Using Atomic Clock Time Signals

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Accuracy is becoming more and more relevant as technology becomes increasingly important to the functioning of our everyday lives. And as our economies become more reliant on the global marketplace, accuracy and synchronisation of time is very important.

Computers seem to control much our daily lives and time is essential for the modern computer network infrastructure. Timestamps ensure actions are carried out by computers and are the only point of reference IT systems have for error checking, debugging and logging. A problem with the time on a computer network and it could lead to data getting lost, transactions failing and security issues.

Synchronisation on a network and synchronisation with another network that you communicate with are essential to prevent the above mentioned errors. But when it comes to communicating with networks across the globe things can be even trickier as the time on the other-side of the world is obviously different as you pass each time-zone.

To counter this, a global timescale based on atomic clock time was devised. UTC – Coordinated Universal Time – does away with time-zones enabling all networks across the globe to use the same time source – ensuring that computers, no matter where they are in the world, are synchronised together.

To synchronise a computer network, UTC is distributed using the time synchronisation software NTP (Network Time Protocol). The only complication is receiving a source of UTC time as it is generated by atomic clocks which are multi-million dollar systems that are not available for mass use.

Fortunately, signals from atomic clocks can be received using a NTP time server. These devices can receive radio transmissions that are broadcast from physic laboratories which can be used as a source of time to synchronise an entire network of computers to.

Other NTP time servers use the signals beamed from GPS satellites as a source of time. The positioning information in these signals is actually a time signal generated by atomic clocks onboard the satellites (which is then triangulated by the GPS receivers).

Whether it’s a radio referenced NTP server or a GPS time server – an entire network of hundreds, and even thousands of machines can be synchronised together.

The Effects of No Time Signal

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NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) are an essential tool in the modern computer network. They control the time, ensuring every device on the network is synchronised.

Because of the importance of time in controlling nearly every aspect of computer networking accurate and synchronised time is essential which is why so many system administrators deploy a NTP time server.

These time servers use a single time source as a base to set all the clocks on a network to; the time is often got from the GPS network or radio signals broadcast from physics laboratories such as NPL in the UK (whose signal is broadcast from Cumbria).

Once this signal is received by the time server, the time protocol NTP then distributes it around the network – comparing the system clock of every device to the time reference and adjusting each device. By regularly assessing the drift of these devices and correcting for them NTP keeps clocks accurate to within milliseconds of the time signal and when this signal emanates from an atomic clock – it ensures the network is as accurate as physically possible, but what happens if you lose the time signal?

Damaged GPS antennas, maintenance of time signal transmitters or technical faults can lead to a NTP time sever failing to receive a time signal. Often, this is only temporary and normal service is resumed within a few hours but what happens if it doesn’t, and what is the effect of having a failed time signal?

Fortunately, NTP has back-up systems for just such an eventuality. If a time signal fails and there is no other source of time, NTP cleverly uses the average time from all the clocks on its network. So if some clocks have drifted a few milliseconds faster, and others a few milliseconds slower – then NTP takes the average of this drift ensuring that the time remains accurate for as long as possible.

Even if a signal has failed for several days – or even weeks – without knowledge of the system users, this does not mean the network will drift apart. NTP will still keep the entire network synchronised together, using the average drift, and while the longer the time signal remains off the les accurate the network will be it can still provide millisecond accuracy even after a few days of no time reference.

Time Synchronisation Getting it Right

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Time is essential for computers, networks and technology. It is the only reference technology has to ascertain if a task has happened or is due to take place. As time, in the from of timestamps, is so important for technology, when there is uncertainty over time, due to different devices on a network having different times, it can cause untold errors.

The problem with time in computing is that all devices, from routers to desktop PCs, have their own onboard timepiece that governs the system clocks. These system clocks are just normal electronic oscillators, they type commonly found in battery powered watches, and while these are adequate for humans to tell the time, the drifting of these clocks can see devices on a network, seconds and even minutes out of sync.

There are two rules for time synchronisation:

  • All devices on a network should be synchronised together
  • The network should be synchronised to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time)

 

NTP

To synchronise a network you need to make use of Network Time Protocol (NTP). NTP is designed for accurate network time synchronisation.  IT works by using a single source of time which it then distributes it to all devices on the NTP network.

