Category: time server

Time Server Basic Questions Answered

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What is a time server?

A time server is a device that receives and distributes a single time source across a computer network for the purposes of time synchronization. These devices are often referred to as a NTP server, NTP time server, network time server or dedicated time server.

And NTP?

NTP – Network Time Protocol is a set of software instructions designed to transfer and synchronize time across LANs (Local Area Network) or WANS (Wider Area Network). NTP is one of the oldest known protocols in use today and is by far the most commonly used time synchronization application.

What timescale should I use?

Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is a global timescale based on the time told by atomic clocks. UTC doesn’t take into account time zones and is therefore ideal for network applications as in principle by synchronizing a network to UTC you are in effect synchronizing it to every other network that utilises UTC.

Where does a time server receive the time from?

A time server can utilise the time from anywhere such as a wrist watch or wall clock. However, any sensible network administrator would opt to use a source of UTC time to ensure the network is as accurate as possible. UTC is available from several ready sources. The most used is perhaps the internet. There are many ‘time servers’ on the internet that distribute UTC time. Unfortunately, many are not at all accurate an in using an internet time source you could be leaving the network vulnerable as malicious users can take advantage of the open port in the firewall where the timing information flows.

It is far better to use a dedicated NTP time server that receives the UTC time signal external to the network and firewall. The best methods for doing this is to either use the GPS signals transmitted from space or the national time and frequency transmissions broadcast by several countries in long wave.

Does my Computer Network Need to be Synchronized to an Atomic Clock?

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Time synchronization with network time protocol servers (NTP servers) is now a common consideration for network administrators, although, keeping exact time as told by an atomic clock on a computer network is often seen as unnecessary by some administrators

So what are the advantages of synchronizing to an atomic clock and is it necessary for your computer network?  Well the advantages of having accurate time synchronization are manifold but it is the disadvantages of not having it that are most important.

UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) is a global timescale that is kept accurate by a constellation of atomic clocks from all over the world. It is UTC time that NTP time servers normally synchronize too. Not just that it provides a very accurate time reference to for computer networks to synchronize too but also it is used by millions of such networks across the globe therefore synchronizing to UTC is equivalent to synchronizing a computer network to every other network on the globe.

For security reasons it is imperative that all computer networks are synchronized to a stable time source. This doesn’t have to be UTC any single time source will do unless the network conducts time sensitive transactions with other networks then UTC becomes crucial otherwise errors may occur and these can vary from emails arriving before they were despatched to loss of data.  However, as UTC is governed by atomic clocks it makes it a highly accurate and auditable source of time.

Some network administrators take the shortcut of using an internet time server as a source of UTC time, forgoing the need for a dedicated NTP device. However, there are security risks in doing such a thing. Firstly, the inbuilt security mechanism used by NTP, called authentication, which confirms a time source is where and who it claims it is, is unavailable across the internet. Secondly, internet time servers are outside the firewall which means a UDP port needs to be left open to allow the time signal traffic. This can be manipulated by malicious users or viral programs.

A dedicated NTP time server is external to the network and receives the UTC atomic clock time from with either the GPS satellite system (global positioning system) or specialist radio transmissions broadcast by national physics laboratories.

Choosing a Time Source what to do and what not to do

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Time synchronization is crucial for many of the applications that we do across the internet these days; internet banking, online reservation and even online auctions all require network time synchronization.

Failing to ensure their servers are adequately synchronized would mean many of these applications would be impossible to achieve; seat reservations could be sold more than once, lower bids could win internet auctions and it would be possible to withdraw you life savings from the bank twice if they didn’t have adequate synchronization (good for you not for the bank).

Even computer networks that on the face of it do not rely on time sensitive transactions also need to be adequately synchronized as it could be near impossible to track down errors or protect the system from malicious attacks if the timestamps on differ on various machines on the network.

Many organisations opt to use internet time servers as a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) – the atomic clock controlled global timescale. Although there are many security issues in doing so such as leaving a hole in the firewall to communicate with the time server and not having any authentication for the time synchronization protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol).

However, in saying that many network administrators still opt to use online time servers as a UTC source regardless of the security implications although there are other issues that administrators should be aware of. On the internet there are two types of time server – stratum 1 and stratum 2. Stratum 1 servers receive a time signal direct from an atomic clock while stratum 2 servers receive a time signal from a stratum 1 server. Most internet stratum 1 servers are closed – unavailable to most administrators and there can be some shortfall in accuracy in using a stratum 2 server.

For the most accurate, secure and precise timing information external NTP time servers are the best option as these are stratum 1 devices that can synchronize hundreds of machines on a network to the exact same UTC time.

