Synchronizing a PC to an Atomic Clock

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Atomic clocks are without doubt the most accurate time pieces on the face of the planet. In fact the accuracy of an atomic clock in incomparable to any other chronometer, watch or clock.

While an atomic clock will not lose even a second in time in thousands upon thousands of years, you’re average digital watch will perhaps lose a second in just a few days which after a few weeks or months will mean your watch is running slow or fast by several minutes.

The same can also be said for the system clock that controls your computer the only difference is that computers rely even more heavily on time than we ourselves do.

Nearly everything a computer does is reliant on timestamps, from saving work to performing applications, debugging and even emails are all reliant on timestamps which can be a problem if the clock on your computer is running too fast or slow as errors can quite often occur, especially if you are communicating with another computer or device.

Fortunately, most PCs are easily synchronized to an atomic clock meaning they can be accurate as these powerful time keeping devices so any tasks performed by your PC can be in perfect synchronicity with whatever device you are communicating with.

In most PC operating systems an inbuilt protocol (NTP) allows the PC to communicate with a time server that is connected to an atomic clock. In most versions of Windows this is accessed through the date and time control setting (double clicking the clock in the bottom right).

However, for business machines or networks that require secure and accurate time synchronization, online time servers are just not secure or accurate enough to ensure your network is not vulnerable to security flaws.

However, NTP time servers that receive the time direct from atomic clocks are available that can synchronize entire networks. These devices receive a broadcasted timestamp distributed by either national physics laboratories or via the GPS satellite network.

NTP servers enable entire networks to all have exactly synchronized time which is as accurate and secure as is humanly possible.

Synchronizing a Computer Network with a Dedicated Network Time Server

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Synchronization is vital for most computer networks. Timestamps are the only reference a computer can use to analyse when and if processes or applications are completed. Synchronized timestamps are also vital for security, debugging and error logging.

Failure to keep a network adequately synchronized can lead to all sorts of problems. Applications fail to commence, time sensitive transactions will fail and errors and data loss will become commonplace.

However, ensuring synchronization no matter the size of network is straight forward and not costly, thank to the dedicated network time server and the time protocol NTP.

Network Time Protocol (NTP)

NTP has been around even longer than the internet but is the most widely used synchronization protocol available. NTP is free to use and makes synchronization very straight forward. It works by taking a single time source (or multiple ones) and distributes it amongst the network. It will maintain high levels of accuracy even when it loses the original time signal and can make judgements on how accurate each time reference.

NTP Time Server

These come in several forms. Firstly there are a number of virtual time servers across the internet that distributes time free of charge. However, as they are internet based a network is taking a risk leaving a firewall port open for this time communication. Also there is no control over the time signal so if it goes down (or becomes unstable or wholly inaccurate) your network can be left without adequate synchronization.

Dedicated NTP time servers use GPS or radio references to receive the time. This is far more secure and as GPS and radio signals like WWVB (from NIST) are generated by atomic clocks there accuracy is second to none.

Because the NTP protocol is hierarchical it also means that only one dedicated time server needs to be used for a network, no matter the size, as other devices on the network can act as time servers after having rece9ved the time from the primary NTP server.

Quantum Atomic Clocks The precision of the future

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The atomic clock is not a recent invention. Developed in the 1950’s, the traditional caesium based atomic clock has been providing us with accurate time for half a century.

The caesium atomic clock has become the foundation of our time – literally. The International System of Units (SI) define a second as a certain number of oscillations of the atom caesium and atomic clocks govern many of the technologies that we live with an use on a daily basis: The internet, satellite navigation, air traffic control and traffic lights to name but a few.

However, recent developments in optical quantum clocks that use single atoms of metals like aluminium or strontium are thousands of times more accurate than traditional atomic clocks. To put this in perspective, the best caesium atomic clock as used by institutes like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) or NPL (National Physical Laboratory) to govern the world’s global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), is accurate to within a second every 100 million years. However, these new quantum optical clocks are accurate to a second every 3.4 billion years – almost as long as the earth is old.

For most people, their only encounter with an atomic clock is receiving its time signal is a network time server or NTP device (Network Time Protocol) for the purposes of synchronising devices and networks and these atomic clock signals are generated using caesium clocks.

And until the world’s scientists can agreed on a single atom to replace caesium and a single clock design for keeping UTC, none of us will be able to take advantage of this incredible accuracy.

Network Time Protocol For When Time Matters

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There is a certain irony that the computer that sits on your desktop and may have cost as much as month’s salary will have a clock onboard that is less accurate than a cheap wristwatch bought at a petrol or gas station.

The problem is not that computers are in particularly made with cheap timing components but that any serious timekeeping on a PC can be achieved without expensive or advanced oscillators.

The onboard timing oscillators on most PCs are in fact just a back up to keep the computer clock synchronised when the PC is off or when network timing information is unavailable.