NTP continually checks the devices for any drift and then adjusts to ensure the entire network is within a few milliseconds of the reference time.

UTC

Coordinated Universal Time is a global timescale that is kept true by atomic clocks. By synchronising a network to UTC you are in effect ensuring your network is synchronised to every other UTC network on the planet.

Using UTC as a reference source is a simple affair too. NTP time servers are the best way to find a secure source of UTC time. They use either GPS (Global Positioning System) as a source of this atomic clock time or specialist radio signals keeping the UTC time source external to the network for security reasons.

A single NTP server can synchronise a network of hundreds and even thousands of devices ensuring the entire network is to within a few milliseconds of UTC.

The Time According to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time)

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The modern world is a small one. These days, in business you are just as likely to be communicating across the Atlantic as you are trading with you neighbour but this can cause difficulties – as anybody trying to get hold of somebody across the other-side of the world will know.

The problem, of course, is time. There are 24 time zones on Earth which means that people you may wish to talk to across the other side of the world, are in bed when you are awake – and vice versa.

Communication is not jus a problem for us humans either; much of our communication is conducted through computers and other technologies that can cause even more problems. Not just because time-zones are different but clocks, whether they are those that power a computer, or an office wall clock, can drift.

Time synchronisation is therefore important to ensure that the device you are communicating with has the same time otherwise whatever transaction you are conducting may result in errors such as the application failing, data getting lost or the machines believing an action has taken place  when it has not.

Coordinated Universal Time

Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is an international timescale. It pays no heed to time-zones and is kept true by a constellation of atomic clocks – accurate timepieces that do not suffer from drift.

UTC also compensates for the slowing of the Earth’s spin by adding leap seconds to ensure there is no drift that would eventually cause noon to drift towards night (albeit in many millennia; so slow is the slowing of the Earth).

Most technologies and computer networks across the globe use UTC as their source of time, making global communication more feasible.

Network Time Protocol and NTP Time Servers

Receiving UTC time for a computer network is the job of the NTP time server. These devices use Network Time Protocol to distribute the time to all technologies on the NTP network. NTP time servers receive the source of time from a number of different sources.

  • The internet – although  internet time sources can be insecure and unreliable
  • The GPS (Global Positioning System) – using the onboard atomic clocks from navigation satellites.
  • Radio signals – broadcast by national physics laboratories like NPL and NIST.

Using Atomic Clocks for Time Synchronisation

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The atomic clock is unrivalled in its chronological accuracy. No other method of maintaining time comes close to the precision of an atomic clock. These ultra-precise devices can keep time for thousands of years without losing a second in drift – in comparison to electronic clocks, perhaps the next most accurate devices, which can drift up to a second a day.

Atomic clocks are not practical devices to have around though. They use advanced technologies such as super-coolant liquids, lasers and vacuums – they also require a team of skilled technicians to keep the clocks running.

Atomic clocks are deployed in some technologies. The Global Positioning System (GPS) relies on atomic clocks that operate onboard the unmanned orbiting satellites. These are crucial for working out accurate distances. Because of the speed of light that the signals travel, a one second inaccuracy in any GPS atomic clock would lead to positing information being out by thousands of kilometres – but the actual accuracy of GPS is within a few metres.

While these wholly accurate and precise instruments for measuring time are unparalleled and the expensive of running such devices is unobtainable to most people, synchronising your technology to an atomic clock, in actual fact, is relatively simple.

The atomic clocks onboard the GPS satellites are easily utilised to synchronise many technologies to. The signals that are used to provide positioning information can also be used as a source of atomic clock time.

The simplest way to receive these signals is to use a GPS NTP server (Network Time Protocol). These NTP servers use the atomic clock time signal from the GPS satellites as a reference time, the protocol NTP is then used to distribute this time around a network, checking each device with the GPS time and adjusting to ensure accuracy.

Entire computer networks can be synchronised to the GPS atomic clock time by using just one NTP GPS server, ensuring that all devices are within milliseconds of the same time.

The Hierarchy of a NTP Time Server Stratum Levels Explained

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When it comes to time synchronisation and using Network Time Protocol (NTP) to ensure accuracy on a computer network, it is important to understand the hierarchy of NTP and how it affects distance and accuracy.

