Category: time server

MSF Technical Information

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The MSF transmission from Anthorn (latitude 54° 55′ N, longitude 3° 15′ W) is the principal means of disseminating the UK national standards of time and frequency which are maintained by the National Physical Laboratory. The effective monopole radiated power is 15 kW and the antenna is substantially omnidirectional. The signal strength is greater than 10 mV/m at 100 km and greater than 100 μV/m at 1000 km from the transmitter. The signal is widely used in northern and western Europe. The carrier frequency is maintained at 60 kHz to within 2 parts in 1012.

Simple on-off carrier modulation is used, the rise and fall times of the carrier are determined by the combination of antenna and transmitter. The timing of these edges is governed by the seconds and minutes of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is always within a second of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Every UTC second is marked by an ‘off’ preceded by at least 500 ms of carrier, and this second marker is transmitted with an accuracy better than ±1 ms.

The first second of the minute begins with a period of 500 ms with the carrier off, to serve as a minute marker. The other 59 (or, exceptionally, 60 or 58) seconds of the minute always begin with at least 100 ms ‘off’ and end with at least 700 ms of carrier. Seconds 01-16 carry information for the current minute about the difference (DUT1) between astronomical time and atomic time, and the remaining seconds convey the time and date code. The time and date code information is always given in terms of UK clock time and date, which is UTC in winter and UTC+1h when Summer Time is in effect, and it relates to the minute following that in which it is transmitted.

Dedicated MSF NTP Server devices are available that can connect directly to the MSF transmission.

Information Courtesy of NPL

Correcting Network Time

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Distributed networks rely completely on the correct time. Computers need timestamps to order events and when a collection of machines are working together it is imperative they run the same time.

Unfortunately modern PC’s are not designed to be perfect timekeepers. Their system clocks are simple electronic oscillators and are prone to drift. This is not normally a problem when the machines are working independently but when they are communicating across a network all sorts of problems can occur.

From emails arriving before they have been sent to entire system crashes, lack of synchronisation can causes untold problems across a network and it is for this reason that network time servers are used to ensure the entire network is synchronised together.

Network time servers come in two forms – The GPS time server and the radio referenced time server. GPS NTP servers use the time signal broadcast from GPS satellites. This is extremely accurate as it is generated by an atomic clock on board the GPS satellite. Radio referenced NTP servers use a long wave transmission broadcast by several national physics laboratories.

Both these methods are a good source of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) the world’s global timescale. UTC is used by networks across the globe and synchronising to it allows computer networks to communicate confidently and partake of time sensitive transactions without error.

Some administrators use the Internet to receive a UTC time source. Whilst a dedicated network time server is not required to do this it does have security drawbacks in that a port is needed to be left open in the firewall for the computer to communicate with the NTP server, this can leave a system vulnerable and open to attack. Furthermore, Internet time sources are notoriously unreliable with many either too inaccurate or too far away to serve any useful purpose.

Why the Need for NTP

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Network Time Protocol is an Internet protocol used to synchronize computer clocks to a stable and precise time reference. NTP was originally developed by Professor David L. Mills at the University of Delaware in 1985 and is an Internet standard protocol.

NTP was developed to solve the problem of multiple computers working together and having the different time. Whilst, time usually just advances, if programs are running on different computers time should advance even if you switch from one computer to another. However, if one system is ahead of the other, switching between these systems would cause time to jump forward and back.

As a consequence, networks may run their own time, but as soon as you connect to the Internet, effects become visible. Just Email messages arrive before they were sent, and are even replied to before they were mailed!

Whilst this sort of problem may seem innocuous when it comes to receiving email, however, in some environments a lack of synchronisation can have disastrous results this is why air traffic control was one of the first applications for NTP.

NTP uses a single time source and distributes it amongst all devices on a network it does this by using an algorithm that works out how much to adjust a system clock to ensure synchronisation.

NTP works on a hierarchical basis to ensure there are no network traffic and bandwidth problems. It uses a single time source, normally UTC (coordinated universal time) and receives time requests from the machines on the top of the hierarch which then pass the time on further down the chain.

Most networks that utilise NTP will use a dedicated network time server to receive their UTC time signal. These can receive the time from the GPS network or radio transmissions broadcast by national physics laboratories. These dedicated NTP time servers are ideal as they receive time direct from an atomic clock source they are also secure as they are situated externally and therefore do not require interruptions in the network firewall.

Where to Find a Public NTP server

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NTP servers are used by computer networks as a timing reference for synchronisation. An NTP server is really a communication device that receives the time from an atomic clock and distributes it. NTP servers that receive a direct atomic clock time are known as stratum 1 NTP servers.

A stratum 0 device is an atomic clock itself. These are highly expensive and delicate pieces of machinery and are only to be found in large scale physics laboratories. Unfortunately there are many rules governing who can access a stratum 1 server because of bandwidth considerations. Most stratum 1 NTP servers are set-up by universities or other non-profit organisations and so have to restrict who accesses them.

