Selecting a Time Source for a Network Time Server

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UTC – Coordinated Universal Time (from the French: Universel Temps Coordonné) is a global timescale based on Greenwich Meantime (GMT – from the Greenwich Meridian line where the sun is above at 12 noon). But accounts for the natural slowing of the Earth’s rotation. It is used globally in commerce, computer networks via a NTP server, air-traffic control and the World’s stock exchanges to name but a few of its applications.

UTC is really the only solution for time synchronisation needs. While it is just as possible to synchronise a computer network with an NTP server to a time other than UTC it is pointless. As UTC is utilised by computer networks all across the globe by using a UTC time source that means your network can synchronise with every other network in the world that is synchronised to UTC.

UTC is most commonly received from across the Internet, however, this can only be recommended for small network users where either accuracy or security is an issue. An Internet based UTC source is external to the firewall so will leave a potential hole for malicious users to exploit.

Two secure methods of receiving UTC are commonly available. These are either the GPS network (Global Positioning System) or specialist radio transmission broadcast on long wave from several of the world’s national physics laboratories. The two methods have both advantages and disadvantages which need to be ascertained before a method is selected.

A radio transmission such as the UK’s MSF, the German DCF-77 or the USA’s WWVB signal are vulnerable to local topography although many of these signals can be picked up indoors. Whilst not every country transmits a UTC radio signal around the neighbouring countries that do it is possible to still receive it.

GPS on the other hand is available literally anywhere on the globe. The signal comes directly from above and as long as the antenna has a good clear view of the sky it can be received anywhere. However, as the antenna has to be on a roof looking up this can have logistical problems (particularly for very tall buildings).

Specialist dedicated network time servers are available that can actually receive both methods of UTC but whether using GPS or a radio transmissions synchronisation of a network to within a few milliseconds is possible.


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Richard N Williams is a technical author and a specialist in the NTP Server and Time Synchronisation industry. Richard N Williams on Google+