Category: ntp server

Hackers and Time Servers

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Computer hacking is a common subject in the news. Some of the biggest companies have fallen victim to hackers, and for a myriad of reasons. Protecting computer networks from invasion from malicious users is an expensive and sophisticated industry as hackers use many methods to invade a system.

Various forms of security exist to defend against unauthorised access to computer networks such as antivirus software and firewalls.

One area often overlooked, however, is where a computer network gets it source of time from, which can often be a vulnerable aspect to a network and a way in for hackers.

Most computer networks use NTP (Network Time Protocol) as a method of keeping synchronised. NTP is excellent at keeping computers at the same time, often to within a few milliseconds, but is dependent on a single source of time.

Because computer networks from different organisations need to communicate together, having the same source of time makes sense, which is the reason most computer networks synchronise to a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

UTC, the world’s global timescale, is kept true by atomic clocks and various methods of utilising UTC are available.

Quite often, computer networks use an internet time source to obtain UTC but this is often when they run into security issues.

Using internet time sources leave a computer network open to several vulnerabilities. Firstly, to allow access to the internet time source, a port needs keeping open in the system firewall (UDP 123). As with any open port, unauthorised users could take advantage of this, using the open port as a way into the network.

Secondly, if the internet time source itself if tampered with, such as by BGP injection (Border Gateway Protocol) this could lead to all sorts of problems. By telling internet time servers it was a different time or date, major havoc could ensue with data getting lost, system crashes—a type of Y2K effect!

Finally, internet time servers can’t be authenticated by NTP and can also be inaccurate. Vulnerable to latency and affected to distance, errors can also occur; earlier this year some reputable time servers lost several minutes, leading to thousands of computer networks receiving the wrong time.

To ensure complete protection, dedicated and external time servers, such as Galleon’s NTS 6001 are the only secure method of receiving UTC. Using GPS (or a radio transmission) an external NTP time server can’t be manipulated by malicious users, is accurate to a few milliseconds, can’t drift and is not susceptible to timing errors.


75 Years of the Speaking Clock

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Britain’s speaking clock celebrates its 75th birthday this week, with the service still providing the time to over 30 million callers a year.

The service, available by dialling 123 on any BT landline (British Telecom), began in 1936 when the General Post Office (GPO) controlled the telephone network. Back then, most people used mechanical clocks, which were prone to drift. Today, despite the prevalence of digital clocks, mobile phones, computers and a myriad number of other devices, the BT speaking clock still provides the time to 30 million callers a year, and other networks implement their own speaking clock systems.

Much of the speaking clock’s continuing success is perhaps down to the accuracy that it keeps. The modern speaking clock is accurate to five milliseconds (5/1000ths of a second), and kept precise by the atomic clock signals provided by NPL (National Physical Laboratory) and the GPS network.

But the announcer declaring the time ‘after the third stroke’ provides people with a human voice, something other time-telling methods don’t provide, and may have something to do with why so many people still use it.

Four people have had the honour of providing the voice for the speaking clock; the current voice of the BT clock is Sara Mendes da Costa, who has provided the voice since 2007.

Of course, many modern technologies require an accurate source of time. Computer networks that need to keep synchronised, for security reasons and to prevent of errors, require a source of atomic clock time.

Network time servers, commonly called NTP servers after Network Time Protocol that distributes the time across the computers on a network, use either GPS signals, which contain atomic clock time signals, or by radio signals broadcast by places like NPL and NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) in the US.

Clock to Run for 10,000 Years

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The construction of clock, designed to tell the time for 10,000 years, is underway in Texas. The clock, when built, will stand over 60 metres tall and will have a clock face nearly three metres across.

Built by a non-profit organisation, the Long Now Foundation, the clock is being built so as to, not only still be standing in 10,000 years, but also still be telling the time.

Consisting of a 300kg gear wheel and a 140kg steel pendulum, the clock will tick every ten seconds and will feature a chime system that will allow 3.65 million unique chime variations—enough for 10,000 years of use.

Inspired by ancient engineering projects of the past, such as the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids—objects designed to last, the clock’s mechanism will feature state-of-the-art materials that don’t require lubrication of servicing.

However, being an mechanical clock, the Long Now Clock will not be very accurate and will require resetting to avoid drift otherwise the time in 10,000 years will not represent the time on Earth.

Even atomic clocks, the world’s most accurate clocks, require help in preventing drift, not because the clocks themselves drift—atomic clocks can remain accurate to a second for 100 million years, but the Earth’s rotation is slowing.

