Category: time server

Features of Network Time Protocol

  |   By

NTP is reliant on a reference clock and all clocks on the NTP network are synchronised to that time. It is therefore imperative that the reference clock is as accurate as possible. The most accurate timepieces are atomic clocks. These large physics lab devices can maintain accurate time over millions of years without losing a second.

An NTP server will receive the time from an atomic clock either from across the internet, the GPS network or radio transmissions. In using a atomic clock as a reference an NTP network will be accurate to within a few milliseconds of the world’s global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

NTP is a hierarchical system. The closer a device is to the reference clock the higher on the NTP strata it is. An atomic clock reference clock is a stratum 0 device and a NTP server that receives the time from it is a stratum 1 device, clients of the NTP server are stratum 2 devices and so on.

Because of this hierarchical system, devices lower down the strata can also be used as a reference which allows huge networks to operate while connected to just one NTP time server.

NTP is a protocol that is fault tolerant. NTP watches out for errors and can process multiple time sources and the protocol will automatically select the best.   Even when a reference clock is temporarily unavailable, NTP can use past measurements to estimate the current time..

The Importance of the Atomic Clock

  |   By

Most people have vaguely heard of the atomic clock and presume they know what one is but very few people know just how important atomic clocks are for the running of our day to day lives in the twenty first century.

There are so many technologies that are reliant on atomic clocks and without many of the tasks we take for granted would be impossible. Air traffic control, satellite navigation and internet trading are just a few of the applications that are reliant on the ultra precise chronometry of an atomic clock.

Exactly what an atomic clock is, is often misunderstood. In simple terms an atomic clock is a device that uses the oscillations of atoms at different energy states to count ticks between seconds. Currently caesium is the preferred atom because it has over 9 billion ticks every second and because these oscillations never change it makes them a highly accurate method of keeping time.

Atomic clocks despite what many people claim are only ever found in large scale physics laboratories such as NPL (UK National Physical Laboratory) and NIST (US National Institute of Standards and Time). Often people suggest they have an atomic clock that controls their computer network or that they have an atomic clock on their wall. This is not true and what people are referring to is that they have a clock or time server that receives the time from an atomic clock.

Devices like the NTP time server often receive atomic clock signals form places such as NIST or NPL via long wave radio. Another method for receiving time from atomic clocks is using the GPS network (Global Positioning System).

The GPS network and satellite navigation are in fact a good example of why atomic clock synchonization is much needed with such high level of accuracy. Modern atomic clocks such as those found at NIST, NPL and inside orbiting GPS satellites are accurate to within a second every 100 million years or so. This accuracy is crucial when you examine how something like a cars GPS satellite navigation system works.

A GPS system works by triangulating the time signals sent from three or more separate GPS satellites and their onboard atomic clocks. Because these signals travel at the speed of light (nearly 100,000km a second) an inaccuracy of even one whole millisecond could put the navigational information out by 100 kilometres.

This high level of accuracy is also required for technologies such as air traffic control ensuring our crowded skies remain safe and is even critical for many Internet transactions such as trading in derivatives where the value can rise and fall every second.

Network Time Server Dual Signals

  |   By

A network time server (commonly referred to as the NTP time server after the protocol used in synchronisation – Network Time Protocol) is a device that receives a single time signal and distributes it to all devices on a network.

Network time servers are preferred as a synchronisation tool rather than the much simpler internet time servers because they are far more secure. Using the internet as a basis for time information would mean using a source outside the firewall which could allow malicious users to take advantage.

Network time servers on the other hand work inside the firewall by receiving source of UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) from either the GPS network or specialist radio transmissions broadcast from national physics laboratories.

Both of these signals are incredibly accurate and secure with both methods providing millisecond accuracy to UTC. However, there are downsides to both systems. The radio signals broadcast by nation time and frequency laboratories are susceptible to interference and locality, while the GPS signal, although available literally everywhere on the globe can occasional be lost too (often due to bad weather interfering with the line-of-sight GPS signals.

For computer networks where high levels of accuracy are imperative, dual systems are often incorporated. These network time servers receive the time signal from both the GPS network and the radio transmissions and select an average for even more accuracy.  However, the real advantage of using a dual system is that if one signal fails, for what ever the reason, the network will not have to rely on the inaccurate system clocks as the other method of receiving UTC time should still be operational.

Useful NTP server related resources

  |   By

NTP homepage–  The home for the NTP Project who provides support and additional development resources for the Official Reference Implementation of NTP.

NTP Project support pages

THE NTP pool – list of public servers

NPL – The National Physical Laboratory in the UK who control the MSF radio signal.

The University of Delaware and David Mills’ information page, Professor Mills is the original inventor and developer of NTP

David Mills’ list of Public NTP Time Servers a list of public NTP servers

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who operate the USA’s WWVB radio signal

Europe’s largest supplier of NTP server related products.

