When a network loses time, you are at risk of losing far more than just what time of day it is. Time is an essential aspect of network security and any errors in a network time server can lead to catastrophic result. However, the solution for ensuring network security is fairly simple and relatively inexpensive – the NTP time server.
Network time protocol (NTP) is used as a synchronisation tool by most computer networks. NTP distributes a single time source around a network and ensures all devices are running in synchronisation with it. NTP is highly accurate and able to keep all machines on a network to within a few milliseconds of the time source. However, where this time source comes from can lead to problems in time synchronisation within a network.
As British summer time officially ended last weekend, with the clocks going back to bring the UK back to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), the debate about the annual clock changing has started again. The Coalition Government has proposed plans to change the way Britain keeps time by shifting the clocks forward another hour, and in effect reverting to Central European Time (ECT)..
ECT, would mean that Britain would remain an hour ahead of GMT in the winter and two hours ahead in the summer, providing lighter evenings but darker mornings, especially for those north of the border.
However, any proposed plans have stiff opposition from the Scottish Government who suggest that by altering the clocks, many areas in Scotland wouldn’t see daylight during winter until about 10am, meaning many children would have to go to school in the dark.
Other opponents, include traditionalists, argue that GMT has been the basis for British time for over a century, and that any change would be simply … unBritish.
However, a change to ECT would make things easier for businesses that trade with Europe, keeping British workers on a similar timescale to their European neighbours.
Whatever the outcome of the proposed changes to GMT, little will change when it comes to technology and computer networks as they already keep the same timescale all over the globe: UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).
UTC is a global timescale kept true by an array of atomic clocks and is used by all sorts of technologies such as computer networks, CCTV cameras, bank telling machines, air traffic control systems and stock exchanges.
Based on GMT, UTC remains the same the world over, enabling global communication and the transfer of data across time zones without error. The reason for UTC is obvious when you consider the amount of trade that goes on across borders. With industries such as the stock exchange, where stocks and shares fluctuate in price continuously, split second accuracy is essential for global traders. The same is true for computer networks, as computers use time as the only reference as to when an event has taken place. Without adequate synchronisation, a computer network may lose data and international transactions would become impossible.
Most technologies keep synchronised to UTC by using NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol), which continually check system clocks across whole networks to ensure that they all are synced to UTC.
NTP time servers receive atomic clock signals, either by GPS (Global Positioning Systems) or by radio signal broadcast by national physics laboratories such as NIST in the United States or NPL in the UK. These signals provide millisecond accuracy for technologies, so no matter what time zone a computer network is, and no matter where it is in the world, it can have the same time as every other computer network across the globe that it has to communicate with.
International Telecommunications Union (ITU), based in Geneva, is voting in January to finally get rid of the leap second, effectively scrapping Greenwich Meantime.
UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) has been around since the 1970’s, and already effectively governs the world’s technologies by keeping computer networks synchronised by way of NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol), but it does have one flaw: UTC is too accurate, that is to say, UTC is governed by atomic clocks, not by the rotation of the Earth. While atomic clocks relay an accurate, unchanging form of chronology, the Earth’s rotation varies slightly from day-to-day, and in essence is slowing down by a second or two a year.
To prevent noon, when the sun is highest in the sky, from slowly getting later and later, Leap Seconds are added to UTC as a chronological fudge, ensuring that UTC matches GMT (governed by when the sun is directly above by the Greenwich Meridian Line, making it 12 noon).
The use of leap seconds is a subject of continuous debate. The ITU argue that with the development of satellite navigation systems, the internet, mobile phones and computer networks all reliant on a single, accurate form of time, a system of timekeeping needs to be precise as possible, and that leap seconds causes problems for modern technologies.
This against changing the Leap Second and in effect retaining GMT, suggest that without it, day would slowly creep into night, albeit in many thousands of years; however, the ITU suggest that large-scale changes could be made, perhaps every century or so.
If leap seconds are abandoned, it will effectively end Greenwich Meantime’s guardianship of the world’s time that has lasted over a century. Its function of signalling noon when the sun is above the meridian line started 127 years ago, when railways and telegraphs made a requirement for a standardised timescale.
If leap seconds are abolished, few of us will notice much difference, but it may make life easier for computer networks that synchronised by NTP time servers as Leap Second delivery can cause minor errors in very complicated systems. Google, for instance, recently revealed it had written a program to specifically deal with leap seconds in its data centres, effectively smearing the leap second throughout a day.
Leap Seconds have been in use since the development of atomic clocks and the introduction of the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). Leap Seconds prevent the actual time as told by atomic clocks and the physical time, governed by the sun being highest at noon, from drifting apart.
Since UTC began in the 1970’s when UTC was introduced, 24 Leap Seconds have been added. Leap seconds are a point of controversy, but without them, the day would slowly drift into night (albeit after many centuries); however, they do cause problems for some technologies.
NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) implement Leap Seconds by repeating the final second of the day when a Leap Second is introduced. While Leap Second introduction is a rare event, occurring only once or twice a year, for some complex systems that process thousands of events a second this repetition causes problems.
For search engine giants, Google, Leap Seconds can lead to their systems from working during this second, such as in 2005 when some of its clustered systems stopped accepting work. While this didn’t lead to their site from going down, Google wanted to address the problem to prevent any future problems caused by this chronological fudge.
Its solution was to write a program that essentially lied to their computer servers during the day of a Leap Second, making the systems believe the time was slightly ahead of what the NTP servers were telling it.
This gradual speeding up time meant that at the end of a day, when a Leap Second is added, Google’s timeservers do not have to repeat the extra second as the time on its servers would already be a second behind by that point.
Whilst Google’s solution to the Leap Second is ingenious, for most computer systems Leap Seconds cause no problems at all. With a computer network synchronised with an NTP server, Leap Seconds are adjusted automatically at the end of a day and occur only rarely, so most computer systems never notice this small hiccup in time.
Most of us think we know what the time it is. At a glance of our wristwatches or wall clocks, we can tell what time it is. We also think we have a pretty good idea of the speed time move forwards, a second, a minute, an hour or a day are pretty well-defined; however, these units of time are completely man-made and are not as constant as we may think.
Time is an abstract concept, while we may think it is the same for everybody, time is affected by its interaction with the universe. Gravity, for instance, as Einstein observed, has the ability to warp space-time altering the speed in which time passes, and while we all live on the same planet, under the same gravitational forces, there are subtle differences in the speed in which time passes.
Using atomic clocks, scientists are able to establish the effect Earth’s gravity has on time. The high above sea level an atomic clock is placed, the quicker time travels. While these differences are minute, these experiments clearly demonstrate that Einstein’s postulations were correct.
Atomic clocks have been used to demonstrate some of Einstein’s other theories regarding time too. In his theories of relativity, Einstein argued that speed is another factor that affects the speed at which time passes. By placing atomic clocks on orbiting spacecraft or aeroplanes travelling at speed, the time measured by these clocks differs to clocks left static on Earth, another indication that Einstein was right.
Before atomic clocks, measuring time to such degrees of accuracy was impossible, but since their invention in the 1950’s, not only have Einstein’s postulations proved right, but also we have discovered some other unusual aspects to how we regard time.
While most of us think of a day as 24-hours, with every day being the same length, atomic clocks have shown that each day varies. Furthermore, atomic clocks have also shown that the Earth’s rotation is gradually slowing down, meaning that days are getting slowly longer.
Because of these changes to time, the world’s global timescale, UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) needs occasional adjustments. Every six months or so, leap seconds are added to ensure UTC runs at the same rate as an Earth day, accounting for the gradual slowing down of the planet’s spin.
For technologies that require high levels of accuracy, these regular adjustments of time are accounted for by the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) so a computer network using an NTP time server is always kept true to UTC.
Researchers have discovered that the British atomic clock controlled by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the most accurate in the world.
NPL’s CsF2 caesium fountain atomic clock is so accurate that it wouldn’t drift by a second in 138 million years, nearly twice as accurate as first thought.
Researchers have now discovered the clock is accurate to one part in 4,300,000,000,000,000 making it the most accurate atomic clock in the world.
The CsF2 clock uses the energy state of caesium atoms to keep time. With a frequency of 9,192,631,770 peaks and troughs every second, this resonance now governs the international standard for an official second.
The international standard of time—UTC—is governed by six atomic clocks, including the CsF2, two clocks in France, one in Germany and one in the USA, so this unexpected increase in accuracy means the global timescale is even more reliable than first thought.
UTC is essential for modern technologies, especially with so much global communication and trade being conducted across the internet, across borders, and across timezones.
UTC enables separate computer networks in different parts of the world to keep exactly the same time, and because of its importance accuracy and precision is essential, especially when you consider the types of transactions now conducted online, such as the buying of stocks and shares and global banking.
Receiving UTC requires the use of a time server and the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol). Time servers receive a source of UTC direct from atomic clocks sources such as NPL, who broadcast a time signal over long wave radio, and the GPS network (GPS satellites all transmit atomic clock time signals, which is how satellite navigation systems calculate position by working out the difference in time between multiple GPS signals.)
NTP keeps all computers accurate to UTC by continuously checking each system clock and adjusting for any drift compared to the UTC time signal. By using an NTP time server, a network of computers is able to remain within a few milliseconds of UTC preventing any errors, ensuring security and providing an attestable source of accurate time.
Most of us recognise how long an hour, a minute, or a second is, and we are used to seeing our clocks tick past these increments, but have you ever thought what governs clocks, watches and the time on our computers to ensure that a second is a second and an hour an hour?