Every few years an extra second is added to a day. These Leap Seconds inserted on to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) prevent the timescale and the movement of the Earth from drifting apart.

UTC is the global timescale that governs all modern technologies from satellite navigation systems, air traffic control and even computer networks.

While atomic clocks are expensive laboratory-based machines, receiving the time from an atomic clock is simple, requiring only a NTP time server (Network Time Protocol) that uses either GPs or radio frequencies to pick up time signals distributed by atomic clock sources. Installed on a network, and NTP time server can keep devices running to within a few milliseconds of each other and of UTC.



How Long is a Day?

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A day is something most of us take for granted, but the length of a day is not as simple as we may think.

A day, as most of us know, is the time it takes for the Earth to spin on its axis. Earth takes 24 hours to do one complete revolution, but other planets in our solar system have day lengths far different to ours.

Galleon NTS 6001

The largest planet, Jupiter, for instance, takes less than ten hours to spin a revolution making a Jovian day less than half of that of Earth, while a day on Venus is longer than its year with a Venusian day 224 Earth days.

And if you think of those plucky astronauts on the international Space Station, hurtling around the Earth at over 17,000 mph, a day for them is just 90 minutes long.

Of course, few of us will ever experience a day in space or on another planet, but the 24-hour day we take for granted is not as steadfast as you may think.

Several influences govern the revolution of the Earth, such as the movement of tidal forces and the effect of the Moon’s gravity. Millions of years ago, the Moon was much closer to Earth as it is now, which caused much higher tides, as a consequence the length of Earth’s day was shorter—just 22.5 hours during the time of the dinosaurs. And ever since the earth has been slowing.

When atomic clocks were first developed in the 1950’s, it was noticed that the length of a day varied. With the introduction of atomic time, and then Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), it became apparent that the length of a day was gradually lengthening. While this change is very minute, chorologists decided that to ensure equilibrium of UTC and the actual time on Earth—noon signifying when the sun is at its highest above the meridian—additional seconds needed to be added, once or twice a year.

So far, 24 of these ‘Leap Seconds’ have been since 1972 when UTC first became the international timescale.

Most technologies dependent on UTC use NTP servers like Galleon’s NTS 6001, which receives accurate atomic clock time from GPS satellites. With an NTP time server, automatic leap second calculations are done by the hardware ensuring all devices are kept accurate and precise to UTC.


A Guide to Securing Computer Networks in Business

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Security is an essential aspect for any computer network. With so much data now available online, giving ease of access to permitted users, it is important to prevent unauthorised access. Failure to secure a computer network can lead to all sorts of problems for a business, such as data theft, or the network crashing and preventing authorised users from working.

Most computer networks have a firewall, which controls access. A firewall is perhaps the first line of defence in preventing unauthorised access, as it can screen and filter traffic attempting to get on to the network.

All traffic attempting to gain access to the network has to pass through the firewall; however, not all unauthorised attempts to gain access to a network is from people, malicious software is often used to gain access to data or disrupt a compute network, and often these programs can get past this first line of defence.

Different forms of malicious software can gain access to computer networks, and include:

  • Computer Viruses and Worms

These can change or replicate existing files and programs. Computer viruses and worms often steal data and send it to unauthorised users.

  • Trojans

Trojans appear as harmless software but contains viruses or other malicious software hidden in the program and are often downloaded by people thinking they are normal and benign programs.

  • Spyware

Computer programs that spy on the network, reporting to unauthorised users. Often spyware can run undetected for a long time.

  • Botnet

A botnet is a collection of computers taken over and used to perform malicious tasks. A computer network can fall victim to a botnet or unwillingly become part of one.

Other threats

Computer networks are attacked in other ways too, such as bombarding the network with access requests. These targeted attacks, called denial-of-service attacks (DDoS attack), can prevent normal use as the network slows down as it tries to deal with all attempts at access.

Protecting Against Threats

Besides the firewall, antivirus software forms the next line of defence against malicious programs. Designed to detect these types of threats, these programs remove or quarantine malicious software before they can do damage to the network.

Antivirus software is essential for any business network and needs regular updating to make sure the program is familiar with all the latest types of threats.

Another essential method for ensuring security is to establish accurate synchronisation of the network. Making sure all machines are running the exact same time will prevent malicious software and users from taking advantage of time lapses. Synchronising to a NTP server (Network Time Protocol) is a common method of ensuring synchronised time. While many NTP servers exist online, these are not very secure as malicious software can hijack the time signal and enter the computer firewall via the NTP port.

