Category: time server

The Truth about Time

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As a manufacturer of NTP time servers, synchronizing computer networks and keeping them accurate to within a few milliseconds of international UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time), we often think we can keep pretty good track of time.

Time, however, is quit elusive and is not the fixed entity we often assume it is, indeed time, and the time told on Earth is not constant and is affected by all sorts of things.

Since Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2 it has been acknowledged that time is not constant, and that the only constant in the universe is the maximum velocity of light. Time, as Einstein discovered, is affected by gravity, making the time on Earth run slightly slower than time in deep space, likewise, on planetary bodies with a larger mass than Earth, time runs even slower.

Time slows down when you approach very fast speeds too. The property of time, known as time dilation, was discovered by Einstein and means that at close to the speed of light, time almost stands still (and makes interstellar travel a possibility for science fiction writers).

Generally, living on Earth, these differences in time are not felt, and indeed the slowing of time caused by Earth’s gravity is so minute, highly precise atomic clocks are required to measure it.

However, the time we use to govern our lives is also affected by other factors. Since humans first evolved, we have been used to a day lasting just over 24 hours.  However, the length of a day on Earth is not fixed, and has been changing for the last few billion years.

Each day on Earth differs from the previous to the next one. Often these differences are minute, but year on year, the changes add up as the affect of the moon’s gravity and tidal forces act as a brake on the Earth’s spin.

To cope with this, the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) has to be adjusted to prevent the day from drifting out of sync (and we end up with noon at night and midnight during the day—although at the current slowing of the Earth, this would take many thousands of years).

The adjustment in our time is known as leap seconds which are added either once or twice a year to UTC. Anybody using a NTP time server (Network Time Protocol) to synchronise their computer network too, needn’t worry, however, as NTP servers will automatically account for these changes.

Keeping the World Ticking Over The Global Timekeepers

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When we want to know the time it is very simple to look at a clock, watch or one of the myriad devices that display the time such as our mobile phones or computers. But when it comes to setting the time, we rely on the internet, speaking clock or somebody else watch; however, how do we know these clocks are right, and who is it that ensures that time is accurate at all?

Traditionally we have based time on Earth in relation to the rotation of the planet—24 hours in a day, and each hour split into minutes and seconds. But, when atomic clocks were developed in the 1950’s it soon became apparent that the Earth was not a reliable chronometer and that the length of a day varies.

In the modern world, with global communications and technologies such as GPS and the internet, accurate time is highly important so ensuring that there is a timescale that is kept truly accurate is important, but who is it that controls global time, and how accurate is it, really?

Global time is known as UTC—coordinated Universal Time. It is based on the time told by atomic clocks but makes allowances for the inaccuracy of the Earth’s spin by having occasional leap seconds added to UTC to ensure we don’t get into a position where time drifts and ends up having no relation to the daylight or night time (so midnight is always at day and noon is in the day).

UTC is governed by a constellation of scientists and atomic clocks all across the globe. This is done for political reasons so no one country has complete control over the global timescale. In the USA, the National Institute for Standards and Time (NIST), helps govern UTC and broadcast a UTC time signal from Fort Collins in Colorado.

While in the UK, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) does the same thing and transmits their UTC signal from Cumbria, England. Other physics labs across the world have similar signals and it is these laboratories that ensure UTC is always accurate.

For modern technologies and computer networks, these UTC transmissions enable computer systems across the globe to be synchronised together. The software NTP (Network Time Protocol) is used to distribute these time signals to each machine, ensuring perfect synchronicity, while NTP time servers can receive the radio signals broadcast by the physics laboratories.

Computer Time Synchronisation The Basics

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With so much automated in the modern world and with computer networks running everything from finance to health services, keeping, storing and transferring information needs to be secure, accurate and reliable.

The time is crucial for computer systems to ensure this. Timestamps are the only information computers have to assess if a task has been completed, is due, or that information has been successfully received, sent or stored. One of the most common causes of computer errors comes from inadequate synchronisation of timings.

All computer networks need to be synchronised, and not just all the devices on a network, either. With so much global communication these days, all computer networks across the globe need to be synchronised together, otherwise when they communicate errors may occur, data can get lost, and it can pave the way for security problems as time discrepancies can be used by malicious users and software.

But how do computers synchronise together? Well, it is made possible by to innovations. The first is the international timescale, UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), kept true by atomic clocks and the same the world over, regardless of time-zones. The second, NTP (Network Time Protocol) is a computer program designed to keep PCs synchronised together.

