Time synchronisation on computer networks is often conducted by the NTP server. NTP time servers do not generate any timing information themselves but are merely methods of communicating with an atomic clock.
The precision of an atomic clock is widely talked about. Many of them can maintain time to nanosecond precision (billionths of a second) which means they won’t drift beyond a second in accuracy in hundreds of millions of years.
However, what is less understood and talked about is why we need to have such accurate clocks, after-all the traditional methods of keeping time such as mechanical clocks, electronic watches and using the rotation of the Earth to keep track of the days has proved reliable for thousands of years.
However, the development of digital technology over recent years has been nearly solely reliant on the ultra high precision of an atomic clock. One of the most widely used applications for atomic clocks is in the communications industry.
For several years now telephone calls taken in most industrialized countries are now transmitted digitally. However, most telephone wires are simply copper cables (although many telephone companies are now investing in fibre optics) which can only transmit one packet of information at a time. Yet telephone wires have to carry many conversations down the same wires at the same time.
This is achieved by computers at the exchanges switching from one conversation to another thousands of times every second and all this has to be controlled by nano-second precision otherwise the calls will become out of step and get jumbled – hence the need for. Atomic clocks; mobile phones, digital TV and Internet communications use similar technology.
The accuracy of atomic clocks is also the basis for satellite navigation such as GPS (global positioning system). GPS satellites contain an onboard atomic clock that generates and transmits a time signal. A GPS receiver will receive four of theses signals and use the timing information to work out how long the transmissions took to reach it and therefore the position of the receiver on Earth.
Current GPS systems are accurate to a few metres but to give an indication of how vital precision is, a one second drift of a GPS clock could see the GPS receiver be inaccurate by over 100 thousand miles (because of the huge distances light and therefore transmissions take in one second).
Many of these technologies that depend on atomic clocks utilise NTP servers as the preferred way to communicate with atomic clocks making the NTP time server one of the most crucial pieces of equipment in the communication industries.