Furthermore, online NTP servers can also be attacked leading to the incorrect time being sent to computer networks that access the time from them. A more secure method of getting precise time is to use a dedicated NTP server that works externally to the computer network and receives the time from a GPS (Global Positioning System) source.


Summer Solstice The Longest Day

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June 21 marks the summer solstice for 2011. The summer solstice is when the Earth’s axis is most inclined to the sun, providing the most amount of sunshine for any day of the year. Often known as Midsummer’s day, marking the exact middle of the summer, periods of daylight get shorter following the solstice.

For the ancients, the summer solstice was an important event. Knowing when the shortest and longest days of the year were important to enable early agricultural civilisations to establish when to plant and harvest crops.

Indeed, the ancient monument of Stonehenge, in Salisbury, Great Britain, is thought to have been erected to calculate such events, and is still a major tourist attraction during the solstice when people travel from all over the country to celebrate the event at the ancient site.

Stonehenge is, therefore, one of the oldest forms of timekeeping on Earth, dating back to 3100BC. While nobody knows exactly how the monument was built, the giant stones were thought to have been transported from miles away—a mammoth task considering the wheel hadn’t even been invented back then.

The building of Stonehenge shows that timekeeping was as important to the ancients as it is to us today. The need for acknowledging when the solstice occurred is perhaps the earliest example of synchronisation.

Stonehenge probably used the setting and rising of the sun to tell the time. Sundials also used the sun to tell the time way before the invention of clocks, but we have come a long way from using such primitive methods in our timekeeping now.

Mechanical clocks came first, and then electronic clocks which were many times more accurate; however, when atomic clocks were developed in the 1950’s, timekeeping became so accurate that even the Earth’s rotation couldn’t keep up and an entirely new timescale, UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) was developed that accounted for discrepancies in the Earth’s spin by having leap seconds added.

Today, if you wish to synchronise to an atomic clock, you need to hook up to a NTP server which will receive an UTC time source from GPS or a radio signal and allow you to synchronise computer networks to maintain 100% accuracy and reliability.

Stonehenge–Ancient timekeeping

Cyber Attacks and the Importance Time Server Security

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The media is full of stories of cyber terrorism, state sponsored cyber warfare and internet sabotage. While these stories may seem like they come from a science fiction plot, but the reality is that with so much of the world now dependent on computers and the internet, cyber attacks are a real concern for governments and businesses alike.

Crippling a website, a government server or tampering with systems like air-traffic control can have catastrophic effects—so no wonder people are worried. Cyber attacks come in so many forms too. From computer viruses and trojans, that can infect a computer, disabling it or transferring data to malicious users; distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) where networks become clogged up preventing normal use; to border gateway protocol (BGP) injections, which hijack server routines causing havoc.

As precise time is so important for many technologies, with synchronisation crucial in global communication, one vulnerability that can be exploited is the online time server.

By sabotaging a NTP server (Network Time Protocol) with BGP injections, servers that rely on them can be told it’s a completely different time than it is; this can cause chaos and result in a myriad of problems as computers rely solely on time to establish if an action has or hasn’t taken place.

Securing a time source, therefore, is essential for internet security and for this reason, dedicated NTP time servers that operate externally to the internet are crucial.

Receiving time from the GPS network, or radio transmissions from NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) or the European physical laboratories, these NTP servers can’t be tampered with by external forces, and ensure that the network’s time will always accurate.

All essential networks, from stock exchanges to air traffic controllers, utilise external NTP servers for these security reasons; however, despite the risks, many businesses still receive their time code from the internet, leaving them exposed to malicious users and cyber attacks.

Dedicated GPS Time Server--immune to cyber attacks

Atomic Clocks now Accurate to a Quintillionth of a Second?

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Development in clock accuracy seems to increase exponentially. From the early mechanical clocks, there were only accurate to about half an hour a day, to electronic clocks developed at the turn of the century that only drifted by a second. By the 1950’s, atomic clocks were developed that became accurate to thousandths of a second and year on year they have becoming ever more precise.

Currently, the most accurate atomic clock in existence, developed by NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) loses a second every 3.7 billion years; however, using new calculations researchers suggest they can now come up with a calculation that could lead to an atomic clock that would be so accurate it would lose a second only every 37 billion years (three times longer than the universe has been in existence).

This would make the atomic clock accurate to a quintillionth of a second (1,000,000,000,000,000,000th of a second or 1x 1018). The new calculations that could aid the development of this sort of precision has been developed by studying the effects of temperature on the miniscule atoms and electrons that are used to keep the atomic clocks ‘ticking’. By working out the effects of variables like temperature, the researchers claim to be able to improve the accuracy of atomic clock systems; however, what possible uses does this accuracy have?

