Using GPS as a source of Accurate Time

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The Global Positioning System (GPS) is an increasingly popular tool, used throughout the world as a source of wayfinding and navigation. However, there is much more to the GPS network than just satellite navigation as the transmissions broadcast by the GPS satellites can also be used as a highly accurate source of time.

GPS satellites are actually just orbiting clocks as each one contains atomic clocks that generate a time signal. It is the time signal that is broadcast by the GPS satellites that satellite navigation receivers in cars and planes use to work out distance and position.

Positioning is only possible because thee time signals are so accurate. Vehicle sat navs for instance use the signals from four orbiting satellites and triangulate the information to work out the position. However, if there is just one second inaccuracy with one of the time signals then the positing information could be thousands of miles out – proving useless.

It is testament to the accuracy of atomic clocks used to generate GPS signals that currently a GPS receiver can work out its position on earth to within five metres.

Because GPS satellites are so accurate, they make an ideal source of time to synchronise a computer network to. Strictly speaking GPS time differs from the international timescale UTC (coordinated Universal Time) as UTC has had additional leap seconds added to it to ensure parity with the earth’s rotation meaning it is exactly 18 seconds ahead of GPS but is easily converted by NTP the time synchronisation protocol (Network Time Protocol).

GPS time servers receive the GPS time signal via a GPS antenna which has to be placed on the roof to receive the line of sight transmissions. Once the GPS signal is received the NTP GPS time server will distribute the signal to all devices on the NTP network and corrects any drift on individual machines.

GPS time servers are dedicated easy to use devices and can ensure millisecond accuracy to UTC without any of the security risks involved in using an internet time source.

Common Issues in Time Synchronisation

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Time synchronization is essential in modern computer networking especially with the amount of time sensitive transactions conducted over the internet these days. Without adequate synchronization computer systems will:

  • Be vulnerable to malicious attacks
  • Susceptible to data loss
  • Unable to conduct time sensitive transactions
  • Difficult to debug

Fortunately ensuring a computer network is accurately synchronized is relatively straight forward. There different methods of synchronizing a network to the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) but occasionally some common issues do arise.

My dedicated time server is unable to receive a signal

Dedicated NTP time servers receive the time from either long wave transmissions or GPS networks. If using a GPS NTP server then a GPS antenna needs to be situated on a roof to obtain a clear view of the sky. However, a NTP radio receiver does not need a roof mounted aerial although the signal can be vulnerable to interference and the correct angle toward the transmitter should be attained.

I am using a public time server across the Internet but my devices are not synchronised.

As public time servers can be used by anyone they can receive high levels of traffic. This can cause problems with bandwidth and mean that your time requests can’t get through. Public NTP servers can also fall victim to DDoS attacks and some high profile incidents of NTP vandalism have occurred.

Internet time servers are also stratum 2 devices, in other words they themselves have to connect to a time server to receive the correct time and because of this some online time references are wildly inaccurate.

*NB – internet time servers are also incapable of being authenticated to allow NTP to establish if the time source is coming from where it claims to be, combined with the problem of ensuring the firewall is open to receive the time requests, can mean that internet time servers present a clear risk to security.

The time on my computer seems to be off by a second to standard UTC time

You need to check if a recent leap second has been added to UTC. Leap seconds are added once or twice a year to ensure UTC and the Earth’s rotation match. Some time servers experience difficulties in making the leap second adjustment.

MSF Outages for 2010

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Users of the National Physical Laboratory’s (NPL) MSF time and frequency signal are probably aware that the signal is occasionally taken off-air for scheduled maintenance.

NPL have published there scheduled maintenance for 2010 where the signal will be temporarily taken off-air. Usually the scheduled downtimes lasts for less than four hours but users need to be aware that while NPL and VT Communications, who service the antenna, make every effort to ensure the transmitter is off for a brief amount of time as possible, there can be delays.

And while NPL like to ensure all users of the MSF signal have advanced warning of possible outages, emergency repairs and other issues may lead to unscheduled outages. Any user receiving problems receiving the MSF signal should check the NPL website in case of unscheduled maintenance before contacting your time server vendor.

The dates and times of the scheduled maintenance periods for 2010 are as follows:

* 11 March 2010 from 10:00 UTC to 14:00 UTC

* 10 June 2010 from 10:00 BST to 14:00 BST (UTC + 1 hr)

* 9 September 2010 from 10:00 BST to 14:00 BST (UTC + 1 hr)

* 9 December 2010 from 10:00 UTC to 14:00 UTC

As these scheduled outages should take no longer than four hours, users of MSF referenced time servers should not notice any drop off in accuracy of their network as their shouldn’t be enough time for any device to drift.

However, for those users concerned about accuracy or require a NTP time server (Network Time Server) that doesn’t succumb to regular outages, they may wish to consider investing in a GPS time server.

GPS time servers receive the time from the orbiting navigational satellites. As these are available anywhere on the globe and the signals are never down for outages they can provide a constant accurate time signal (GPS time is not the same as UTC but is easily converted by NTP as it is exactly 17 seconds behind due to leap seconds being added to UTC and not GPS).

