The Greenwich Time Lady

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Time synchronisation is something easily taken for granted in this day and age. With GPS NTP servers, satellites beam down time to technologies, which keeps them synced to the world’s time standard UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

Before UTC, before atomic clocks, before GPS, keeping time synchronised was not so easy. Throughout history, humans have always kept track of time, but accuracy was never that important. A few minutes or an hour or so difference, made little difference to people’s lives throughout the medieval and regency periods; however, come the industrial revolution and the development of railways, factories and international commerce, accurate timekeeping became crucial.

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) became time standard in 1880, taking over from the world’s first time standard railway time, developed to ensure accuracy with railway timetables. Soon, all businesses, shops and offices wanted to keep their clocks accurate to GMT, but in an age before electrical clocks and telephones, this proved difficult.

Enter the Greenwich Time Lady. Ruth Belville was a businesswoman from Greenwich, who followed in her father’s footsteps in delivering time to businesses throughout London. The Belville’s owned a highly accurate and expensive pocket watch, a John Arnold chronometer originally made for the Duke of Sussex.

Every week, Ruth, and her father before her, would take the train to Greenwich where they would synchronise the pocket watch to Greenwich Mean Time. The Belvilles would then travel around London, charging businesses to adjust their clocks their chronometer, a business enterprise that lasted from 1836 to 1940 when Ruth finally retired at the age of 86.

BY this time, electronic clocks had began to take over traditional mechanical devices and were more accurate, needing less synchronisation, and with the telephone speaking clock introduced by the General Post Office (GPO) in 1936, timekeeping services like the Belville’s became obsolete.

Today, time synchronisation is far more accurate. Network time servers, often using the computer protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol), keep computer networks and modern technologies true. NTP time servers receive an accurate atomic clock time signal, often by GPS, and distribute the time around the network. Thanks to atomic clocks, NTP time servers and the universal timescale UTC, modern computers can keep time to within a few milliseconds of each other.

 

Keeping Track of Time Zones

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Despite the use of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) as the world’s timescale, time zones, the regional areas with a uniform time, are still an important aspect of our daily lives. Time zones provide areas with a synchronised time that helps commerce, trade and society function, and allow all nations to enjoy noon at lunchtime. Most of us who have ever gone abroad are all aware of the differences in time zones and the need to reset our watches.

Time zones around the world

Keeping track of time zones can be really tricky. Different nations not only use different times but also use different adjustments for daylight saving, which can make keeping track of time zones difficult. Furthermore, nations occasionally move time zone, normally due to economic and trade reasons, which provides even more difficulties in keeping track of time zones.

You may think that modern computers can automatically account for time zones due to the settings in the clock program; however, most computer systems rely on a database, which is continuously updated, to provide accurate time zone information.

The Time Zone Database, sometimes called the Olson database after its long-time coordinator, Arthur David Olson, has recently moved home due to legal wrangling, which temporarily caused the database to cease functioning, causing untold problems for people needing accurate time zone information. Without the time zone database, time zones had to be calculated manually, for travelling, scheduling meetings and booking flights.

The Internet’s address system, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has taken over the database to provide stability, due to the reliance on the database by computer operating systems and other technologies; the database is used by a range of computer operating systems including Apple Inc’s Mac OS X, Oracle Corp, Unix and Linux, but not Microsoft Corp’s Windows.

The Time Zone Database provides a simple method of setting the time on a computer, enabling cities to be selected, with the database providing the right time. The database has all the necessary information, such as daylight saving times and the latest time zone movements, to provide accuracy and a reliable source of information.

Or course, a synchronised computer networks using NTP doesn’t require the Time Zone Database. Using the standard international timescale, UTC, NTP servers maintain the exact same time, no matter where the computer network is in the world, with the time zone information calculated as a difference to UTC.

 

 

Vote Called to End the Use of GMT and Scrapping the Leap Second

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International Telecommunications Union (ITU), based in Geneva, is voting in January to finally get rid of the leap second, effectively scrapping Greenwich Meantime.

 

Greenwich Mean Time may come to an end

UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) has been around since the 1970’s, and already effectively governs the world’s technologies by keeping computer networks synchronised by way of NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol), but it does have one flaw: UTC is too accurate, that is to say, UTC is governed by atomic clocks, not by the rotation of the Earth. While atomic clocks relay an accurate, unchanging form of chronology, the Earth’s rotation varies slightly from day-to-day, and in essence is slowing down by a second or two a year.

