To synchronise a computer network or other technology systems to GPS time, all that is required is a GPS network time server. GPS network time servers are simple to install, simple to use and can maintain accuracy for all sorts of technologies. Used by organisations as diverse as stock exchanges, air traffic control and banking systems, GPS time servers provide an efficient and cost effective solution to maintain network synchronicity.
When a network loses time, you are at risk of losing far more than just what time of day it is. Time is an essential aspect of network security and any errors in a network time server can lead to catastrophic result. However, the solution for ensuring network security is fairly simple and relatively inexpensive – the NTP time server.
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.
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.
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.
Having suffered earthquakes, a catastrophic tsunami, and a nuclear accident, Japan has had a terrible start to the year. Now, weeks after these terrible incidents, Japan is recovering, rebuilding their damaged infrastructure and trying to contain the emergencies at their stricken nuclear power plants.
But to add insult t injury, many of the Japanese technologies that rely on an accurate atomic clock signals are starting to drift, leading to problems with synchronisation. Like in the UK, Japan’s National Institute of Information, Communications and Technology broadcast an atomic clock time standard by radio signal.
Japan has two signals, but many Japanese NTP servers rely on the signal broadcast from mount Otakadoya, which is located 16 kilometres from the stricken Daiichi power station in Fukushima, and falls within the 20 km exclusion zone imposed when the plant started leaking.
The consequence is that technicians have been unable to attend to the time signal. According to the National Institute of Information, Communications, and Technology, which usually transmits the 40-kilohertz signal, broadcasts ceased a day after the massive Tohoku earthquake struck the region on 11 March. Officials at the institute said they have no idea when service might resume.
Radio signals that broadcast time standards can be susceptible to problems of this nature. These signals often experience outages for repair and maintenance, and the signals can be prone to interference.
As more and more technologies, rely on atomic clock timing, including most computer networks, this susceptibility can cause a lot of apprehension amongst technology managers and network administrators.
Fortunately, a less vulnerable system of receiving time standards is available that is just as accurate and is based on atomic clock time—GPS.
The Global Positioning System, commonly used for satellite navigation, contains atomic clock time information used to calculate positioning. These time signals are available everywhere on the planet with a view of the sky, and as it is space-based, the GPS signal is not susceptible to outages and incidents such as in Fukushima.
The global positing system is one of the most used technologies in the modern world. So many people rely on the network for either satellite navigation or time synchronisation. The majority of road users now rely on some form of GPS or mobile phone navigation, and professional drivers are almost completely reliant on them.
And its not just navigation that GPS is useful for. Because GPS satellites contain atomic clocks—it is the time signals these clocks put out that are used by satellite navigation systems to accurately work out positioning—they are used as a primary source of time for a whole host of time sensitive technologies.
Traffic lights, CCTV networks, ATM machines and modern computer networks all need accurate sources of time to avoid drift and to ensure synchronicity. Most modern technologies, such as computers, do contain internal time pieces but these are only simple quartz oscillators (similar type of clock as used in modern watches) and they can drift. Not only does this lead to the time slowly becoming inaccurate, when devices are hooked up together this drifting can leave machines unable to cooperate as each device may have a different time.
This is where the GPS network comes in, as unlike other forms of accurate time sources, GPS is available anywhere on the planet, is secure (for a computer network it is received externally to the firewall) and incredibly accurate, but GPS does have one distinct disadvantage.
While available everywhere on the planet, the GPS signal is pretty weak and to obtain a signal, whether for time synchronisation or for navigation, a clear view of the sky is needed. For this reason, the GPS antenna is fundamental in ensuring you get a good quality signal.
As the GPS antenna has to go outdoors, it’s important that it s not only waterproof, able to operate in the rain and other weather elements, but also resistant to the variation in temperatures experienced throughout the year.
One of the leading causes of GPS NTP server failure (the time servers that receive GPS time signals and distribute them around a network using Network Time Protocol) is a failed or failing antenna, so ensuring you GPS antenna is waterproof, and resistant to seasonal temperature changes can eliminate the risk of future time signal failures.
Since the Global Positioning System (GPS) first became available for civilian use in the early 1990’s, it has become one of the most commonly used modern pieces of technology. Millions of motorists use satellite navigation, while shipping and airline industries are heavily dependent on it.
And its not just wayfinding that we use GPS for, many technologies from computer network to traffic lights, to CCTV cameras, use the GPS satellite transmissions as a method of controlling time—using the onboard atomic clocks to synchronise these technologies together.
While plenty of advantages to using GPS for both navigation and time synchronisation exist, it’s accurate in both time and positioning and is available, literally everywhere on the planet with a clear view to the sky. However, a recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering this month has warned that the UK is becoming dangerously dependent on the USA run GPS system.
