Category: time server

The Vulnerability of GPS

  |   By

An increase in GPS ‘attacks’ has been causing some concern amongst the scientific community.  GPS, whilst a highly accurate and reliable system of transmitting time and positing information, relies on very weak signals that are being hampered by interference from the Earth.

Both unintentional interference such as from pirate radio stations or intentional deliberate ‘jamming’ by criminals is still rare but as technology that can hamper GPS signals becomes more readily available, the situation is expected to get worse.

And while the effects of signal failure of the GPS system may have obvious results for people who use it for navigation (ending up in the wrong location or getting lost) it could have more serious and profound repercussions for the technologies that rely on GPS for time signals.

As so many technologies now rely on GPS timing signals from telephone networks, the internet, banking and traffic lights and even our power grid any signal failure no matter how briefly, could cause serious problems.

The main problem with the GPS signal is that it is very weak and as it comes from space bound satellites, little can be done to boost the signal so any similar frequency being broadcast in a local area can easily drown out GPS.

However, GPS is not the only accurate and secure method of receiving the time from an atomic clock source. Many national physics laboratories from across the globe broadcast atomic clock signals via radio waves (usually long wave). In the USA these signals are broadcast by NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time (known as WWVB) whilst in the UK, it’s MSF signal is broadcast by NPL (National Physical Laboratory).

Dual time servers that can receive both signals are available and are a safer bet for any high technology company that can’t afford to risk losing a time signal.

Common Issues in Time Synchronisation

  |   By

Time synchronization is essential in modern computer networking especially with the amount of time sensitive transactions conducted over the internet these days. Without adequate synchronization computer systems will:

  • Be vulnerable to malicious attacks
  • Susceptible to data loss
  • Unable to conduct time sensitive transactions
  • Difficult to debug

Fortunately ensuring a computer network is accurately synchronized is relatively straight forward. There different methods of synchronizing a network to the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) but occasionally some common issues do arise.

My dedicated time server is unable to receive a signal

Dedicated NTP time servers receive the time from either long wave transmissions or GPS networks. If using a GPS NTP server then a GPS antenna needs to be situated on a roof to obtain a clear view of the sky. However, a NTP radio receiver does not need a roof mounted aerial although the signal can be vulnerable to interference and the correct angle toward the transmitter should be attained.

I am using a public time server across the Internet but my devices are not synchronised.

As public time servers can be used by anyone they can receive high levels of traffic. This can cause problems with bandwidth and mean that your time requests can’t get through. Public NTP servers can also fall victim to DDoS attacks and some high profile incidents of NTP vandalism have occurred.

Internet time servers are also stratum 2 devices, in other words they themselves have to connect to a time server to receive the correct time and because of this some online time references are wildly inaccurate.

*NB – internet time servers are also incapable of being authenticated to allow NTP to establish if the time source is coming from where it claims to be, combined with the problem of ensuring the firewall is open to receive the time requests, can mean that internet time servers present a clear risk to security.

The time on my computer seems to be off by a second to standard UTC time

You need to check if a recent leap second has been added to UTC. Leap seconds are added once or twice a year to ensure UTC and the Earth’s rotation match. Some time servers experience difficulties in making the leap second adjustment.

Radio Controlled Clocks Atomic Clocks on Shortwave

  |   By

Atomic clocks are a marvel compared to other forms of timekeepers. It would take over 100,000 years for an atomic clock to lose a second in time which is staggering especially when you compare it to digital and mechanical clocks that can drift that much in a day.

But atomic clocks are not practical pieces of equipment to have around the office or home. They are bulky, expensive and require laboratory conditions to operate effectively. But making use of an atomic clock is straightforward enough especially as atomic time keepers like NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) and NPL (National Physical Laboratory) broadcast the time as told by their atomic clocks on short wave radio.

NIST transmits its signal, known as WWVB from Boulder, Colorado and it is broadcast on an extremely low frequency (60,000 Hz). The radio waves from WWVB station can cover all of the continental United States plus much of Canada and Central America.