Reported GPS Fears Should Not Affect Time Synchonisation

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Following recent media reports on the lack of investment in the USA’s Global Navigation Satellite System – GPS (Global Positioning System) and the potential failure of navigational receivers in recent years, time synchronisation specialists, Galleon Systems, would like to ensure all their customers that any failure of the GPS network will not affect current GPS NTP time servers.

Recent media reports following a study by the US government’s accountability office (GAO), that concluded mismanagement and a lack of investment meant some the current number of 31 operational satellites may fall to below 24 at times in 2011 and 2012 which would hamper its accuracy.

However, the UK’s National Physical Laboratory are confident that any potential problems of the GPS navigation facilities will not affect timing information utilised by GPS NTP servers.

A spokesman for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory confirmed that timing information should be unaffected by any potential future satellite failure.

“There is estimated to be a 20% risk that in 2011-2012 the number of satellites in the GPS constellation could drop below 24 at times.

“If that were to happen, there could be a slight reduction in the position accuracy of GPS receivers at some periods, and in particular they might take longer to acquire a fix in some locations when first powered up. However, even then the effect would be a degradation of performance, rather than complete failure to operate.

“A GPS timing receiver is unlikely to be affected significantly since, once it has determined its position when turned on, every satellite it observes provides it with useful timing information. A small reduction in the number of satellites in view should not degrade its performance much.”

MSF Outage 11 June NPL Maintenance

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The UK’s MSF signal broadcast from Anthorn, Cumbria and utilised by UK NTP server users is be turned off for a four hour period on 11 June for scheduled maintenance. The MSF 60 kHz time and frequency standard will be off between 10.00 and 14:00 BST (9:00 – 13:00 UTC).

Users of NTP time servers that utilise the MSF signal should be aware of the outage but shouldn’t panic. Most network time servers that use the Anthorn system should still function adequately and the lack of a timing signal for four hours should not create any synchronisation problems or clock drift.

However, any testing of time servers that utilise MSF should be conducted before or after the scheduled outage. Further information is available from NPL.

Any network time server users that require ultra-precise precision or are feel temporary loss of this signal could cause repercussions in their time synchronisation should seriously consider utilising the GPS signal as an additional means of receiving a time signal.

GPS is available literally anywhere on the planet (as long as there is a good clear view of the sky) and is never down due to outages.

For further information on GPS NTP server can be found here.

Bringing Atomic Clock Precision to your Desktop

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Atomic clocks have been a huge influence on our modern lives with many of the technologies that have revolutionised the way we live our lives relying on their ultra precise time keeping abilities.

Atomic clocks are far different to other chronometers; a normal watch or clock will keep time fairly accurately but will lose second or two each day. An atomic clock on the other hand will not lose a second in millions of years.

In fact it is fair to say that an atomic clock doesn’t measure time but is the foundations we base our perceptions of time on. Let me explain, time, as Einstein demonstrated, is relative and the only constant in the universe is the speed of light (though a vacuum).

Measuring time with any real precision is therefore difficult as even the gravity on Earth skews time, slowing it down. It is also almost impossible to base time on any point of reference. Historically we have always used the revolution of the earth and reference to the celestial bodies as a basis for our time telling (24 hours in a day = one revolution of the Earth, 365 days = one revolution of the earth around the Sun etc).

Unfortunately the Earth’s rotation is not an accurate frame of reference to base our time keeping on. The earth slows down and speeds up in its revolution meaning some days are longer than others.

Atomic clocks
however, used the resonance of atoms (normally caesium) at particular energy states. As these atoms vibrate at exact frequencies (or an exact number of times) this can be used as a basis for telling time. So after the development of the atomic clock the second has been defined as over 9 billion resonance ’ticks’ of the caesium atom.

The ultra precise nature of atomic clocks is the basis for technologies such as satellite navigation (GPS), air traffic control and internet trading. It is possible to use the precise nature of atomic clocks to synchronise computer networks too. All that is needed is a NTP time server (Network Time Protocol).
NTP servers receive the time from atomic clocks via a broadcast signal or the GPS network they then distribute it amongst a network ensuring all devices have the exact same, ultra precise time.

Security and Synchronisation

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Security is often the most worried about aspect of running a computer network. Keeping unwanted users out whilst allowing freedom for users to access network applications is a full time job. Yet many network administrators fail to pay any heed to one of the most crucial aspects of keeping a network secure – time synchronisation.

Time synchronisation is not just important but it is vital in network security and yet it is staggering how many network administrators disregard it or fail to have their systems properly synchronised.