Both NTP and UTC operate in tandem. The computer time server (NTP server) receives a UTC time source, either from radio, GPS (Global Positioning System) or the internet (although an insecure method of receiving UTC and not recommended).

NTP then distributes this time around a network, checking the time on each device at periodic intervals and adjusts them for any drift in time. Most computer networks that utilise NTP time servers in this way have each machine on the network within milliseconds of UTC time, enabling accurate and precise global communication.

NTP time servers are the only secure and accurate method of computer network synchronisation and should be used by any computer system that requires reliability, accuracy and security.

Finding an Online NTP Time Source

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Finding a source of time to synchronise a computer network to can be a challenge as there are a myriad of online time sources, all pertaining to be accurate and reliable; however, the truth can be rather different with many online sources either in too much demand, too far away or inaccurate.

NTP (Network Time Protocol) requires a source of UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) which is kept true by atomic clocks. Online time sources are not themselves atomic clocks but NTP server devices that receive the time from an atomic clock which is then relayed to the devices that connect to the online time server.

There are two types of online time server: stratum 1 devices – devices that receive the time directly from an atomic clock, either using GPS or a radio reference signal. Stratum 2 devices  on the other hand are one step further away in that they are receive their time from a stratum 1 time server.

Because of demand, finding an online stratum 1 time server is next to impossible, and those that do take request usually do so under a subscription, which leaves the only choice for most people being a stratum 2 device.

There are plenty of resources on the internet that provide locations for online time servers such as https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/262680/a-list-of-the-simple-network-time-protocol-sntp-time-servers-that-are

But there are drawbacks to using such devices; firstly, online stratum 2 time sources can’t be guaranteed and several surveys taken have found that the reliability and accuracy of many of them can’t be taken for granted.  Secondly, online sources of time require an open firewall port which can be manipulated by malicious bots or users – leading to security risks.

A far better solution for most networks is to install your own stratum 1 NTP server. These time server devices sync to atomic clocks outside the firewall (using GPS or radio signals) and therefore are not security risks. They are also accurate to a few milliseconds ensuring the network will always be accurate to UTC.

The Effects of No Time Signal

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NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) are an essential tool in the modern computer network. They control the time, ensuring every device on the network is synchronised.

Because of the importance of time in controlling nearly every aspect of computer networking accurate and synchronised time is essential which is why so many system administrators deploy a NTP time server.

These time servers use a single time source as a base to set all the clocks on a network to; the time is often got from the GPS network or radio signals broadcast from physics laboratories such as NPL in the UK (whose signal is broadcast from Cumbria).

Once this signal is received by the time server, the time protocol NTP then distributes it around the network – comparing the system clock of every device to the time reference and adjusting each device. By regularly assessing the drift of these devices and correcting for them NTP keeps clocks accurate to within milliseconds of the time signal and when this signal emanates from an atomic clock – it ensures the network is as accurate as physically possible, but what happens if you lose the time signal?

Damaged GPS antennas, maintenance of time signal transmitters or technical faults can lead to a NTP time sever failing to receive a time signal. Often, this is only temporary and normal service is resumed within a few hours but what happens if it doesn’t, and what is the effect of having a failed time signal?

Fortunately, NTP has back-up systems for just such an eventuality. If a time signal fails and there is no other source of time, NTP cleverly uses the average time from all the clocks on its network. So if some clocks have drifted a few milliseconds faster, and others a few milliseconds slower – then NTP takes the average of this drift ensuring that the time remains accurate for as long as possible.

Even if a signal has failed for several days – or even weeks – without knowledge of the system users, this does not mean the network will drift apart. NTP will still keep the entire network synchronised together, using the average drift, and while the longer the time signal remains off the les accurate the network will be it can still provide millisecond accuracy even after a few days of no time reference.

Time Synchronisation Getting it Right

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Time is essential for computers, networks and technology. It is the only reference technology has to ascertain if a task has happened or is due to take place. As time, in the from of timestamps, is so important for technology, when there is uncertainty over time, due to different devices on a network having different times, it can cause untold errors.

The problem with time in computing is that all devices, from routers to desktop PCs, have their own onboard timepiece that governs the system clocks. These system clocks are just normal electronic oscillators, they type commonly found in battery powered watches, and while these are adequate for humans to tell the time, the drifting of these clocks can see devices on a network, seconds and even minutes out of sync.