Galleon UK – NTP server products for the UK

NTP Time Server .com  – one of the largest time and frequency suppliers in the United States

NTP – Wikipedia article on NTP

NTP server checker – free tool to ensure time server accuracy

Using Time and Frequency Transmissions to Synchronise a Computer Network

  |   By

Computer network synchronisation is often perceived as a headache for many system administrators but keeping accurate time is essential for any network to remain secure and reliable. Failing to have an accurate synchronised network can lead to all sorts of errors when dealing with time sensitive transactions.

The protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) is the industry standard for time synchronisation. NTP distributes a single time source to an entire network ensuring all machines are running the exact same time.

One of the most problematic areas in synchronising a network is in the selection of the time source. Obviously if you are spending time getting a network synchronised then the time source would have to be a UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) as this is the global timescale used by computer networks all over the world.

UTC is available across the internet of course but internet time sources are not only notoriously inaccurate but using the internet as a time source will leave computer system open to security threats as the source is external to the firewall.

A far better and secure method is to use a dedicated NTP time server. The NTP server sits inside the firewall and can receive a secure time signal from highly accurate sources. The most commonly used these days is the GPS network (Global Positioning System) this is because the GPS system is available literally anywhere on the planet. Unfortunately it does require a clear view of the sky to ensure the GPS NTP server can ‘see’ the satellite.

There is another alternative however, and that is to use the national time and frequency transmissions broadcast by several national physics laboratories. These have the advantage in that being long wave signals they can be received indoors. Although it must be noted these signals are not broadcast in every country and the range is finite and susceptible to interference and geographical features.

Some of the main transmissions broadcast are known as: the UK’s MSF signal, Germany’s DCF-77 and the USA’s WWVB.

Using GPS to Synchronise Network Time

  |   By

The global positioning system has been around since the 1980’s. It was designed and built by the United States Military who wanted an accurate positioning system for battlefield situations. However, following the accidental shooting down or a Korean airliner, the then US president (Ronald Reagan) agreed that the system should be allowed to be used by civilians as a way of preventing such a disaster from occurring again.

From then on the system has broadcast in to two frequencies L2 for the US Military and L1 for civilian use. The system works by using ultra precise atomic clocks that are on board each satellite. The GPS transmission is a timecode produced from this clock combined with information such as the position and velocity of the satellite. This information is then picked up by the satellite navigation receiver that calculates how long the message took to reach it and therefore how far from the satellite it is.

By using triangulation (use of three of these signals) the exact position on Earth of the GPS receiver can be ascertained. Because the speed of the transmissions, like all radio signals, travels at the speed of light it is highly important that the GPS clocks are ultra-precise. Just one second of inaccuracy is enough to make the navigational unit inaccurate to over 100,000 miles as light can travel such vast distances in such a short space of time.

Because GPS clocks have such a high level of accuracy it means they also have another use. The GPS signal, being available anywhere on the planet, is a highly efficient means of getting a time signal to synchronise a computer network too. A dedicated GPS time server will receive the GPS signal then convert the atomic time signal from it (known as GPS time) and convert it to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is simple to do as both timescales are based on International Atomic Time (TAI) and the only difference being GPS time does not account for leap seconds meaning it is ‘exactly’ 15 seconds faster.

A GPS time server will most likely use the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute the time to a network. NTP is by far the most commonly used network time protocol and is installed in most dedicated time servers and a version is also included in most Windows and Linux operating systems.

The Atomic Clock and the Network Time Server

  |   By

The atomic clock is the culmination of mankind’s obsession of telling accurate time. Before the atomic clock and the nanosecond accuracy they, employ time scales were based on the celestial bodies.

However, thanks to the development of the atomic clock it has now been realised that even the Earth in its rotation is not as accurate a measure of time as the atomic clock as it loses or gains a fraction of a second each day.

Because of the need to have a timescale based somewhat on the Earth’s rotation (astronomy and farming being two reasons) a timescale that is kept by atomic clocks but adjusted for any slowing (or acceleration) in the Earth’s spin. This timescale is known as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) as employed across the globe ensuring commerce and trade utilise the same time.

Computer networks use network time servers to synchronise to UTC time. Many people refer to these time server devices as atomic clocks but that is inaccurate. Atomic clocks are extremely expensive and highly sensitive pieces of equipment and are only usually to be found in universities or national physics laboratories.

Fortunately national physics laboratories like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time – USA) and NPL (National Physical Laboratory – UK) broadcast the time signal from their atomic clocks. Alternatively the GPS network is another good source of accurate time as each GPS satellite has onboard its own atomic clock.

The network time server receives the time from an atomic clock and distributes it using a protocol such as NTP (Network Time Protocol) ensuring the computer network is synchronised to the same time.

Because network time servers are controlled by atomic clocks they can keep incredibly accurate time; not losing a second in hundreds if not thousands of years. This ensures that the computer network is both secure and unsusceptible to timing errors as all machines will have the exact same time.