Despite these inadequate onboard clocks, timing on a network of PC’s can be achieved to within millisecond accuracy and a network that is synchronised to the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) shouldn’t drift at all.

The reason this high level of accuracy and synchronicity can be achieved without expensive oscillators is that computers can use Network Timing Protocol (NTP) to find and maintain the exact time.

NTP is an algorithm that distributes a single source of time; this can be generated by the onboard clock of a PC – although this would see every machine on the network drift as the clock itself drifts – A far better solution is to use NTP to distribute a stable, accurate source of time, and most preferably for networks that conduct business across the internet, a source of UTC.

The simplest method of receiving UTC – which is kept true by a constellation of atomic clocks around the globe – is to use a dedicated NTP time server. NTP servers use either GPS satellite signals (Global Positioning System) or long wave radio broadcasts (usually transmitted by national physics laboratories like NPL or NIST).

Once received the NTP server distributes the timing source across the network and constantly checks each machine for drift (In essence the networked machine contacts the server as a client and the information is exchanged via TCP/IP.

This makes the onboard clocks of the computers themselves obsolete, although when the machines are initially booted up, or if there has been a delay in contacting the NTP server (if it is down or there is a temporary fault), the onboard clock is used to maintain time until full synchronisation is again achievable.

Time Servers and the Internet

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Timing is becoming increasingly crucial for computer systems. It is now almost unheard of for a computer network to function without synchronisation to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). And even single machines used in the home are now equipped with automatic synchronisation. The latest incarnation of Windows for instance, Windows 7, connects to a timing source automatically (although this application can be turned off manually by accessing the time and date preferences.)

The inclusion of these automatic synchronisation tools on the latest operating systems is an indication of how important timing information has become and when you consider the types of applications and transactions that are now conducted on the internet it is of no surprise.

Internet banking, online reservations, internet auctions and even email can be reliant on accurate time. Computers use timestamps as the only point of reference they have to identify when and if a transaction has occurred. Mistakes in timing information can cause untold errors and problems, particularly with debugging.

The internet is full of time servers with over a thousand time sources available for online synchronisation however; the accuracy and usefulness of these online sources of UTC time do vary and leaving a TCP/IP open in the firewall to allow the timing information through can leave a system vulnerable.

For network systems where timing is not only crucial but where security is also a paramount issue then the internet is not a preferred source for receiving UTC information and an external source is required.

Connecting a NTP network to an external source of UTC time is relatively straightforward if a network time server is used. These devices that are often referred to as NTP servers, use the atomic clocks onboard GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites or long wave transmissions broadcast by places such as NIST or NPL.

Atomic Clocks and Gravity

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We couldn’t live our lives without them. They affect almost every aspect of our daily lives and many of the technologies that we take for granted in today’s world, just couldn’t function without them. In fact, if you are reading this article on the Internet the there is a chance you are using one right now.

Without knowing it, atomic clocks govern all of us. From the Internet; to mobile phone networks and satellite navigation, without atomic clocks none of these technologies would be possible.

Atomic clocks govern all computer networks using the protocol NTP (network time protocol) and network time servers, computer systems around the world remain in perfect synchronisation.

And they will continue to do so for several million years as atomic clocks are so accurate they can maintain time to within a second for well over 100 million years. However, atomic clocks can be made even more accurate and a French team of scientists are planning to do just that by launching an atomic clock into space.

Atomic clocks are limited to their accuracy on Earth because of the effects of he gravitational pull of the planet on time itself; as Einstein suggested time itself is warped by gravity and this warping slows down time on Earth.

However, a new type of atomic clock named PHARAO (Projet d’Horloge Atomique par Refroidissement d’Atomes en Orbit) is to be placed aboard the ISS (international space station) out of reach from the worst effects of Earth’ gravitational pull.

This new type of atomic clock will allow hyper accurate synchronization with other atomic clocks, here on Earth (which in effect will make synchronization to an NTP server even more precise).

Pharao is expected to reach accuracies of around one second each 300 million years and will allow further advances in time reliant technologies.

Network Time Protocol Time Synchronisation Made Easy

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One of the most important aspects of networking is keeping all devices synchronised to the correct time. Incorrect network time and lack of synchronisation can play havoc with system processes and can lead to untold errors and problems debugging.

And failing to ensure devices are continually checked to prevent drift can also lead to a synchronised network slowly becoming unsynchronised and leading to the kinds of problems aforementioned.

However, ensuring a network not only has the correct time but that that time is not drifting is achieved using the time protocol NTP.

Network Time Protocol (NTP) is not the only time synchronisation protocol but it is by far the most widely used. It is an open source protocol but is continually updated by a large community of Internet time keepers.

NTP is based around an algorithm that can work out the correct and most accurate time from a range of sources. NTP allows a single time source to be used by a network of hundreds and thousands of machines and it can keep each one accurate to that time source to within a few milliseconds.