Atomic clock accuracy is becoming ever relevant in our high technology world. Not only do technologies like GPS and broadband data streams rely on precise atomic clock timing but studying physics and quantum mechanics requires high levels of accuracy enabling scientists to understand the origins of the universe.

To utilise an atomic clock time source, for precise technologies or computer network synchronisation, the simplest solution is to use a network time server; these devices receive a time stamp direct from an atomic clock source, such as GPS or radio signals broadcast by the likes of NIST or NPL (National Physical Laboratory).

These time servers use NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute the time around a network and ensure there is no drift, making it possible for your computer network to be kept accurate to within milliseconds of an atomic clock source.

Network Time Server

Keeping Track of Global Time

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So much business these days is conducted across borders, countries and continents. Global trade and communication is an important aspect for all sorts of industries, trades and businesses.

Of course, communicating across borders often means communicating across time zones too, and this poses problems for both people and computers. When those in United States start work, Europeans are half way through their day, while those in the Far East have gone to bed.

Knowing the time in several countries is, therefore, important for many people, but fortunately, many solutions exist to help.

Modern operating systems like Windows 7 have facilities that allow you to show several time zones on the computer clock, while web pages and apps such as: offer an easy way to work out the different time across time zones.

Many offices use multiple analogue and digital wall clocks to provide staff with easy access to the time in important trade countries, sometimes these use atomic clock receivers to maintain perfect accuracy, but what about computers? How do they deal with different time zones?

The answer lies in the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC was developed following the invention of atomic clocks. Kept precise by a constellation of these super-accurate clocks, UTC is the same across the globe enabling computers to communicate effectively without the differences in time zones affecting functionality.

To ensure preciseness in communication, computer networks need an accurate source of UTC as system clocks are nothing more than quartz oscillators, which can drift by several seconds a day—a long time for computer communication.

A software protocol, NTP (Network Time Protocol) ensures that this time source is distributed around the network, maintaining its accuracy.

NTP servers receive the source of UTC, often from sources such as GPS or radio referenced signals broadcast by NPL in the UK (National Physical Laboratory—transits the MSF signal from Cumbria) or NIST in the USA (National Institute of Standards and Time—transmits the WWVB signal from Colorado).

With UTC and NTP time servers, computer networks across the globe can communicate precisely and error-free enabling trouble free computing and truly global communication.

NTP server

Differing Perceptions of Time

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When you tell somebody you’ll be an hour, ten minutes or a day, most people have a good idea how long they need to wait; however, not everybody has the same perception of time, and in fact, some people have no perception of time at all!

Scientists studying a newly discovered Amazonian tribe have found that they have no abstract concept of time, according to news reports.

The Amondawa, first contacted by the outside world in 1986, while recognising events occurring in time, do not recognise time as a separate concept, lacking the linguistic structures relating to time and space.

Not only do the Amondawa have no linguistic ability to describe time, but concepts like working throughout the night, would not be understood as time has no meaning to their lives.

While most of us in the western world tend to live by the clock, we all in fact have continuous different perceptions of time. Ever noticed how time flies when you’re having fun, or goes very slowly during times of boredom? Our time perceptions can vary greatly depending on the activities that we are undertaking.

Fighter pilots, Formula One drivers and other sportsmen often talk of “being in the zone” where time slows down. This is due to the intense concentration they are putting into their endeavours, slowing down their perceptions.

Regardless of out differing time perceptions, time itself can alter as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity demonstrated. Einstein suggested that gravity and intense speeds will alter time, with large planetary masses warping space-time slowing it down, while at very high speeds (close to the speed of light) space travellers could partake a journey that to observers would seem several thousands of years, but be just seconds to those travelling at such speeds.

And if Einstein’s theories seem far-fetched, it has been tested using ultra-precise atomic clocks. Atomic clocks on aeroplanes travelling around the Earth, or placed farther away from the Earth’s orbit, have minute differences to those remaining at sea-level or stationary on Earth.

Atomic clocks are useful tools for modern technologies and help to ensure that the global timescale, Universal Coordinated Time (UTC), is kept as accurate and true as possible. And you don’t need to own your own tomake sure your computer network is kept true to UTC and is hooked up to an atomic clock. NTP time servers enable all sorts of technologies to receive an atomic clock signal and keep as accurate as possible. You can even buy atomic clock wall clocks that can provide you the precise time no matter how much the day is “dragging” or “flying”.