Atomic Clock to be attached to International Space Station

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One of the world’s most accurate atomic clocks is to be launched into orbit and attached to the International Space Station (ISS) thanks to an agreement signed by the French space agency.

The PHARAO (Projet d’Horloge Atomique par Refroidissement d’Atomes en Orbite) atomic clock is to attached to the ISS in an effort to more accurately test Einstein’s theory of relatively as well as increasing the accuracy of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) amongst other geodesy experiments.

PHARAO is a next generation caesium atomic clock with an accuracy that corresponds to less than a second’s drift every 300,000 years. PHARAO is to be launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2013.

Atomic clocks are the most accurate timekeeping devices available to mankind yet they are susceptible to changes in gravitational pull, as predicted by Einstein’s theory, as time itself is slewed by the Earth’s pull. By placing this accurate atomic clock into orbit the effect of Earth’s gravity is lessened allowing PHARAO to be more accurate than Earth based clock.

While atomic clocks are not new to orbit, as many satellites; including the GPS network (Global Positioning System) contain atomic clocks, however, PHARAO will be among the most accurate clocks ever launched into space, allowing it to be used for far more detailed analysis.

Atomic clocks have been around since the 1960’s but their increasing development has paved the way for more and more advanced technologies. Atomic clocks form the basis of many modern technologies from satellite navigation to allowing computer networks to communicate effectively across the globe.

Computer networks receive time signals from atomic clocks via NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) which can accurately synchronise a computer network to within a few milliseconds of UTC.

How Satellite Navigation Works

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Satellite navigational systems, or sat navs, have changed the way we navigate our way around the high roads. Gone are the days when travellers had to have a glove box full of maps and gone too is the need to stop and ask a local for directions.

Satellite navigation means that we an now go from point A to point B confident our systems will take us there and while sat nav systems are not fool proof (we must have all read the stories of people driving over cliffs and into rivers etc), it has certainly revolutionised our wayfinding.

Currently there is only one Global Navigational Satellite System (GNSS) the American run Global Positioning System (GPS). Although, a rival European System (Galileo) is set to go online sometime after 2012 and a both a Russian (GLONASS) and Chinese (COMPASS) system are being developed.

However, all these GNSS networks will operate using the same technology as employed by GPS, and in fact, current GPS systems should be able to utilise these future systems without much alteration.

The GPS system is basically a constellation of satellites (currently there are 27). These satellites each contain onboard an atomic clock (actually two are on most GPS satellites but for the purpose of this explanation only one need be considered). The signals that are transmitted from the GPS satellite contain several pieces of information sent as one integer:

* The time the message was sent

* The orbital position of the satellite (known as the ephemeris)

* The general system health and orbits of the other GPS satellites (known as the almanac)

A satellite navigation receiver, the kind found on the dashbopard of your car, receives this information and using the timing information works out the exact distance from the receiver to the satellite. By using three or more of these signals the exact position can be triangulated (four signals are actually required as height above sea level has to be worked out too).

Because the triangulation works out when the time signal was sent and how long it took to arrive at the receiver, the signals have to be incredibly accurate. Even a second of inaccuracy could see the navigational information out but thousands of kilometres as light, and therefore radio signals, can travel nearly 300,000 km each second.

Currently the GPS satellite network can provide navigational accuracy to within 5 metres which goes to show just how accurate atomic clocks can be.

Setting up Windows XP as an NTP Server

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A network time server or NTP server (Network Time Protocol), is a central computer or server on a network that controls the time and synchronises all machines on that network to it.

Windows XP can be set up to operate as an NTP server to synchronise the rest of the computers and devices on a network. Setting up a Windows XP machine to act as a NTP server involves editing the registry, however, editing an operating system registry can lead to potential problems and should only be conducted by somebody with experience of registry editing.

To configure Windows XP as an NTP server the first thing to do is to open the registry editor in Windows. This is done by clicking the Start button and selecting “Run” from the menu. Enter “regedit” in the run menu and press return. This should open the Windows registry editor.

Select the: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\W32Time\TimeProviders\NtpServer\ folder in the left hand pane. This folder holds the values for the NTP server.

Right-click the “Enabled” key in the right window pane and select “Properties”. This should open a dialog box where you can alter the value of the registry key. Enter “1” in the window, setting the value to “True” which turns the XP computer into a time server.

Close the registry and open the DOS command prompt by clicking the Windows Start button, selecting “Run”. Then type “cmd” in the text box and press return.

Type “Net stop w32time” into the command prompt and press “Enter.” Now type “net start w32time” this will restart the time server for Windows XP.

However, the XP machine, which is now set as a NTP server, will merely distribute the time it currently holds. If this time is inaccurate then it will inaccurate time that is distributed amongst the network.

To ensure an accurate and secure source of time is used then a dedicated NTP time server that receives the time from an atomic clock source should be used.

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.