NTP has a hierarchical structure known as stratum levels. In principle the lower the stratum number the closer the device is (in accuracy terms) to an original time source.

NTP time servers work by receiving a single time source and using this as a basis for all time on the network, however, a synchronised network will be only as accurate as the original time source and this is where stratum levels come in.

And atomic clock, either one sat in a large scale physics laboratory, or those aboard GPS satellites, are stratum 0 devices. In other words these are the devices that actually generate the time.

Stratum 1 devices are NTP time servers that get their source of time directly from these stratum 0 atomic clocks. Either by using a GPS receiver or a radio referenced NTP server, a stratum 1 device is as accurate as you can get without having your own multi-million dollar atomic clock in the server room. A stratum 1 NTP time server will typically be accurate to within a millisecond of the atomic clock time.

Stratum 2 devices are the next step down on stratum level chain. These are time servers that receive their time from a stratum 1 device. Most online time servers, for instance, are stratum 2 devices, getting their time from another NTP time server. Stratum 2 devices are obviously further away from the original time source and therefore are not quite as accurate.

The stratum levels on an NTP network continue on, with devices connecting to devices going all the way down to stratum 10, 11, 12 and so on – obviously the more links in the chain the less accurate the device will be.

Dedicated stratum 1 NTP time servers are by far the most accurate, reliable and secure method of synchronising a computer network and no business network should really be without one.

NTP and GPS-based Timing Solutions

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Ask anybody what the key to network timing is and you will probably get the response NTP (Network Time Protocol).  NTP is a protocol that distributes and checks the time on all network devices to a reference clock – and it is this reference which is the true key to network time synchronisation.

Whilst a version of NTP is easy to obtain – it is normally installed on most operating systems, or is otherwise free to download – but getting a source of time is where the true key to network time synchronisation lies.

Atomic clocks govern the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) and it is this timescale that is best for network timing as synchronising all devices on a network to UTC is equivalent of having you network synchronised with every other UTC synced network on Earth.

So getting a source of UTC time is the true key to accurate network time synchronisation, so what are the options?

Internet Time Sources

The obvious choice for most NTP users, but internet time suffers from two major flaws; firstly, internet time operates through the firewall and is therefore fraught with security risks – if the time can get through your firewall, then other things can too. Secondly, internet time sources can be hit and miss with their accuracy.

Due to the fact most internet time sources are stratum 2 devices (they connect to another device that receives the UTC source time) and the distance from client to host can never be truly ascertained or accounted for – it can make them inaccurate – with some internet time sources minutes, hours and even days away from true UTC time.

Radio Referenced Time Server

Another source of UTC time which doesn’t suffer from either security or accuracy flaws is receiving the time from long wave radio signals that some country’s national physics laboratories broadcast. While these signals are available throughout the USA (courtesy of NIST) the UK (NPL) and several other European countries and can be picked up witha basic radio referenced NTP server they are not available everywhere and the signals can be difficult to receive in some urban locations or anywhere where there is electrical interference.

GPS-timing

For completely accurate, secure and a reliable source of UTC time there is no substitute for GPS time. GPS timing signals are beamed directly from atomic clocks onboard the GPS satellites (Global Positioning System) and received by GPS NTP time servers. These can then distribute the atomic clock time around the network.

GPS timing sources are accurate, secure and available literally anywhere on the planet 24 hours a day.

Time Synchronisation of Technology

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Many technologies are reliant and precise, accurate and reliable time. Time synchronisation is vital in many technical systems that we encounter everyday, from CCTV cameras and ATMs to air traffic control and telecommunication systems.

Without synchronisation and accuracy many of these technologies would become unreliable and in could cause major problems, even catastrophic ones in the case of air traffic controllers.

Precise time and synchronisation also plays an increasingly important part in modern computer networking, ensuring the network is secure, data is not lost, and the network can be debugged. Failing to ensure a network is synchronised properly can lead to many unexpected problems and security issues.

Ensuring accuracy

To ensure accuracy and precise time synchronisation modern technologies and computer networks the time controlling Network Time Protocol (NTP) is most commonly employed. NTP ensures all devices on a network, whether they are computers, routers, CCTV cameras or almost any other technology, are maintained at the exact same time as every other device on the network.

