Category: GPS

Choosing a Source of Time for an NTP Synchronization

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Accurate time is essential in the modern world of internet banking, online auctions and global finance. Any computer network that is involved in global communication needs to have an accurate source of the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) to be able to talk to other networks.

Receiving UTC is simple enough. It is available from multiple sources but some are more reliable than others:

Internet Time Sources

The internet is awash with time sources. These vary in reliability and accuracy but some trusted organisations like NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) and Microsoft. However, there are disadvantages with internet time sources:

Reliability – The demand for internet sources of UTC often means it can be difficult to access them

Accuracy – most internet time servers are stratum 2 devices which means they rely on a source of time themselves. Often errors can occur and many sources of time can be very inaccurate.

Security – Perhaps the biggest issue with internet time sources is the risk they pose to security. To receive a time stamp from across the internet the firewall needs to have an opening to allow the signals to pass through; this can lead to malicious users taking advantage.

Radio Referenced Time Servers.

A secure method of receiving UTC time stamps is available by using a NTP time server that can receive radio signals from labs like NIST and NPL (National Physical Laboratory. Many countries have these broadcasted time signals which are highly accurate, reliable and secure.

GPS Time servers

Another source for dedicated time servers is GPS. The big advantage of a GPS NTP time server is that the time source is available everywhere on the planet with a clear view of the sky. GPS time servers are also highly accurate, reliable and just as secure as radio referenced time servers.

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.

The Effect of Solar Flares on GPS

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Forthcoming space weather may affect GPS devices including satellite navigation and NTP GPS time servers.

Whilst many of us have had to cope with some extreme weather last winter, further storms are on their way – this time from space.

Solar flares are a regular occurrence on the surface of the sun. Whilst scientists are not completely sure what causes them we know two things about solar flares: – they are cyclical – and are related to sunspot activity.

For that last eleven years the sun’s sunspot activity – small dark depressions that appear on the surface of the sun – has been very minimal. But this eleven year cycle has come to an end and there has been a rise in sun spots at the end of last year meaning 2010 will be a bumper year for both sunspots and solar flares.

But there is no need to worry about becoming toasted by solar flares as these bursts of hot gases that flare from the sun never get far enough to reach the Earth, however, they can effect us in different ways.

Solar flares are bursts of energy and as such emit radiation and high energy particles. On earth, we are protected by these blasts of energy and radiation by the earth’s magnetic field and ionosphere, however, satellite communications are not and this can lead to trouble.

Whilst the effect of solar flare radiation is very weak, it can slow down and reflect radio waves as they travel through the ionosphere towards Earth. This interference can cause GPS satellites in particular extreme problems as they are reliant on accuracy to provide navigational information.

While the effects of solar flares are mild, it is possible GPS devices will encounter brief periods of no signal and also the problem of inaccurate signals meaning positing information may become unreliable.

This will not just affect navigation either as the GPS system is used by hundreds and thousands of computer networks as a source of reliable time.

Whilst most dedicated GPS time servers should be able to cope with periods of instability without losing precision, for worried network administrators not wanting to go into work to find their systems have crashed because of a lack of synchronisation may want to consider using a radio referenced Network time server that uses broadcast transmission such as MSF or WVBB.

Dual NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) are also available that can receive both radio and GPS, ensuring a source of time is always constantly available.

Choosing a Time Server for your Network

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Any network administrator will tell you how important time synchronization is for a modern computer network. Computers rely on the time for nearly everything, especially in today’s age of online trading and global communication where accuracy is essential.

Failing to ensure that computers are accurately synced together could lead to all manner of problems: data loss, security vulnerabilities, unable to conduct time sensitive transactions and difficulties debugging can all be caused by a lack of, or not adequate enough, time synchronization.

But ensuring every computer on a network has the exact same time is simple thanks to two technologies: the atomic clock and the NTP server (Network Time Protocol).

Atomic clocks are extremely accurate chronometers. They can keep time and not drift by as much of a second in thousands of years and it is this accuracy that has made possible technologies and applications such as satellite navigation, online trading and GPS.

Time synchronization for computer networks is controlled by the network time server, commonly referred to as the NTP server after the time synchronization protocol they use, Network Time Protocol.
When it comes to choosing a time server, there are really only two real type – the radio reference NTP time server and the GPS NTP time server.

Radio reference time servers receive the time from long wave transmission broadcast by physics laboratories like NIST in North America or NPL in the UK. These transmissions can often be picked up throughout the country of origin (and beyond) although local topography and interference from other electrical devices can interfere with the signal.

GPS time servers, on the other hand, use the satellite navigation signal transmitted from GPS satellites. The GPS transmissions are generated by atomic clocks onboard the satellites so they are a highly accurate source of time just like the atomic clock generated time broadcast by the physics laboratories.