To prevent noon, when the sun is highest in the sky, from slowly getting later and later, Leap Seconds are added to UTC as a chronological fudge, ensuring that UTC matches GMT (governed by when the sun is directly above by the Greenwich Meridian Line, making it 12 noon).

The use of leap seconds is a subject of continuous debate. The ITU argue that with the development of satellite navigation systems, the internet, mobile phones and computer networks all reliant on a single, accurate form of time, a system of timekeeping needs to be precise as possible, and that leap seconds causes problems for modern technologies.

This against changing the Leap Second and in effect retaining GMT, suggest that without it, day would slowly creep into night, albeit in many thousands of years; however, the ITU suggest that large-scale changes could be made, perhaps every century or so.

If leap seconds are abandoned, it will effectively end Greenwich Meantime’s guardianship of the world’s time that has lasted over a century. Its function of signalling noon when the sun is above the meridian line started 127 years ago, when railways and telegraphs made a requirement for a standardised timescale.

If leap seconds are abolished, few of us will notice much difference, but it may make life easier for computer networks that synchronised by NTP time servers as Leap Second delivery can cause minor errors in very complicated systems. Google, for instance, recently revealed it had written a program to specifically deal with leap seconds in its data centres, effectively smearing the leap second throughout a day.

Have Scientists Found Faster than Light Particles?

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The physics world got itself into a bit of a tizz this month as scientists at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, found an anomaly on one of their experiments, which seemed to show that some particles were travelling faster than light.

Time server's can provide atomic clock accuracy

Faster than light travel for any particle is prohibited of course, according to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, but the OPERA team at CERN, who fired neutrinos around a particle accelerator, travelling for 730 km, found that the neutrinos travelled the distance 20 parts per million faster than photons (light particles) meaning they broke Einstein’s speed limit.

While this experiment could prove to be one of the most important discoveries in physics, physicists are remaining sceptical, suggesting that a cause could be an error generated in the difficulties and complexities of measuring such high speeds and distances.

The team at CERN used GPS time servers, portable atomic clocks and GPS positioning systems to make their calculations, which all provided accuracy in distance to within 20cm and an accuracy of time to within 10 nanoseconds. However, the facility is underground and the GPS signals and other data streams had to be cabled down to the experiment, a latency the team are confident they took into account during their calculations.

Physicists from other organisations are now attempting to repeat the experiments to see if they get the same results. Whatever the outcome, this type of groundbreaking research is only possible thanks to the accuracy of atomic clocks that are able to measure time to millionths of a second.

To synchronise a computer network to an atomic clock you don’t need to have access to a physics laboratory like CERN as simple NTP time servers like Galleons NTS 6001 will receive an accurate source of atomic clock time and keep all hardware on a network to within a few milliseconds of it.

 

Google Finds Innovative Way to Avoid Leap Seconds

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Leap Seconds have been in use since the development of atomic clocks and the introduction of the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). Leap Seconds prevent the actual time as told by atomic clocks and the physical time, governed by the sun being highest at noon, from drifting apart.

Since UTC began in the 1970’s when UTC was introduced, 24 Leap Seconds have been added. Leap seconds are a point of controversy, but without them, the day would slowly drift into night (albeit after many centuries); however, they do cause problems for some technologies.

NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) implement Leap Seconds by repeating the final second of the day when a Leap Second is introduced. While Leap Second introduction is a rare event, occurring only once or twice a year, for some complex systems that process thousands of events a second this repetition causes problems.

For search engine giants, Google, Leap Seconds can lead to their systems from working during this second, such as in 2005 when some of its clustered systems stopped accepting work. While this didn’t lead to their site from going down, Google wanted to address the problem to prevent any future problems caused by this chronological fudge.

Its solution was to write a program that essentially lied to their computer servers during the day of a Leap Second, making the systems believe the time was slightly ahead of what the NTP servers were telling it.

This gradual speeding up time meant that at the end of a day, when a Leap Second is added, Google’s timeservers do not have to repeat the extra second as the time on its servers would already be a second behind by that point.

Galleon GPS NTP server

Whilst Google’s solution to the Leap Second is ingenious, for most computer systems Leap Seconds cause no problems at all. With a computer network synchronised with an NTP server, Leap Seconds are adjusted automatically at the end of a day and occur only rarely, so most computer systems never notice this small hiccup in time.