The easiest way of synchronising a network with NTP is to use a NTP time server, also known as a network time server.

NTP servers use an external source of time, either from the GPS network (Global Positioning System), or from broadcasts from national physics laboratories such as NIST in the US or NPL in the UK.

These time signals are generated by atomic clocks which are many times more accurate than the clocks on computers and servers. NTP will distribute this atomic clock time to all devices on a network it will then keep checking each device to ensure there is no drift and correcting the device if there is.

Auditable Time Synchronization with an NTP Server

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Time synchronization is crucial for many modern applications. Whilst computer networks all have to be running in perfect time to prevent errors and ensure security other systems require time synchronization for legal reasons.

Average speed cameras, traffic light cameras, CCTV, parking meters and alarm systems to name but a few, all require accurate time synchronization not just to ensure the correct operation of the systems but also to provide an auditable and legal trail for use in prosecutions.

Failure to do so can lead to the system being completely useless as any legal case based around the technology would need to be provable.

For instance, a CCTV network that is not synchronized would not be admissible in court, a defendant could easily claim that an image of them on a camera could not be them as they were not in the vicinity at the time and unless the camera system can be audited and proved to be accurate then reasonable doubt would see any case against the suspect dropped.

For this reason, systems like those mentioned above require complete auditable time synchronisation that can be proven beyond reasonable doubt in a court system.

An auditable system of time synchronization is only possible by using a dedicated NTP time server (Network Time Protocol). NTP servers not only provide an accurate method of synchronization being accurate to a few milliseconds they also provide a full audit trail that can’t be disputed.

NTP server systems use the GPS network or specialist radio transmissions to receive the atomic clock time which is so accurate the chance of it being even a second out from UTC time (Universal Coordinated Time) is over 3 billion to one which is even greater than the accuracy of other legal evidences such as DNA.

Time Synchronization on Windows 7

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Windows 7, the latest operating system from Microsoft is also their first operating system that automatically synchronizes the PC clock to an internet source of UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time). From the moment a Windows 7 computer is switched on and is connected to the Internet it will request time signals from the Microsoft time service –

While for many home users this will save them the hassle of setting and correcting their clock as it drifts, for business users it may be problematic as internet time sources are not secure and receiving a time source through the UDP port on the firewall could lead to security breaches and as Internet time sources can’t be authenticated by NTP (Network Time Protocol) the signals can be hijacked by malicious users.

This internet time source can be deactivated by opening the clock and date dialogue box, and opening the Internet Time tab, clicking the ’Change’ setting button and unchecking the ‘Synchronize with an Internet time server< option.’

Whilst this will unsure no unwanted traffic will be coming through your firewall it will also mean that the Windows 7 machine will not be synchronised to UTC and its timekeeping will be reliant on the motherboard clock, which will eventually drift.

To synchronize a network of Windows 7 machines to an accurate and secure source of UTC then the most practical and simplest solution is to plug in a dedicated NTP time server. These connect directly to a router or switch and enable the safe receiving of an atomic clock time source.

NTP time servers use the highly accurate and secure GPS signal (Global Positioning System) available everywhere on the planet or more localized long wave radio signals transmitted by several national physics laboratories such as NIST and NPL.

Seven Reasons why your Network needs a Time Server

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Time servers, often referred to as NTP time servers after the protocol (Network Time Protocol) used to distribute time are an increasingly important part of any computer network. The NTP server receives a timing signal from an accurate source (such as an atomic clock) and then distributes it to all devices on the network.

However, despite the increasing importance of these time synchronisation devices, many network administrators still fail to accurately synchronise their networks and can leave their entire computer system vulnerable.

Here are seven reasons why a NTP time server is a crucial piece of equipment for YOUR network:

• Security: NTP servers use an external source of time and don’t rely on an open firewall port. An unsynchronized server will also be vulnerable to malicious users who can take advantage of time differences.

• Error logging: failing to adequately synchronize a computer network may mean that it is near impossible to trace errors or malicious attack, especially if the times on the log files from different machine do not match.

• Legal Protection: Not being able to prove the time can have legal implications if somebody has committed fraud or other illegal activity against your company.

• Accuracy: NTP Time Servers ensure that all networked computers are synchronized automatically to the exact time throughout your network so everybody in your company can have access to the exact time.

• Global Harmony: A global timescale known as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) has been developed to ensure that systems across the globe can run the exact same time. By utilising a NTP server not only will every device on you network be synchronised together but your network will be synchronised with every other network on Earth that is hooked up to UTC.

• Control: With a NTP server you have control of the configuration. You can allow automatic changes each spring and autumn for daylight saving time or set your server time to be locked to UTC time only – or indeed, any time zone you choose.

• Automatic update of time. No user intervention required, a NTP time server will account for leap seconds and time zones ensuring trouble free synchronisation.