The NPL signal is broadcast in Cumbria in the UK and it is transmitted along similar frequencies. This signal, known as MSF is available throughout most of the UK and similar systems are available in other countries such as Germany, Japan and Switzerland.

Radio controlled atomic clocks receive these long wave signals and correct themselves according to any drift the clock detects. Computer networks also take advantage of these atomic clocks signals and use the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) and dedicated NTP time servers to synchronise hundreds and thousands of different computers.

Atomic Clocks the Key to Network Synchronisation

  |   By

Sourcing the correct time for network synchronisation is only possible thanks to atomic clocks. Compared to standard timing devices and atomic clock is millions of times more accurate with the latest designs providing accurate time to within a second in a 100,000 years.

Atomic clocks use the unchanging resonance of atoms during different energy states to measure time providing an atomic tick that occurs nearly 9 billion times a second in the case of the caesium atom. In fact the resonance of caesium is now the official definition of a second having been adopted by the International System of Unit (SI).

Atomic clocks are the base clocks used for the international time, UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). And they also provide the basis for NTP servers to synchronise computer networks and time sensitive technologies such as those used by air traffic control and other high level time sensitive applications.

Finding an atomic clock source of UTC is a simple procedure. Particularly with the presence of online time sources such as those provided by Microsoft and the National Institute for Standards and Time (windows.time.com and nist.time.gov).

However, these NTP servers are what are known as stratum 2 devices that mean they are connected to another device which in turn gets the time from an atomic clock (in other words a second-hand source of UTC).

While the accuracy of these stratum 2 servers is unquestionable, it can be affected by the distance the client is from the time servers, they are also outside the firewall meaning that any communication with an online time server requires an open UDP (User Datagram Protocol) port to allow the communication.

This can cause vulnerabilities in the network and are not used for this reason in any system that requires complete security. A more secure (and reliable) method of receiving UTC is to use a dedicated NTP time server. These time synchronisation devices receive the time direct from atomic clocks either broadcast on long wave by places like NIST or NPL (National Physical Laboratory – UK). Alternatively UTC can be derived from the GPS signal broadcast by the constellation of satellites in the GPS network (Global Positioning System).

Network Time Protocol For When Time Matters

  |   By

There is a certain irony that the computer that sits on your desktop and may have cost as much as month’s salary will have a clock onboard that is less accurate than a cheap wristwatch bought at a petrol or gas station.

The problem is not that computers are in particularly made with cheap timing components but that any serious timekeeping on a PC can be achieved without expensive or advanced oscillators.

The onboard timing oscillators on most PCs are in fact just a back up to keep the computer clock synchronised when the PC is off or when network timing information is unavailable.

Despite these inadequate onboard clocks, timing on a network of PC’s can be achieved to within millisecond accuracy and a network that is synchronised to the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) shouldn’t drift at all.

The reason this high level of accuracy and synchronicity can be achieved without expensive oscillators is that computers can use Network Timing Protocol (NTP) to find and maintain the exact time.

NTP is an algorithm that distributes a single source of time; this can be generated by the onboard clock of a PC – although this would see every machine on the network drift as the clock itself drifts – A far better solution is to use NTP to distribute a stable, accurate source of time, and most preferably for networks that conduct business across the internet, a source of UTC.

The simplest method of receiving UTC – which is kept true by a constellation of atomic clocks around the globe – is to use a dedicated NTP time server. NTP servers use either GPS satellite signals (Global Positioning System) or long wave radio broadcasts (usually transmitted by national physics laboratories like NPL or NIST).

Once received the NTP server distributes the timing source across the network and constantly checks each machine for drift (In essence the networked machine contacts the server as a client and the information is exchanged via TCP/IP.

This makes the onboard clocks of the computers themselves obsolete, although when the machines are initially booted up, or if there has been a delay in contacting the NTP server (if it is down or there is a temporary fault), the onboard clock is used to maintain time until full synchronisation is again achievable.