 

The Atomic Clock History Accuracy and Uses

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Most people will have heard of atomic clocks, most people, probably without realising have even used them; however, I doubt many people reading this will have ever seen one. Atomic clocks are highly technical and complicated pieces of machinery. Relying on vacuums, super-coolants such as liquid nitrogen and even lasers, most atomic clocks are only found in laboratories such as NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) in the US, or NPL (National Physical Laboratory) in the UK.

NPL's atomic clock

No other form of timekeeping is as accurate as an atomic clock. Atomic clocks form the basis of world’s global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). Even the length Earth’s spin requires manipulation by the addition of leap seconds to UTC to keep the day synchronised.

Atomic clocks work by using the oscillating changes of atoms during different energy states. Caesium is the preferred atom used in atomic clocks, which oscillates 9,192,631,770 times a second. This is a constant effect too, so much so that a second is now defined by this many oscillations of the caesium atom.

Louis Essen built the first accurate atomic clock in 1955 at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK, since then atomic clocks have become increasingly more accurate with modern atomic clocks able to maintain time for over a million years without ever losing a second.

In 1961, UTC became the world’s global timescale, and by 1967, the International System of Units adopted the Caesium frequency as the official second.

Since then, atomic clocks have become part of modern technology. Onboard every GPS satellite, atomic clocks beam time signals to Earth, enabling satellite navigation systems in car, boats and aeroplanes to judge their locations precisely.

UTC time is also essential for trade in the modern world. With computer networks speaking to each other across timezones, using atomic clocks as a reference prevents errors, ensures security and provides reliable data transfer.

Receiving a signal from an atomic clock for computer time synchronisation is incredibly easy. NTP time servers that receive the time signal from GPS satellites, or those broadcast on radio waves from places NPL and NIST, enable computer networks across the globe to keep secure and accurate time.

Oddities of Time and the Importance of Accuracy

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Most of us think we know what the time it is. At a glance of our wristwatches or wall clocks, we can tell what time it is. We also think we have a pretty good idea of the speed time move forwards, a second, a minute, an hour or a day are pretty well-defined; however, these units of time are completely man-made and are not as constant as we may think.

Time is an abstract concept, while we may think it is the same for everybody, time is affected by its interaction with the universe. Gravity, for instance, as Einstein observed, has the ability to warp space-time altering the speed in which time passes, and while we all live on the same planet, under the same gravitational forces, there are subtle differences in the speed in which time passes.

Using atomic clocks, scientists are able to establish the effect Earth’s gravity has on time. The high above sea level an atomic clock is placed, the quicker time travels. While these differences are minute, these experiments clearly demonstrate that Einstein’s postulations were correct.

Atomic clocks have been used to demonstrate some of Einstein’s other theories regarding time too. In his theories of relativity, Einstein argued that speed is another factor that affects the speed at which time passes. By placing atomic clocks on orbiting spacecraft or aeroplanes travelling at speed, the time measured by these clocks differs to clocks left static on Earth, another indication that Einstein was right.

Before atomic clocks, measuring time to such degrees of accuracy was impossible, but since their invention in the 1950’s, not only have Einstein’s postulations proved right, but also we have discovered some other unusual aspects to how we regard time.

While most of us think of a day as 24-hours, with every day being the same length, atomic clocks have shown that each day varies. Furthermore, atomic clocks have also shown that the Earth’s rotation is gradually slowing down, meaning that days are getting slowly longer.

Because of these changes to time, the world’s global timescale, UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) needs occasional adjustments. Every six months or so, leap seconds are added to ensure UTC runs at the same rate as an Earth day, accounting for the gradual slowing down of the planet’s spin.

For technologies that require high levels of accuracy, these regular adjustments of time are accounted for by the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) so a computer network using an NTP time server is always kept true to UTC.

British Atomic Clock Leads Race for Accuracy

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Researchers have discovered that the British atomic clock controlled by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the most accurate in the world.

NPL’s CsF2 caesium fountain atomic clock is so accurate that it wouldn’t drift by a second in 138 million years, nearly twice as accurate as first thought.

Researchers have now discovered the clock is accurate to one part in 4,300,000,000,000,000 making it the most accurate atomic clock in the world.

The CsF2 clock uses the energy state of caesium atoms to keep time. With a frequency of 9,192,631,770 peaks and troughs every second, this resonance now governs the international standard for an official second.

The international standard of time—UTC—is governed by six atomic clocks, including the CsF2, two clocks in France, one in Germany and one in the USA, so this unexpected increase in accuracy means the global timescale is even more reliable than first thought.

UTC is essential for modern technologies, especially with so much global communication and trade being conducted across the internet, across borders, and across timezones.