It works by using a single time source that it then distributes around the network, checking for drift, and correcting devices to ensure parity with the time source. It has many other features such as being able to assess errors and calculating the best time from multiple sources.

Obtaining the time

When using NTP, getting the most accurate source of time allows you to keep your network synchronised – not just together but also synchronised to every other device or network that uses that same time source.

A global timescale known as Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is what most NTP servers and technologies use. A sit is a global timescale, and is not concerned with time zones and daylight saving, UTC allows networks across the world to communicate precisely with the exact same time source.

NTP time servers

Despite their being many sources of UTC across the internet, these are not recommended for accuracy and security reasons; to receive an accurate source of NTP there are really only two options: using a NTP time server that can receive radio transmissions from atomic clock laboratories or by using the time signals from GPS satellites.

Windows Server and the Importance of NTP

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Windows Server is the most common operating system used by business networks. Whether it is the latest Windows Server 2008 or a previous incarnation such as 2003, most computer networks used in trade and business have a version.

These network operating systems make use of the time synchronization protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) to ensure synchronicity between all devices connected to the network. This is vital in the modern world of global communication and trade as a lack of synchronization can cause untold problems; data can get lost, errors can go undetected, debugging becomes near impossible and time sensitive transactions can fail if there is no synchronization.

NTP works by selecting a single time source and it be checking the time on all devices on the network, and adjusting them, it ensures the time is synchronised throughout. NTP is capable of keeping all PCs, routers and other devices on a network to within a few milliseconds of each other.

The only requirement for network administrators is to select a time source – and this is where many IT professionals commonly go wrong.

Internet time servers

Any source of time to synchronize a network to should be UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is a global timescale controlled by the world’s most accurate atomic clocks and the number one source for finding a UTC time server is the internet.

And many network administrators opt to use these online time servers thinking they are an accurate and secure source of time; however, this is not strictly the case. Internet time servers send the time signal through the network firewall which means viruses and malicious users can take advantage of this ‘hole.’

Another problem with internet time servers is that their accuracy can’t be guaranteed. Often they are not as accurate as a profession network requires and factors such as distance away from the host can make differences in the time.

Dedicated NTP time server

Dedicated NTP time servers, however, get the time directly from atomic clocks – either from the GPS network or via secure radio transmissions from national physics laboratories. These signals are millisecond accurate and 100% secure.

For anyone running a network using Windows Server 2008 or other Microsoft operating system should seriously consider using a dedicated NTP server rather than the internet to ensure accuracy, reliability and security.

NTP Servers Which Signal is Best Radio or GPS?

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NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) are an essential aspect of any computer or technology network. So many applications require accurate timing information that failing to synchronize a network adequately and precisely can lead to all sorts of errors and problems – especially when communicating with other networks.

Accuracy, when it comes to time synchronization, means only one thing – atomic clocks. No other method of keeping time is as accurate or reliable as an atomic clock. In comparison to an electronic clock, such as a digital watch, which will lose up to a second a day – an atomic clock will remain accurate to a second over 100,000 years.

Atomic clocks are not something that can be housed in an average server room though; atomic clocks are very expensive, fragile and require full time technicians to control so are usually only found in large scale physics laboratories such as the ones run by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time – USA) and NPL (National Physical Laboratory – UK).

Getting a source of accurate time from an atomic clock is relatively easy. For a secure and reliable source of atomic clock time there are only two options (the internet can neither be described as secure nor reliable as a source of time):

  • GPS time
  • UTC time broadcast on long-wave

GPS time, from the USA’s Global Positioning System, is a time stamp generated onboard the atomic clocks on the satellites. There is one distinct advantage about using GPS as a source of time: it is available anywhere on the planet.

All that is required to receive and utilise GPS time is a GPS time sever and antenna; a good clear view of the sky is also needed for an assured signal. Whilst not strictly UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) being broadcast by GPS (UTC has had 17 leap seconds added to it since the satellites were launched) the timestamp included the information needed for NTP to convert it to the universal time standard.

UTC, however, is broadcast directly from physics laboratories and is available by using a radio referenced NTP server. These signals are not available everywhere but in the USA (the signal is known as WWVB) and most of Europe (MSF and DCF) are covered. These too are highly accurate atomic clock generated time sources and as both methods come from a secure source the computer network will remain secure.