There are two rules for time synchronisation:

  • All devices on a network should be synchronised together
  • The network should be synchronised to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time)

 

NTP

To synchronise a network you need to make use of Network Time Protocol (NTP). NTP is designed for accurate network time synchronisation.  IT works by using a single source of time which it then distributes it to all devices on the NTP network.

NTP continually checks the devices for any drift and then adjusts to ensure the entire network is within a few milliseconds of the reference time.

UTC

Coordinated Universal Time is a global timescale that is kept true by atomic clocks. By synchronising a network to UTC you are in effect ensuring your network is synchronised to every other UTC network on the planet.

Using UTC as a reference source is a simple affair too. NTP time servers are the best way to find a secure source of UTC time. They use either GPS (Global Positioning System) as a source of this atomic clock time or specialist radio signals keeping the UTC time source external to the network for security reasons.

A single NTP server can synchronise a network of hundreds and even thousands of devices ensuring the entire network is to within a few milliseconds of UTC.

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.

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).

When Time Servers go Bad

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“Time is what prevents everything from happening at once,’ said eminent physicist John Wheeler. And when it comes to computers his words couldn’t be any more relevant.

Timestamps are the only method that a computer has to establish if an event has occurred, is meant to occur or shouldn’t be occurring just yet. For a home PC, the computer relies on the inbuilt clock that displays the time on the corner of your operating system, and for most home uses this is satisfactory enough.

However for computer networks that have to communicate with each other, relying in individual system clocks can cause untold problems:

All clocks drift, and computer clocks are no different and problems occur when two machines are drifting at different rates as the time does not match up. This poses a conundrum for a computer as it is unsure of which time to believe and time critical events can fail to occur and even simple tasks like sending an email can cause time confusion on a network.

For these reasons, time servers are commonly used to receive the time from an external source and distribute it around the network. Most of these devices use the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) which is designed to provide a method of synchronising time on a network.

However, time servers are only as good as the time source that they rely on and when there is a problem with that source, synchronisation will fail and the problems mentioned above can occur.

The most common cause for time server failure or inaccuracy is the reliance on internet based sources of time. These can neither be authenticated by NTP nor guaranteed to be accurate and they can also lead to security issues with firewall intrusion and other malicious attacks.

Ensuring the NTP time server continues to get a source of highly accurate time is fairly straight forward and is all a matter of choosing an accurate, reliable and secure time source.

In most parts of the world there are two methods that can provide a secure and reliable source of time:

  • GPS time signals
  • Radio referenced time signals

GPS signals are available anywhere on the planet and are based on GPS time which is generated by atomic clocks onboard the satellites.

Radio referenced signals like MSF and WWVB are broadcast on long wave from physics laboratories like NIST and NPL.

Synchronizing a PC to an Atomic Clock

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Atomic clocks are without doubt the most accurate time pieces on the face of the planet. In fact the accuracy of an atomic clock in incomparable to any other chronometer, watch or clock.

While an atomic clock will not lose even a second in time in thousands upon thousands of years, you’re average digital watch will perhaps lose a second in just a few days which after a few weeks or months will mean your watch is running slow or fast by several minutes.

The same can also be said for the system clock that controls your computer the only difference is that computers rely even more heavily on time than we ourselves do.

Nearly everything a computer does is reliant on timestamps, from saving work to performing applications, debugging and even emails are all reliant on timestamps which can be a problem if the clock on your computer is running too fast or slow as errors can quite often occur, especially if you are communicating with another computer or device.

Fortunately, most PCs are easily synchronized to an atomic clock meaning they can be accurate as these powerful time keeping devices so any tasks performed by your PC can be in perfect synchronicity with whatever device you are communicating with.

In most PC operating systems an inbuilt protocol (NTP) allows the PC to communicate with a time server that is connected to an atomic clock. In most versions of Windows this is accessed through the date and time control setting (double clicking the clock in the bottom right).

However, for business machines or networks that require secure and accurate time synchronization, online time servers are just not secure or accurate enough to ensure your network is not vulnerable to security flaws.

However, NTP time servers that receive the time direct from atomic clocks are available that can synchronize entire networks. These devices receive a broadcasted timestamp distributed by either national physics laboratories or via the GPS satellite network.

NTP servers enable entire networks to all have exactly synchronized time which is as accurate and secure as is humanly possible.