Apart from the disadvantage of having to have a roof top antenna (GPS works by line of sight so a clear view of the sky is essential), GPS is obtainable literally everywhere on the planet.

As both types of time server can provide an accurate source of reliable time the decision of which type of time server should be based on the availability of long wave signals or whether it is possible to install a rooftop GPS antenna.

Atomic Clock to be attached to International Space Station

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One of the world’s most accurate atomic clocks is to be launched into orbit and attached to the International Space Station (ISS) thanks to an agreement signed by the French space agency.

The PHARAO (Projet d’Horloge Atomique par Refroidissement d’Atomes en Orbite) atomic clock is to attached to the ISS in an effort to more accurately test Einstein’s theory of relatively as well as increasing the accuracy of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) amongst other geodesy experiments.

PHARAO is a next generation caesium atomic clock with an accuracy that corresponds to less than a second’s drift every 300,000 years. PHARAO is to be launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2013.

Atomic clocks are the most accurate timekeeping devices available to mankind yet they are susceptible to changes in gravitational pull, as predicted by Einstein’s theory, as time itself is slewed by the Earth’s pull. By placing this accurate atomic clock into orbit the effect of Earth’s gravity is lessened allowing PHARAO to be more accurate than Earth based clock.

While atomic clocks are not new to orbit, as many satellites; including the GPS network (Global Positioning System) contain atomic clocks, however, PHARAO will be among the most accurate clocks ever launched into space, allowing it to be used for far more detailed analysis.

Atomic clocks have been around since the 1960’s but their increasing development has paved the way for more and more advanced technologies. Atomic clocks form the basis of many modern technologies from satellite navigation to allowing computer networks to communicate effectively across the globe.

Computer networks receive time signals from atomic clocks via NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) which can accurately synchronise a computer network to within a few milliseconds of UTC.

How Satellite Navigation Works

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Satellite navigational systems, or sat navs, have changed the way we navigate our way around the high roads. Gone are the days when travellers had to have a glove box full of maps and gone too is the need to stop and ask a local for directions.

Satellite navigation means that we an now go from point A to point B confident our systems will take us there and while sat nav systems are not fool proof (we must have all read the stories of people driving over cliffs and into rivers etc), it has certainly revolutionised our wayfinding.

Currently there is only one Global Navigational Satellite System (GNSS) the American run Global Positioning System (GPS). Although, a rival European System (Galileo) is set to go online sometime after 2012 and a both a Russian (GLONASS) and Chinese (COMPASS) system are being developed.

However, all these GNSS networks will operate using the same technology as employed by GPS, and in fact, current GPS systems should be able to utilise these future systems without much alteration.

The GPS system is basically a constellation of satellites (currently there are 27). These satellites each contain onboard an atomic clock (actually two are on most GPS satellites but for the purpose of this explanation only one need be considered). The signals that are transmitted from the GPS satellite contain several pieces of information sent as one integer:

* The time the message was sent

* The orbital position of the satellite (known as the ephemeris)

* The general system health and orbits of the other GPS satellites (known as the almanac)

A satellite navigation receiver, the kind found on the dashbopard of your car, receives this information and using the timing information works out the exact distance from the receiver to the satellite. By using three or more of these signals the exact position can be triangulated (four signals are actually required as height above sea level has to be worked out too).

Because the triangulation works out when the time signal was sent and how long it took to arrive at the receiver, the signals have to be incredibly accurate. Even a second of inaccuracy could see the navigational information out but thousands of kilometres as light, and therefore radio signals, can travel nearly 300,000 km each second.

Currently the GPS satellite network can provide navigational accuracy to within 5 metres which goes to show just how accurate atomic clocks can be.

Europes GPS System is starting to Take Shape

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Following years of wrangling and uncertainty, the European equivalent to the GPS (Global Positioning System), is finally beginning to take shape. The European Galileo system, which will complement the current USA system, is a step closer to completion.

Galileo, which will be the first operational global navigational satellite system (GNSS) outside the United States will provide positioning information for satellite navigation machines and timing information for GPS NTP servers (Network Time Protocol).

The system, being designed and manufactured by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union (EU) and when it is operational it is expected to improve the availability and accuracy of timing and navigation signals transmitted from space.

They system has been dogged in political wrangling and uncertainty since its inception nearly a decade ago. Objections from the US that they will lose the ability top switch off GPS in times of military need; and economic restraints across Europe, meant that the project was nearly shelved several times.

However, the first four satellites are being finalised in a laboratory in southern England. These In-Orbit Validation (IOV) satellites will form a mini-constellation in the sky and prove the Galileo concept by transmitting the first signals so the European system can become a reality.

The rest of the satellite network should follow shortly after and. Galileo should eventually comprise over 30 of them which means that users of satellite navigation systems of GPS NTP time servers should get quicker fixes be able to locate their positions with an error of one metre compared with the current GPS-only error of five.