Ensuring the same and correct time (ideally UTC – Coordinated Universal Time) is on each network machine is essential as any time delays can be an open door for hackers to slip in undetected and what is worse if machines do get hacked are not running the same time it can be near impossible to detect, repair and get the network back up and running.

Yet time synchronisation is one of the simplest of tasks to employ, particularly as most operating systems have a version of the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol).

Finding an accurate time server can sometimes be problematic particularly if the network is synchronised across the internet as this can raise other security issues such as having an open port in the firewall and a lack of possible authentication by NTP to ensure the signal is trusted.

However, an easier method for time synchronisation, being both accurate and secure, is to use a dedicated NTP time server (also known as network time server). An NTP server will take a time signal direct from GPS or from the national time and frequency radio transmissions put out by organisations such as NIST or NPL.

By using a dedicated NTP server the network will become a lot securer and if the worst does happen and the system does fall victim to malicious users then having a synchronised network will ensure it is easily solvable.

Common GPS Queries

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Is the GPS time signal the same as the GPS positioning signal?

Yes. The signals that are broadcast by GPS satellites contain time information and the position of the satellite it came from (and its velocity). The timing information is generated by an onboard caesium atomic clock. It is this information used by satellite navigation devices (sat navs) that enables global positioning. Sat Navs use these signals from multiple satellites to triangulate a position.

How accurate is GPS positioning?

Because the time signal generated by GPS comes from an atomic clock it is accurate to within 16 nanoseconds (16 billionths of a second). As light travels nearly 186 000 miles in a second this equates to around 16 feet (5+metres) which means a GPS positioning system is usually accurate to this much.

Is GPS time the same as UTC?

No. GPS time, like UTC (Coordinated Universal Time)is based on International Atomic Time (TAI) – the time told by atomic clocks. However as the GPS system was developed several decades ago it is now 14 seconds (and soon to be 15) behind UTC because it has missed out on the Leap Seconds added to UTC to calibrate for the Earth’s slowing rotation.

How can I use GPS as a source of UTC then?

Fortunately a GPS time server will convert GPS to the current UTC time, which as od 1 January 2009 will mean it has to add exactly 15 seconds.

GPS Time Server and its Accuracy from space

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The GPS network (Global Positioning System), is commonly known as a satellite navigation system. It however, actually relays a ultra-precise time signal from an onboard atomic clock.

It is this information that is received by satellite navigation devices that can then triangulate the position of the receiver by working out how long the signal has taken to arrive from various satellites.

These time signals, like all radio transmissions travel at the speed of light (which is close to 300,000km a second). It is therefore highly important that these devices are not just accurate to a second but to a millionth of a second otherwise the navigation system would be useless.

It is this timing information that can be utilized by a GPS time server as a base for network time. Although this timing information is not in a UTC format (Coordinated Universal Time), the World’s global timescale, it easily converted because of its origin from an atomic clock.

A GPS time server can receive the signal from a GPS aerial although this does need to have a good view of the sky as the satellites relay their transmissions via line-of-sight.
Using a dedicated GPS time server a computer network can be synchronised to within a few milliseconds of NTP (milli=1000th of a second) and provide security and authentication.

Following the increase use of GPS technology over the last few years, GPS time servers are now relatively inexpensive and are simple and straight forward systems to install.

Keeping Accurate Time and The Importance of a Network Time Server

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A network time server can be one of the most crucial devices on a computer network as timestamps are vital for most computer applications from sending and email to debugging a network.

Tiny inaccuracies in a timestamp can cause havoc on a network, from emails arriving before they have technically been sent, to leaving an entire system vulnerable to security threats and even fraud.

However, a network time server is only as good as the time source that it synchronises to. Many network administrators opt to receive a timing code from the Internet, however, many Internet time sources are wholly inaccurate and often too far away from a client to provide any real accuracy.

Furthermore, Internet based time sources can’t be authenticated. Authentication is  a security measure used by NTP (Network Time Protocol which controls the network time server) to ensure the time server is exactly what it says it is).

To ensure accurate time is kept it is vital to select a time source that is both secure and accurate. There are two methods which can ensure a millisecond accuracy toUTC (coordinated universal time – a global timescale based on the time told by atomic clocks).

The first is to use a specialist national time and frequency transmission broadcast in several countries including the UK, USA, Germany, France and Japan. Unfortunately these broadcasts can’t be picked up everywhere but the second method is to use the timing signal broadcast by the GPS network which is available literally everywhere on the face of the planet.

A network time server will use this timing code and synchronise an entire network to it using NTP which is why they are often referred to as a NTP server or NTP time server. NTP continually adjusts the network’s clocks ensuring there is no drift.