The report suggests that with so much of our technology now reliant on GPS such as road, rail and shipping equipment, there is a possibility that any loss in GPS signal could lead to loss of life.
And GPS is vulnerable to failure. Not only can GPS satellites be knocked out by solar flares and other cosmological phenomenon, but GPS signals can be blocked by accidental interference or even deliberate jamming.
If the GPS system does fail then navigation systems could become inaccurate leading to accidents, however, for technologies that use GPS as a timing signal, and these range from important systems at air traffic control, to the average business computer network, then fortunately, things should not be that disastrous.
This is because GPS time servers that receive the satellite’s signal use NTP (Network Time Protocol). NTP is the protocol that distributes the GPS time signal around a network, adjusting the system clocks on all the devices on the network to ensure they are synchronised. However, if the signal is lost, then NTP can still remain accurate, calculating the best average of the system clocks. Consequently if the GPS signal does go down, computers can still remain accurate to within a second for several days.
For critical systems, however, where extremely precise time is required constantly, dual NTP time servers are commonly used. Dual time servers not only receive a signal from GPS, but also can pick-up the time standard radio transmissions broadcast by organisations such as NPL or NIST.
While many of us are aware of GPS (Global Positioning System) as a navigational tool and many of us have ‘sat navs’ in our cars, but the GPS network has another use that is also important to our day-to-day lives but few people realise it.
GPS satellites contain atomic clocks which transmit to earth an accurate time signal; it is this broadcast that satellite navigation devices use to calculate global position. However, there are other uses for this time signal besides navigation.
Nearly all computer networks are kept accurate to an atomic clock. This is because miniscule accuracies across a network can lead to until problems, from security issues to data loss. Most networks use a form of NTP (Network Time Protocol) to synchronise their networks, but NTP requires a main time source to sync to.
GPS is ideal for this, not only is it an atomic clocks source, which NTP can calculate UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) from, which means that the network will be synchronised to every other UTC network on the globe.
GPS is an ideal source of time as it is available literally everywhere on the planet as long as the GPS antenna has a clear view of the sky. And it is not only computer networks that require atomic clock time, all sorts of technologies require accurate synchronisation: traffic lights, CCTV cameras, air traffic control, internet servers, indeed many modern applications and technology without us realising is being kept true by GPS time.
Top use GPS as a source of time, a GPS NTP server is required. These connect to routers, switches or other technology and receive a regular time signal from the GPS satellites. The NTP server then distributes this time across the network, with the protocol NTP continually checking each device to ensure it is not drifting.
GPS NTP servers are not only accurate they are also highly secure. Some network administrators use internet time servers as a source of time but this can lead to problems. Not only is the accuracy of many of these sources questionable, but the signals can be hijacked by malicious software which can breach the network firewall and cause mayhem.
Many modern computer networks are now running Microsoft’s latest operating system Window 7, which has many new and improved features including the ability to synchronise time.
When a Windows 7 machine is booted up, unlike previous incarnations of Windows, the operating system automatically attempts to synchronise to a time server across the internet to ensure the network is running accurate time. However, while this facility is often useful for residential users, for business networks it can cause many problems.
Firstly, to allow this synchronisation process to happen, the company firewall must have an open port (UDP 123) to allow the regular time transference. This can cause security issues as malicious users and bots can take advantage of the open port to penetrate into the company network.
Secondly, while the internet time servers are often quite accurate, this can often depend on your distance from the host, and any latency caused by network or internet connection can further cause inaccuracies meaning that you system can often be more than several seconds away from the preferred UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time).
Finally, as internet time sources are stratum 2 devices, that is they are servers that do not receive a first-hand time code, but instead receive a second hand source of time from a stratum 1 device (dedicated NTP time server – Network Time Protocol) which also can lead to inaccuracy – these stratum 2 connections can also be very busy preventing your network from accessing the time for prolonged periods risking drifting.
To ensure accurate, reliable and secure time for a Windows 7 network, there is really no substitute than to use your own stratum 1 NTP time server. These are readily available from many sources and are not very expensive but the peace of mind they provide is invaluable.
Stratum 1 NTP time servers receive a secure time signal direct from an atomic clock source. The time signal is external to the network so there is no danger of it being hijacked or any need to have open ports in the firewall.
Furthermore, as the time signals come from a direct atomic clock source they are very accurate and don’t suffer any latency problems. The signals used can be either through GPS (Global Positioning System satellites’ have onboard atomic clocks) or from radio transmissions broadcast by national physics laboratories such as NIST in the USA (broadcast from Colorado), NPL in the UK (transmitted form Cumbria) or their German equivalent (from Frankfurt).
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.