is never going to be as accurate or precise as using a stratum 1 time server yourself.

Secondly, and more importantly, internet sources of time operate through the firewall so a potential security breach is available to any malicious user who wishes to take advantage of the open ports.

GPS Time

GPS time is far more secure. Not only is a GPS time signal available anywhere with a line of sight view of the sky, but also GPS time signals can be received externally to the network. By using a GPS time server the GPS time signals can be received and by using NTP (Network Time Protocol) this time can be converted to UTC (GPS time is currently 17 seconds exactly behind GPS time) then distributed around the network.


Radio broadcasts in long wave are transmitted by several national physics labs. NIST and the UK’s NPL are two such organisations and they transmit the UTC signals MSF (UK) and WWVB (USA) which can be received and utilised by a radio referenced NTP server.

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.

GPS as a Timing Reference for NTP servers

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The GPS system is familiar to most people. Many cars now have a GPS satellite navigation device in their cars but there is more to the Global Positioning System than just wayfinding.

The Global Positioning System is a constellation of over thirty satellites all spinning around the globe. The GPS satellite network has been designed so that at any point in time there is at least four satellites overhead – no matter where you are on the globe.

Onboard each GPS satellite there is a highly precise atomic clock and it is the information from this clock that is sent through the GPS transmissions which by triangulation (using the signal from multiple satellites) a satellite navigation receiver can work out your position.

But these ultra precise timing signals have another use, unbeknown to many users of GPS systems. Because the timing signals from the GPS atomic clocks are so precise, they make a good source of time for synchronising all sorts of technologies – from computer networks to traffic cameras.

To utilise the GPS timing signals, a GPS time server is often used. These devices use NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute the GPS timing source to all devices on the NTP network.

NTP regularly checks the time on all the systems on its network and adjusts it accordingly if it has drifted to what the original GPS timing source is.

As GPS is available anywhere on the planet it provides a really handy source of time for many technologies and applications ensuring that whatever is synchronised to the GPS timing source will remain as accurate as possible.

A single GPS NTP server can synchronize hundreds and thousands of devices including routers, PCs and other hardware ensuring the entire network is running perfectly coordinated time.

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.