Time Servers and the Internet

  |   By

Timing is becoming increasingly crucial for computer systems. It is now almost unheard of for a computer network to function without synchronisation to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). And even single machines used in the home are now equipped with automatic synchronisation. The latest incarnation of Windows for instance, Windows 7, connects to a timing source automatically (although this application can be turned off manually by accessing the time and date preferences.)

The inclusion of these automatic synchronisation tools on the latest operating systems is an indication of how important timing information has become and when you consider the types of applications and transactions that are now conducted on the internet it is of no surprise.

Internet banking, online reservations, internet auctions and even email can be reliant on accurate time. Computers use timestamps as the only point of reference they have to identify when and if a transaction has occurred. Mistakes in timing information can cause untold errors and problems, particularly with debugging.

The internet is full of time servers with over a thousand time sources available for online synchronisation however; the accuracy and usefulness of these online sources of UTC time do vary and leaving a TCP/IP open in the firewall to allow the timing information through can leave a system vulnerable.

For network systems where timing is not only crucial but where security is also a paramount issue then the internet is not a preferred source for receiving UTC information and an external source is required.

Connecting a NTP network to an external source of UTC time is relatively straightforward if a network time server is used. These devices that are often referred to as NTP servers, use the atomic clocks onboard GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites or long wave transmissions broadcast by places such as NIST or NPL.

Network Time Protocol Time Synchronisation Made Easy

  |   By

One of the most important aspects of networking is keeping all devices synchronised to the correct time. Incorrect network time and lack of synchronisation can play havoc with system processes and can lead to untold errors and problems debugging.

And failing to ensure devices are continually checked to prevent drift can also lead to a synchronised network slowly becoming unsynchronised and leading to the kinds of problems aforementioned.

However, ensuring a network not only has the correct time but that that time is not drifting is achieved using the time protocol NTP.

Network Time Protocol (NTP) is not the only time synchronisation protocol but it is by far the most widely used. It is an open source protocol but is continually updated by a large community of Internet time keepers.

NTP is based around an algorithm that can work out the correct and most accurate time from a range of sources. NTP allows a single time source to be used by a network of hundreds and thousands of machines and it can keep each one accurate to that time source to within a few milliseconds.

The easiest way of synchronising a network with NTP is to use a NTP time server, also known as a network time server.

NTP servers use an external source of time, either from the GPS network (Global Positioning System), or from broadcasts from national physics laboratories such as NIST in the US or NPL in the UK.

These time signals are generated by atomic clocks which are many times more accurate than the clocks on computers and servers. NTP will distribute this atomic clock time to all devices on a network it will then keep checking each device to ensure there is no drift and correcting the device if there is.

Seven Reasons why your Network needs a Time Server

  |   By

Time servers, often referred to as NTP time servers after the protocol (Network Time Protocol) used to distribute time are an increasingly important part of any computer network. The NTP server receives a timing signal from an accurate source (such as an atomic clock) and then distributes it to all devices on the network.

However, despite the increasing importance of these time synchronisation devices, many network administrators still fail to accurately synchronise their networks and can leave their entire computer system vulnerable.

Here are seven reasons why a NTP time server is a crucial piece of equipment for YOUR network:

• Security: NTP servers use an external source of time and don’t rely on an open firewall port. An unsynchronized server will also be vulnerable to malicious users who can take advantage of time differences.

• Error logging: failing to adequately synchronize a computer network may mean that it is near impossible to trace errors or malicious attack, especially if the times on the log files from different machine do not match.

• Legal Protection: Not being able to prove the time can have legal implications if somebody has committed fraud or other illegal activity against your company.

• Accuracy: NTP Time Servers ensure that all networked computers are synchronized automatically to the exact time throughout your network so everybody in your company can have access to the exact time.

• Global Harmony: A global timescale known as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) has been developed to ensure that systems across the globe can run the exact same time. By utilising a NTP server not only will every device on you network be synchronised together but your network will be synchronised with every other network on Earth that is hooked up to UTC.