A History of Atomic Clocks

  |   By

The atomic clock is the culmination of mankind’s ability to keep time that has spanned several millennia. Humans have always been preoccupied with keeping track of time ever since early man noticed the regularity of the celestial bodies.

The sun, moon, stars and planets soon became the basis for out timescales with periods of time such as years, months, days and hours based solely on the regulation of the Earth’s rotation.

This worked for thousands of years as a reliable guide to how much time has past but over the last few centuries humans have strode to find even more reliable methods for keeping track of time. Whilst the Sun and celestial bodies were an affective way sundials didn’t work on cloudy days and as the days and night s altered during the year only noon (when the sun is at its highest) could be reasonably relied upon.

The first foray into an accurate timepiece that was not reliant on celestial bodies and was not a simple time (such as a candle taper or water clock) but actually told time over a prolonged period was the mechanical clock.

These first devices dating as far back as the twelfth century were crude mechanisms using a verge and foliot escapement (a gear and lever) to control the ticks of the clock. After a few centuries and a myriad of designs the mechanical clock took its next step forward with the pendulum. The pendulum gave clocks their first true accuracy as it controlled with more precision the ticks of the clock.

However, it wasn’t until the twentieth century when clocks entered the electronic age did they become truly accurate. The digital and electronic clock had its ticks controlled by using the oscillation of a quartz crystal (its changed energy state when a current is based through) which proved so accurate that rarely a second a week was lost.

The development of atomic clocks in the 1950’s used the oscillation of a single atom which generates over 9 billion ticks a second and can maintain precise time for millions of years without losing a second. These clocks now form the basis of our timescales with the entire world synchronised to them using NTP servers, ensuring wholly accurate and reliable time.

Leap Second Errors and Configuration

  |   By

Apart from the usual celebrations and revelry the end of December brought with the addition of another Leap Second to UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time).

UTC is the global timescale used by computer networks across the world ensuring that everybody is keeping the same time. Leap Seconds are added to UTC by the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS) in response to the slowing of the Earth’s rotation due to tidal forces and other anomalies. Failure to insert a leap second would mean that UTC would drift away from GMT (Greenwich Meantime) – often referred to as UT1. GMT is based on the position of the celestial bodies so at midday the sun is at its highest above the Greenwich Meridian.

If UTC and GMT were to drift apart it would make life difficult for people like astronomers and farmers and eventually night and day would drift (albeit in a thousand years or so).

Normally leap seconds are added to the very last minute of December 31 but occasionally if more than one is required in a year then is added in the summer.

Leap seconds, however, are controversial and can also cause problems if equipment isn’t designed with leap seconds in mind. For instance, the most recent leap second was added on 31 December and it caused database giant Oracle’s Cluster Ready Service to fail. It resulted in the system automatically rebooting itself on New Year.

Leap Seconds can also cause problems if networks are synchronised using Internet time sources or devices that require manual intervention.  Fortunately most dedicated NTP servers are designed with Leap Seconds in mind. These devices require no intervention and will automatically adjust the entire network to the correct time when there is a Leap Second.

A dedicated NTP server is not only self-adjusting requiring no manual intervention  but also they are highly accurate being stratum 1 servers (most Internet time sources are stratum 2 devices in other words devices that receive time signals from stratum 1 devices then reissue it) but they are also highly secure being external devices not required to be behind the firewall.

The NTP Server and the Atomic Clock Reason for Precision

  |   By

In an age of atomic clocks and the NTP server time keeping is now more accurate then ever with ever increasing precision having allowed many of the technologies and systems we now take for granted.

Whilst timekeeping has always been a preoccupation of mankind, it has only been in the last few decades that true accuracy has been possible thanks to the advent of the atomic clock.

Before atomic time, electrical oscillators like those found in the average digital watch were the most accurate measure of time and whilst electronic clocks like these are far more precise than their predecessors – the mechanical clocks, they can still drift by up to a second a week.

But why does time need to be so precise, after all, how important can a second be? In the day-to-day running of our lives a second isn’t that important and electronic clocks (and even mechanical ones) provide adequate timekeeping for our needs.

In our day-to-day lives a second makes little difference but in many modern applications a second can be an age.

Modern satellite navigation is one example. These devices can pinpoint a location anywhere on earth to within a few metres. Yet they can only do this because of the ultra-precise nature of the atomic clocks that control the system as the time signal sent from the navigation satellites travels at the speed of light which is nearly 300,000 km a second.

As light can travel such a vast distance in a second any atomic clock governing a satellite navigation system that was just one second out it would the positioning would be inaccurate by thousands of miles, rendering the positioning system useless.

There are many other technologies that require similar accuracy and also many of the ways we trade and communicate. Stocks and shares fluctuate up and down every second and global trade requires that everybody all over the world has to communicate using the same time.

Most computer networks are controlled by using a NTP server (Network Time Protocol). These devices allow computer networks to all use the same atomic clock based timescale UTC (coordinated universal time). By utilising UTC via a NTP server, computer networks can be synchronised to within a few milliseconds of each other.