Fortunately stratum 2 time servers can offer decent enough accuracy as a timing source and any device receiving a time signal can itself be used as a time reference (a device receiving time from a stratum 2 device is a stratum 3 server. Devices that receive time from a stratum 3 server are stratum 4 devices, and so-on)., is the official home of the NTP pool project and by far the best place to go to find a public NTP server. There are two lists of public servers available in the pool; primary servers, which displays the stratum 1 servers (most of which are closed access) and secondary which are all stratum 2 servers.

When using a public NTP server is important to abide by the access rules as failure to do so can cause the server to become clogged with traffic and if the problems persist possibly discontinued as most public NTP servers are set-up as acts of generosity.

There are some important points to remember when using a timing source from over the Internet. First, Internet timing sources can’t be authenticated. Authentication is an in-built security measure utilised by NTP but unavailable over the net. Secondly, to use an Internet timing source requires an open port in your firewall. A hole in a firewall can be used by malicious users and can leave a system vulnerable to attack.

For those requiring a secure timing source or when accuracy is highly important, a dedicated NTP server that receives a timing signal from either long wave radio transmissions or the GPs network.

MSF Outage 11 December No MSF signal

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NPL Time & Frequency Services

Notice of Interruption MSF 60 kHz Time and Frequency Signal

The MSF 60 kHz time and frequency signal broadcast from Anthorn Radio Station will be shut down over the period:

11 December 2008
from 10:00 UTC to 14:00 UTC

The interruption to the transmission is required to allow scheduled maintenance work to be carried out in safety.

If you would like to download a PDF of this notice, please click here.

If you require any additional information, please contact

Or alternatively please see our website:


Importance of Preventing NTP Time Server Abuse

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NTP time server (Network Time Protocol) abuse is quite often unintentional and fortunately thanks to the NTP pool is less frequent than it was although incidents still happen.

NTP server abuse is any act that violates the access rules of a NTP time server or an act that damages it in any way. Public NTP servers are those servers that can be accessed from across the Internet by devices and routers to use as a timing source to synchronise a network to. Most public NTP time servers are non-profit and set up as acts of generosity, mostly by University’s or other technical centres.

For this reason access rules have to be set up as huge amounts of traffic can generate giant bandwidth bills and can lead to the NTP time server being turned off permanently. Access rules are used to prevent too much traffic from accessing stratum 1 servers, by convention stratum 1 servers should only be accessed by stratum 2 servers which in turn can pass the timing information on down the line.

However, the worst cases of NTP server abuse have been where thousands of devices have sent requests for time, where in the hierarchical nature of NTP only one is needed.

Whilst most acts of NTP abuse are intentional some of the worst abuses of NTP time servers have been committed (albeit unintentionally) by large companies. The first large firm discovered to have been guilty of NTP abuse was Netgear, who, in 2003 released four routers that were all hard coded to use the University of Wisconsin’s NTP server, the resulting DDS (Distributed Denial of Service) reached nearly 150 megabits a second.

Even now, five years on and despite the release of several patches to fix the problem and the University being compensated by Netgear the problem still continues as some people have never patched their routers.

Similar incidents have been committed by SMC and D-Link. D-Link in particular caused controversy as when the matter was drawn to their attention they decided to bring the lawyers in. Only after it was discovered that they violated nearly 50 NTP servers did they attempt resolve the problem (and only after scathing press coverage did they relent).

The easiest way to avoid such problems is to use a dedicated external stratum 1 time server. These devices are relatively inexpensive, simple to install and far more accurate and secure than online NTP servers. These devices receive the time from atomic clocks either from the GPS network (Global Positioning System) .

The importance of time synchronisation in the modern world

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Time has always played an important part in civilisation. Understanding and monitoring time has been one of the pre-occupations of mankind since prehistory and the ability to keep track of time was as important to the ancients as it is to us.

Our ancestors needed to know when the best time was to plant crops or when to gather for religious celebrations and knowing the time means making sure it is the same as everyone else’s.

Time synchronization is the key to accurate time keeping as arranging an event at a particular time is only worthwhile if everybody is running at the same time. In the modern world, as business has moved from a paper-based system to an electronic one, the importance of time synchronisation and the search for ever better accuracy is even more crucial.

Computer networks are now communicating with each other from across the globe conducting billions of dollars worth of transactions every second, millisecond accuracy is now part of business success.

Computer networks can be comprised of hundreds and thousands of computers, servers and routers and while they all have an internal clock, unless they are synchronised perfectly together a myriad of potential problems could occur.

Security breaches, data loss, frequent crashes and breakdowns, fraud and customer credibility are all potential hazards of poor computer time synchronisation. Computers rely on time as the only point of reference between events and many applications and processes are time dependent.