GPS Atomic Clock Time Signals

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It seems that nearly every car dashboard has a GPS receiver perched on the top. They have become incredibly popular as a navigational tool with many people relying on them solely to work their way around the road networks.

The Global Positioning System has been around for quite a few years now but was originally designed and built for US military applications but was extended for civilian use following an airline disaster.

Whilst it is incredibly useful and convenient a tool, the GPS systems is relatively simple in its operation. The navigation works using a constellation of 30 or so satellites (there are quite a few more that are orbiting but no longer operational).

The signals sent from the satellites contain three pieces of information that are received by the sat nav devices in our cars.

That information includes:

* The time the message was sent

* The orbital position of the satellite (known as the ephemeris)

* The general system health and orbits of the other GPS satellites (known as the almanac)

The way the navigational information is worked out is by using the information from four satellites. The time the signals left the each of the satellites is recorded by the sat nav receiver and the distance from each satellite is then worked out using this information. By using the information from four satellites it possible to work out exactly where the satellite receiver is, this process is known as triangulation.

However, working out exactly where you are in the world does rely on complete accuracy in the time signals that are broadcast by the satellites. As signals such as the GPS travel at the speed of light (approximately 300,000 km a second through a vacuum) even a one second inaccuracy could see positioning information out by 300 kilometres! Currently the GPS system is accurate to five metres which demonstrates just how accurate the timing information broadcast by the satellites is.

This high level of accuracy is possible because each GPS satellite contains atomic clocks. Atomic clocks are incredibly accurate relying on the unwavering oscillations of atoms to keep time – in fact each GPS satellite will run for over a million years before it will drift by as much as a second (compared to the average electronic watch which will drift by a second in a week or two)

Because of this high level of accuracy the atomic clocks on board GPS satellites can be used as a source of accurate time for the synchronization of computer networks and other devices that require synchronization.

Receiving this time signal requires the use of a NTP GPS server that will synchronize with the satellite and distribute the time to all devices on a network.

Which time signal? GPS or WWVB and MSF

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Dedicated NTP time server devices are the easiest, most accurate, reliable and secure method of receiving a source of UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) for synchronizing a computer network.

NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) operate outside the firewall and are not reliant on the Internet which means they are highly secure and not vulnerable to malicious users who, in the case of Internet time sources can use the NTP client signals as a method of accessing the network or penetrating the firewall.

A dedicated NTP server will also receive it’s time code direct from an atomic clock, this makes it a stratum 1 time server as opposed to online time servers which are stratum 2 time servers, that is they get the time from a stratum 1 server and so are not as accurate.

In using a NTP time server there is only really one decision to make and that is how the time signal is to be received and for this there is only two choices:

The first is to make use of the time standard radio transmissions broadcast by national physics laboratories such as NIST in the USA or the UK’s NPL. These signals (WWVB in the US, MSF in the UK) are limited in range although the USA signal is available in most parts of Canada and Alaska. However, they are vulnerable to local interference and topography as other long wave radio signals are.

The alternative to the WWVB/MSF signal is to utilise the GPS satellite network (Global Positioning System). Atomic clocks are used by GPS satellites as the basis for navigational information used by satellite receivers. These atomic clocks can be used by using a NTP time server fitted with a GPS antenna.

Whilst the GPS time signal is strictly speaking not UTC- it is 17 seconds behind as leap seconds have never been added to GPS time (as the satellites are unreachable) but NTP can account for this (by simply adding 17 whole seconds). The advantage of GPS is that it is available anywhere on the planet just as long as the GPS antenna has a clear view of the sky.

Duel systems that can utilise both types of signal are also available.

Time Synchronization Using the GPS Network

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The GPS (Global Positioning System) systems has revolutionized navigation for pilots, mariners and drivers a like. Nearly every brand new car is sold with an inbuilt satellite navigation system already installed and similar detachable devices continue to sell in their millions.

Yet the GPS system is a multi purpose tool thanks mainly to the technology it employs to provide navigational information. Each GPS satellite contains an atomic clock which signal is used to triangulate positioning information.

GPS has been around since the late 1970’s but it was only in 1983 that is stopped from being purely a tool of the military and was opened up to allow free commercial access following an accidental shooting down of a passenger airliner.

To utilise the GPS system as a timing reference, a GPS clock or GPS time server is required. These devices usually rely on the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute the GPS time signal that arrives via the GPS antenna.

GPS time is not the same as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is normally used  NTP for time synchronization via radio transmissions or the internet. GPS time did originally match UTC in 1980 during its inception but sine that time there have been leap seconds added to UTC to counteract the variations of the earth’s rotation, however the on-board satellite clocks are corrected to compensate for the difference between GPS time and UTC, which is 17seconds, as of 2009.

By utilising a GPS time server an entire computer network can be synchronized to within a few milliseconds of UTC ensuring that all computers are safe, secure and able to deal effectively with time sensitive transactions.