UTC enables separate computer networks in different parts of the world to keep exactly the same time, and because of its importance accuracy and precision is essential, especially when you consider the types of transactions now conducted online, such as the buying of stocks and shares and global banking.

Receiving UTC requires the use of a time server and the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol). Time servers receive a source of UTC direct from atomic clocks sources such as NPL, who broadcast a time signal over long wave radio, and the GPS network (GPS satellites all transmit atomic clock time signals, which is how satellite navigation systems calculate position by working out the difference in time between multiple GPS signals.)

NTP keeps all computers accurate to UTC by continuously checking each system clock and adjusting for any drift compared to the UTC time signal. By using an NTP time server, a network of computers is able to remain within a few milliseconds of UTC preventing any errors, ensuring security and providing an attestable source of accurate time.

 

What Governs our Clocks

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Most of us recognise how long an hour, a minute, or a second is, and we are used to seeing our clocks tick past these increments, but have you ever thought what governs clocks, watches and the time on our computers to ensure that a second is a second and an hour an hour?

Early clocks had a very visible form of clock precision, the pendulum. Galileo Galilei was the first to discover the effects of weight suspended from a pivot. On observing a swinging chandelier, Galileo realised that a pendulum oscillated continuously above its equilibrium and didn’t falter in the time between swings (although the effect weakens, with the pendulum swinging less far, and eventually stops) and that a pendulum could provide a method of keeping time.

Early mechanical clocks that had pendulums fitted proved highly accurate compared to other methods tried, with a second able to be calibrated by the length of a pendulum.

Of course, minute inaccuracies in measurement and effects of temperature and humidity meant that pendulums were not wholly precise and pendulum clocks would drift by as much as half an hour a day.

The next big step in keeping track of time was the electronic clock. These devices used a crystal, commonly quartz, which when introduced to electricity, will resonate. This resonance is highly precise which made electric clocks far more accurate than their mechanical predecessors were.

True accuracy, however, wasn’t reached until the development of the atomic clock. Rather than using a mechanical form, as with a pendulum, or an electrical resonance as with quartz, atomic clocks use the resonance of atoms themselves, a resonance that doesn’t change, alter, slow or become affected by the environment.

In fact, the International System of Units that define world measurements, now define a second as the 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a caesium atom.

Because of the accuracy and precision of atomic clocks, they provide the source of time for many technologies, including computer networks. While atomic clocks only exist in laboratories and satellites, using devices like Galleon’s NTS 6001 NTP time server.

A time server such as the NTS 6001 receives a source of atomic clock time from either GPS satellites (which use them to provide our sat navs with a way to calculate position) or from radio signals broadcast by physics laboratories such as NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) or NPL (National Physical Laboratory).

 

Receiving Time Signals with GPS

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Accurate time is one of the most important aspects to keeping a computer network secure and safe. Places such as stock exchanges, banks and air traffic control rely on secure and accurate time. As computers rely on time as their only reference for when events happen, a slight error in a time code could lead to all sorts of errors, from millions being wiped off share prices to aeroplane flight paths being incorrect.

And time doesn’t just need to be accurate for these organizations, but secure too. A malicious user who interferes with a timestamp could cause all sorts of trouble, so ensuring time sources are both secure and accurate is vital.

Security is increasingly important for all sorts of organisations. With so much trade and communication conducted over the internet, using a source of accurate and secure time is as important a part of network security as anti-virus and firewall protection.

Despite the need for accuracy and security, many computer networks still rely on online time servers. Internet sources of time are not only unreliable, with inaccuracies commonplace, and distance and latency affecting the precision, but an Internet time server is also unsecure and able to be hijacked by malicious users.

But an accurate, reliable and completely secure source of time is available everywhere, 365 days a year—GPS.

While commonly thought of as a means of navigation, GPS actually provides an atomic clock time code, direct from the satellite signals. It is this time code that navigation systems use for calculating position but it is just as effective to provide a secure time stamp for a computer network.

Organizations that rely on accurate time for safety and security all use GPS, as it is a continuous signal, that never goes down, is always accurate and can’t be interfered with by third parties.

To utilise GPS as a source of time, all that is required is a GPS time server. Using an antenna, the time server receives the GPS signal, while NTP (Network Time Protocol) distributes it around the network.

With a GPS time server, a computer network is able to maintain accuracy to within a few milliseconds of the atomic clock time signal, which is translated into UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) thanks to NTP, ensuring the network is running the same accurate time as other networks also synchronised to a UTC time source.