Choosing a Time Source for UTC Synchronization

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Ensuring a computer network is time synchronized is vital in modern computer networks. Synchronization, not just between different machines on a network, but also each computer network that communicates with other networks needs to be synchronized with them too.

UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is a global timescale that allows networks on other sides of the globe to be synchronized together. Synchronizing a network to UTC is relatively straightforward thanks to NTP (Network Time Protocol) the software protocol designed for this very purpose.

Most operating systems, including the latest Microsoft incarnation Windows 7, have a version of NTP (often in a simplified form known as SNTP), that allows a single time source to be used to synchronize every computer and device on a network.

Selecting a source for this time reference is the only real difficulty in synchronizing a network. There are three main locations where UTC time can accurately be received from:

Internet Time

There are many sources of internet time and the latest version of Windows (Windows 7) automatically synchronizes to Microsoft’s time server, so if Internet time is adequate Windows 7 users need not alter their settings. However, for computer networks where security is an issue then internet time sources can leave a system vulnerable as the time has to be received through the firewall forcing a UDP port to be left open. This can be utilised by malicious users. Furthermore, there is no authentication with an internet time source so the timecode could be hijacked before it arrives at your network.

GPS Time

Available literally everywhere on the globe, GPS provides a 24-hour, 365 days-a-year source of UTC time. Delivered externally to the firewall via the GPS satellite signal, time synchronization with GPS is accurate and secure.

Radio Transmissions

Usually broadcast by national physics laboratories such as NIST in the US and the UK’s NPL, the time signals are received via longwave and are also external to the firewall so are secure and accurate.

A dedicated NTP time server can receive both radio and GPS time signal guaranteeing accuracy and security.

Benefits of Accurate Network Time Synchronization

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Your computer probably does hundreds and thousands of tasks a day. If that is part of a network then the number of tasks could be millions. From sending emails to saving data, and everything else your computer is tasked to do, they are all logged by the computer or server.

Computers use timestamps to logo processes and indeed, timestamps are used as the only method a computer has to indicate when and if a task or application has been conducted. Timestamps are normally a 16 or 32 bit integer (one long number) that counts back the seconds from a prime epoch – normally 01 January 1970.

So for every task you computer does it will be stamped with the number of seconds from 1970 that the transaction was conducted. These timestamps are the only piece of information a computer system has to ascertain what tasks have been completed and what tasks have yet to be instigated.

The problem with computer networks of more than one machine is that the clocks on individual devices are not accurate enough for many modern time sensitive applications. Computer clocks are prone to drift they are typically based on inexpensive crystal oscillator circuits and can often drift by over a second a day.

This may not seem much but in today’s time sensitive world a second can be a long time indeed especially when you take into account the needs of industries like the stock exchange where a second can be the difference in price of several percent or online seat reservation, where a second can make the difference between an available seat and one that is sold.

This drift is also accumulative so within only a few months the computer systems could be over a minute out of sync and this can have dramatic effects on time sensitive transactions and can result in all sorts of unexpected problems from emails not arriving as a computer thinks they have arrived before they have been sent to data not being backed up or lost completely.

A NTP time server or network time server are increasingly becoming crucial pieces of equipment for the modern computer network. They receive an accurate source of time from an atomic clock and distribute it to all devices on the network. As atomic clocks are incredibly accurate (they won’t drift by a second even in a 100,000 years) and the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) continually checks the devices time against the master atomic clock time – it means the computer network will be able to run perfectly synchronised with each device within a few milliseconds of the atomic clock.

Which time signal? GPS or WWVB and MSF

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Dedicated NTP time server devices are the easiest, most accurate, reliable and secure method of receiving a source of UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) for synchronizing a computer network.

NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) operate outside the firewall and are not reliant on the Internet which means they are highly secure and not vulnerable to malicious users who, in the case of Internet time sources can use the NTP client signals as a method of accessing the network or penetrating the firewall.

A dedicated NTP server will also receive it’s time code direct from an atomic clock, this makes it a stratum 1 time server as opposed to online time servers which are stratum 2 time servers, that is they get the time from a stratum 1 server and so are not as accurate.

In using a NTP time server there is only really one decision to make and that is how the time signal is to be received and for this there is only two choices:

The first is to make use of the time standard radio transmissions broadcast by national physics laboratories such as NIST in the USA or the UK’s NPL. These signals (WWVB in the US, MSF in the UK) are limited in range although the USA signal is available in most parts of Canada and Alaska. However, they are vulnerable to local interference and topography as other long wave radio signals are.

The alternative to the WWVB/MSF signal is to utilise the GPS satellite network (Global Positioning System). Atomic clocks are used by GPS satellites as the basis for navigational information used by satellite receivers. These atomic clocks can be used by using a NTP time server fitted with a GPS antenna.

Whilst the GPS time signal is strictly speaking not UTC- it is 17 seconds behind as leap seconds have never been added to GPS time (as the satellites are unreachable) but NTP can account for this (by simply adding 17 whole seconds). The advantage of GPS is that it is available anywhere on the planet just as long as the GPS antenna has a clear view of the sky.

Duel systems that can utilise both types of signal are also available.