• Control: With a NTP server you have control of the configuration. You can allow automatic changes each spring and autumn for daylight saving time or set your server time to be locked to UTC time only – or indeed, any time zone you choose.

• Automatic update of time. No user intervention required, a NTP time server will account for leap seconds and time zones ensuring trouble free synchronisation.

Life Without the Atomic Clock

  |   By

When we consider the most important inventions of the last 100 years, very few people will think of an atomic clock. In fact, if you ask somebody to come up with a top ten of inventions and innovations its doubtful if the atomic clock would figure at all.

Its probably not hard to imagine what people think of as the most life-changing inventions: the Internet, mobile phones, satellite navigation systems, media players etc.

However, nearly all theses technologies rely on accurate and precise time and they would not function without it. The atomic clocks lies at the heart of many of the modern innovations, technologies and applications associated with them.

Let’s take the Internet as an example. The Internet is, in its simplest form, a global network of computers, and this network spans time zones and countries. Now consider some of the things we use the Internet for: online auctions, Internet banking or seat reservation for example. These transactions could not be possible with precise and accurate time and synchronisation.

Imagine booking a seat on an airline at 10am and then another customer tries to book the same seat after you on a computer with a slower clock. The computer only has the time to go on so will consider the person who booked after you to have been the first customer because the clock says so! This is the reason any Internet network that requires time sensitive transactions is connected to a NTP server to receive and distribute an atomic clock time signal.

And for other technologies the atomic clock is even more crucial. Satellite navigation (GPS) is a prime example. GPS (Global Positioning System) works by triangulating atomic clock signals from satellites. Because of the high velocity of radio waves an inaccuracy of 1 second could see a sat-nav device out by 100,000 km.

Other technologies too from mobile phone networks to air traffic control systems are completely reliable on atomic clocks demonstrating how underrated this technology is.

Keeping Your Network Secure A Beginners Guide

  |   By

Network security is vitally important for most business systems. Whilst email viruses and denial-of-service attacks (DoS attack) may cause us headaches on our home systems, for businesses, these sorts of attacks can cripple a network for days – costing businesses hundreds of millions each year in lost revenue.

Keeping a network secure to prevent this type of malicious attack is usually of paramount importance for network administrators, and while most invest heavily in some forms of security measures there is often vulnerabilities inadvertently left exposed.

Firewalls are the best place to begin when you are trying to develop a secure network. A firewall can be implemented in either hardware or software, or most commonly a combination of both. Firewalls are used to prevent unauthorized users from accessing private networks connected to the Internet, especially local intranets. All traffic entering or leaving the intranet pass through the firewall, which examines each message and blocks those that do not meet the specified criteria.

Anti-virus software works in two ways. Firstly it acts similarly to a firewall by blocking anything that is identified in its database as possibly malicious (viruses, Trojans, spyware etc). Secondly Anti-virus software is used to detect, and remove existing malware on a network or workstation.

One of the most over-looked aspects of network security is time synchronization. Network administrators either fail to realise the importance of synchronization between all devices on a network. Failing to synchronize a network is often a common security issue. Not only can malicious users take advantage of computers running at different times but if a network is struck by an attack, identifying and rectifying the problem can be near impossible if every device is running on a different time.

Even when a network administrator is aware of the importance of time synchronization they often make a common security mistake when attempting to synchronize their network. Instead of investing in a dedicated time server that receives a secure source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) externally from their network using atomic clock sources like GPS, some network administrators opt to use a shortcut and use a source of Internet time.

There are two major security issues in using the Internet as a time server. Firstly, to allow the time code through the network a UDP port (123) has to be left open in the firewall. This can be taken advantage of by malicious users who can use this open port as an entrance to the network. Secondly, the inbuilt security measure used by the time protocol NTP, known as authentication, doesn’t work across the Internet which means that NTP has no guarantee the time signal is coming from where it is supposed to.

To ensure your network is secure isn’t it time you invested in an external dedicated NTP time server?