Even discrepancies of a few milliseconds between devices can cause problems particularly in the world of global finance where millions are gained or lost in a second. For this reason most computer networks are controlled by a time server. These devices receive a time signal from an atomic clock. This signal is then distributed to every device on the network, ensuring that all machines have the identical time.

Most synchronisation devices are controlled by the computer program NTP (Network Time Protocol). This software regularly checks each device’s clock for drift (slowing or accelerating from the desired time) and corrects it ensuring the devices never waver from the synchronised time.

The MSF Time Signal

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The MSF time signal is a dedicated radio broadcast providing an accurate and reliable source of UK civil time, based on the global time scale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), the MSF signal is broadcast and maintained by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL).

The MSF time signal can be utilised by anyone requiring accurate timing information its main use however is as a source of UTC time for administrators synchronising a computer network with a radio clock. Radio clocks are really another term for a network time server that utilises a radio transmission as a timing source.

Most radio based network time servers use NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute the timing information throughout the network.

The MSF signal is broadcast from Anthorn Radio station in Cumbria by VT communications under contract to the NPL.  It is available 24 hours a day across the whole of the UK and beyond, although the signal is vulnerable to interference and local topography. Users of the MSF service receive predominantly a ‘ground wave’ signal. However, there is also a residual ‘sky wave’ which is reflected off the ionosphere and is much stronger at night; this can result in a total received signal that is either stronger or weaker.

The MSF signal is carried on a frequency of 60 kHz (to within 2 parts in 1012) and is controlled by a Caesium atomic clock based at the radio station.

The antenna at Anthorn is at 54° 55′ N latitude, and 3° 15′ W longitude. The signal’s field strength exceeds 100 µV/m(micro volts a metre) at a distance of 1000 km from Anthorn, covering the whole of the UK, and can even be received throughout some of northern and western Europe.

The MSF transmits a simple binary code containing time and date information The MSF time and date code includes the following information: year, month, day of month,  day of week,  hour, minute, British Summer Time (in effect or imminent),  DUT1 (a parameter giving UT1-UTC)

GPS Time Server Receiving Time from Space

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GPS time servers are network time servers that receive a timing signal from the GPS network and distribute it amongst all devices on a network ensuring that the entire network is synchronised.

GPS is an ideal time source as a GPS signal is available anywhere on the globe. GPS stands for Global Positioning System, the GPS network is owned by the US military and controlled and run by the US air force (space wing). It is however, since the late 1980’s been opened up to the world’s civilian population as tool to aid navigation.

The GPS network is actually a constellation of 32 satellites that orbit the Earth, they do not actually provide positioning information (GPS receivers do that) but transmit from their onboard atomic clocks a timing signal.

This timing signal is what is used to work out a global position by triangulating 3-4 timing signals a receiver can work out how far and therefore the position you are from a satellite. In essence then, a global positioning satellite is just an orbiting clock and it is this information that is broadcast that can be picked up by a GPS time server and distributed amongst a network.

Whilst strictly speaking GPS time is not the same as the global timescale UTC (coordinated universal time), a GPS time server will automatically convert the time format into UTC.

A GPS time server can provide unbridled accuracy with networks able to maintain accuracy to within a few milliseconds of UTC.

Time Synchronisation What is time?

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Time servers are common apparatus in modern server rooms but time synchronisation has only become possible thanks to ideas of physicist of the last century and it is our these ideas of time that has made many of the technologies of the last few decades possible.

Time  is one of the most difficult of concepts to understand. Until the last century it was thought that time was a constant but it wasn’t until the ideas of Einstein that we discovered time was relative.
Relative time was a consequence of Einstein’s most popular theory the ‘General Theory of Relativity’ and its famous equation E=MC2.

What Einstein discovered was that the speed of light was the only constant in the Universe (in a vacuum anyway) and that time will differ for different observers. Einstein’s equations demonstrated that the faster an observer travelled towards the speed of light the slower time would become.

He also discovered that time wasn’t a separate entity of out universe but was part of a four dimensional space-time and that the effects of gravity would warp this space time causing time to slow.

Many modern technologies such as satellite communication and navigation have to take these ideas into account otherwise satellites would fall out of orbit and it would be impossible to communicate across the globe.

Atomic clocks are so accurate they can lose less than a second in 400 million years but consideration to Einstein’s ideas have to be taken into account as atomic clocks based at sea level run slower that those at higher altitude because of the Earth’s gravity warping spacetime.

A universal time scale has been developed called UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is based on the time told by atomic clocks but compensates for the minute slowing of the Earth’s rotation (caused by the gravity of the Moon) by adding Leap Seconds every year to prevent day from creeping into night (albeit in a millennia or two).

Thanks to atomic clocks and UTC time computer networks all over the world can receive a UTC time source over the Internet, via a national radio transmission or through the GPS network. A NTP server (Network Time Protocol) can synchronise all devices on a network to that time.