Early clocks had a very visible form of clock precision, the pendulum. Galileo Galilei was the first to discover the effects of weight suspended from a pivot. On observing a swinging chandelier, Galileo realised that a pendulum oscillated continuously above its equilibrium and didn’t falter in the time between swings (although the effect weakens, with the pendulum swinging less far, and eventually stops) and that a pendulum could provide a method of keeping time.
Early mechanical clocks that had pendulums fitted proved highly accurate compared to other methods tried, with a second able to be calibrated by the length of a pendulum.
Of course, minute inaccuracies in measurement and effects of temperature and humidity meant that pendulums were not wholly precise and pendulum clocks would drift by as much as half an hour a day.
The next big step in keeping track of time was the electronic clock. These devices used a crystal, commonly quartz, which when introduced to electricity, will resonate. This resonance is highly precise which made electric clocks far more accurate than their mechanical predecessors were.
True accuracy, however, wasn’t reached until the development of the atomic clock. Rather than using a mechanical form, as with a pendulum, or an electrical resonance as with quartz, atomic clocks use the resonance of atoms themselves, a resonance that doesn’t change, alter, slow or become affected by the environment.
In fact, the International System of Units that define world measurements, now define a second as the 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a caesium atom.
Because of the accuracy and precision of atomic clocks, they provide the source of time for many technologies, including computer networks. While atomic clocks only exist in laboratories and satellites, using devices like Galleon’s NTS 6001 NTP time server.
A time server such as the NTS 6001 receives a source of atomic clock time from either GPS satellites (which use them to provide our sat navs with a way to calculate position) or from radio signals broadcast by physics laboratories such as NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) or NPL (National Physical Laboratory).
Accurate time is one of the most important aspects to keeping a computer network secure and safe. Places such as stock exchanges, banks and air traffic control rely on secure and accurate time. As computers rely on time as their only reference for when events happen, a slight error in a time code could lead to all sorts of errors, from millions being wiped off share prices to aeroplane flight paths being incorrect.
And time doesn’t just need to be accurate for these organizations, but secure too. A malicious user who interferes with a timestamp could cause all sorts of trouble, so ensuring time sources are both secure and accurate is vital.
Security is increasingly important for all sorts of organisations. With so much trade and communication conducted over the internet, using a source of accurate and secure time is as important a part of network security as anti-virus and firewall protection.
Despite the need for accuracy and security, many computer networks still rely on online time servers. Internet sources of time are not only unreliable, with inaccuracies commonplace, and distance and latency affecting the precision, but an Internet time server is also unsecure and able to be hijacked by malicious users.
But an accurate, reliable and completely secure source of time is available everywhere, 365 days a year—GPS.
While commonly thought of as a means of navigation, GPS actually provides an atomic clock time code, direct from the satellite signals. It is this time code that navigation systems use for calculating position but it is just as effective to provide a secure time stamp for a computer network.
Organizations that rely on accurate time for safety and security all use GPS, as it is a continuous signal, that never goes down, is always accurate and can’t be interfered with by third parties.
To utilise GPS as a source of time, all that is required is a GPS time server. Using an antenna, the time server receives the GPS signal, while NTP (Network Time Protocol) distributes it around the network.
With a GPS time server, a computer network is able to maintain accuracy to within a few milliseconds of the atomic clock time signal, which is translated into UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) thanks to NTP, ensuring the network is running the same accurate time as other networks also synchronised to a UTC time source.
The stock market has been in the news a lot lately. As global uncertainty about national debts rise, the markets are in flux, with prices changing incredibly quickly. On a trading floor, every second counts and precise time is essential for global buying and selling of commodities, bonds and shares.
The international stock exchanges such as the NASDAQ and London Stock Exchange all require accurate and precise time. With traders buying and selling shares for customers across the globe, a few seconds of inaccuracy could cost millions as share prices fluctuate.
NTP servers linked to atomic clock timing signals ensure that the stock exchange keeps an accurate and precise time. As computers across the globe all receive the stock prices, as and when they change, these two use NTP server systems to maintain time.
The global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is used as the basis for atomic clock timing, so no matter where a trader is on the globe, the same timescale prevents confusion and errors when dealing with stocks and shares.
Because of the billions of pounds worth of stocks and shares that are bought and sold on trading floors every day, security is essential. NTP servers work externally to networks, getting their time from sources such as GPS (Global Positioning System) or radio signals put out by organisations like the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) or the National Institute for Standards and Time (NIST).
The stock exchanges can’t use a source of internet because of the risk this could pose. Hackers and malicious users could tamper with the time source, leading to mayhem and cost millions and perhaps billions if the wrong time was spread around the exchanges.
The precision of internet time is limited too. Latency over distance can create delays, which could lead to errors, and if the time source ever went down, the stock markets could hit trouble.
It is not only stock markets that need precise and accurate time, computer networks across the globe concerned about security use dedicated NTP servers like Galleon Systems’ NTS 6001. Providing accurate time from both GPS and radio signals from NPL and NIST, the NTS 6001 ensure accurate, precise and secure time every day of the year.