While many of us are aware of GPS (Global Positioning System) as a navigational tool and many of us have ‘sat navs’ in our cars, but the GPS network has another use that is also important to our day-to-day lives but few people realise it.
GPS satellites contain atomic clocks which transmit to earth an accurate time signal; it is this broadcast that satellite navigation devices use to calculate global position. However, there are other uses for this time signal besides navigation.
Nearly all computer networks are kept accurate to an atomic clock. This is because miniscule accuracies across a network can lead to until problems, from security issues to data loss. Most networks use a form of NTP (Network Time Protocol) to synchronise their networks, but NTP requires a main time source to sync to.
GPS is ideal for this, not only is it an atomic clocks source, which NTP can calculate UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) from, which means that the network will be synchronised to every other UTC network on the globe.
GPS is an ideal source of time as it is available literally everywhere on the planet as long as the GPS antenna has a clear view of the sky. And it is not only computer networks that require atomic clock time, all sorts of technologies require accurate synchronisation: traffic lights, CCTV cameras, air traffic control, internet servers, indeed many modern applications and technology without us realising is being kept true by GPS time.
Top use GPS as a source of time, a GPS NTP server is required. These connect to routers, switches or other technology and receive a regular time signal from the GPS satellites. The NTP server then distributes this time across the network, with the protocol NTP continually checking each device to ensure it is not drifting.
GPS NTP servers are not only accurate they are also highly secure. Some network administrators use internet time servers as a source of time but this can lead to problems. Not only is the accuracy of many of these sources questionable, but the signals can be hijacked by malicious software which can breach the network firewall and cause mayhem.