UTC Radio References from Around the World

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UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is the global civil timescale used by millions of people, businesses and authorities across the globe. UTC is based on the time told by caesium atomic clocks. These clocks are the most reliably accurate chronometers on Earth, able to maintain accurate time for several millions of years whilst neither losing nor gaining a second.

Unfortunately caesium clocks are far too expensive and delicate pieces of machinery to make it practical for us all to have one but fortunately the time that they tell is transmitted by several countries. These nation’s national physics laboratories tend to broadcast the UTC time from these clocks by long-wave.

In the UK the 60 kHz transmission is broadcast by the National Physical Laboratory from a transmitter in Anthorn in Cumbria (it was based in Rugby until 2007). NPL constantly maintain the transmissions and assess its accuracy. Whilst the MSF signal is a British based transmission is possible to receive the signal in some parts of northern Europe and Scandinavia.

However, in mainland Europe, the strongest time and frequency signal is the German transmission broadcast from Frankfurt in Germany. This signal known as the DCF is controlled and maintained by the German National Physics Laboratory. While Switzerland also has its own time and frequency signal, the German DCF signal is by far the most widely used in Europe.

In the USA a similar system is maintained by NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) and is broadcast from Fort Collins, Colorado. This signal is known as WWVB and is available in most parts of Northern America (including Canada).

Japan maintains its own timing broadcast (JJY) also which is popular in the south pacific and several other countries (such as France) maintain their own signals too although these tend to have only minor coverage.

All these times signals operate in a similar fashion. The strength of the signal is either reduced by between 6 and 10 dB or switched off for a specific amount of time before being restored at the start of each second. The amount of time the signal is reduced indicates a stream of binary numbers with positioning markers.
The signals operate on a 60 kHz frequency and carry a time and date code which relays the following information in binary format: Year, month, day of month,  day of week,  hour,  minute,  DUT1 (the difference between UTC and UT1 which is based on the Earths rotation). The signals also relay information about local time such as British Summer Time.

How to Configure an Authoritative Time Server in Windows Server 2008

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Time synchronisation in modern computer networks is essential, all computers need to know the time as many applications, from sending an email to storing information are reliant on the PC knowing when the event took place.

Microsoft Windows Server from 2000 onwards has a time synchronisation utility built into the operating system called Windows Time (w32time.exe) which can be configured to operate as a network time server.

Windows Server 2008 can easily set the system clock to use UTC (Coordinated Universal Time, the World’s time standard) by accessing an Internet source (either: time.windows.com or time.nist.gov).

To achieve this, a user merely has to double click the clock on their desktop and adjust the settings in the Internet Time tab.

It must be noted however, that Microsoft and other operating system manufacturers strongly advise that external timing references should be used as Internet sources can’t be authenticated.

To configure the Windows Time service to use an external time source, click Start, Run and type regedit then click OK.

Locate the following subkey:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\W32Time\Parameters\Type
In the right pane, right-click Type then click Modify, in edit Value type NTP in the Value data box then click OK.

Locate the following subkey:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\W32Time\Config\AnnounceFlags.
In the right pane, right-click AnnounceFlags and click Modify. The ‘AnnounceFlags’ registry entry indicates whether the server is a trusted time reference, 5 indicates a trusted source so in the Edit DWORD Value box, under Value Data, type 5, then click OK.

Network Time Protocol (NTP) is an Internet protocol used for the transfer of accurate time, providing time information along so that a precise time can be obtained
To enable the Network Time Protocol; NTPserver, locate and click:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\W32Time\TimeProviders\NtpServer\
In the right pane, right-click Enabled, then click Modify.

In the Edit DWord Value box, type 1 under Value data, then click OK.

Now go back and click on
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\W32Time\Parameters\NtpServer
In the right pane, right-click NtpServer, then Modify, in the Edit DWORD Value under Value Data type In the right pane, right-click NtpServer, then Modify, in the Edit DWORD Value under Value Data type the Domain Name System (DNS), each DNS must be unique and you must append 0x1 to the end of each DNS name otherwise changes will not take effect.

Now click Ok.

Locate and click the following
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\W32Time\TimeProviders\NtpClient\SpecialPollInterval
In the right pane, right-click SpecialPollInterval, then click Modify.

In the Edit DWORD Value box, under Value Data, type the number of seconds you want for each poll, ie 900 will poll every 15 minutes, then click OK.
To configure the time correction settings, locate:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\W32Time\config
In the right pane, right-click MaxPosPhaseCorrection, then Modify, in the Edit DWORD Value box, under Base, click Decimal, under Value Data, type a time in seconds such as 3600 (an hour) then click OK.
Now go back and click:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\W32Time\config
In the right pane, right-click MaxNegPhaseCorrection, then Modify.

In the Edit DWORD box under base, click Decimal, under value data type the time in seconds you want to poll such as 3600 (polls in one hour)
Exit Registry Editor
Now, to restart windows time service, click Start, Run (or alternatively use the command prompt facility) and type:

net stop w32time && net start w32time
And that’s it your time server should be now up and running.

Windows Time Server Synchronising Your Network With NTP

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Nearly all a computers activity involves time whether logging a timestamp for when a network was accessed to sending an email, knowing the time is crucial for computer applications.

All computers have an on-board clock that provides time and date information. These Real Time Clock (RTC) chips are battery backed so that even when off they can maintain time, however these RTC chips are mass produced and cannot maintain accurate time and tend to drift.

For many applications this can be quite adequate, however if a computer is on a network and needs to talk to other machines, failing to be synchonised to the correct time can mean many time-sensitive transactions can not be completed and can even leave the network open to security threats.

All versions of Windows Server since 2000 have included a time synchronization facility, called Windows Time Service (w32time.exe), built into the operating system. This can be configured to operate as a network time server synchronizing all machines to a specific time source.

Windows Time Service uses a version of NTP (Network Time Protocol), normally a simplified version, of the Internet protocol which is designed to synchronise machines on a network, NTP is also the standard for which most computer networks across the global use to synchronise with.

Choosing the correct time source is vitally important. Most networks are synchronized to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) source. UTC is a global standardized time based on atomic clocks which are the most accurate time sources.

UTC can be obtained over the Internet from such places as time.nist.gov (us Naval Observatory) or time.windows.com (Microsoft) but it must be noted that internet time sources can not be authenticated which can leave a system open to abuse and Microsoft and others advise using an external hardware source as a reference clock such as a specialized NTP server.

NTP servers receive their time source from either a specialist radio transmission from national physics laboratories which broadcast UTC time taken from an atomic clock source or by the GPS network which also relays UTC as a consequence of needing it to pin point locations.

NTP can maintain time over the public Internet to within 1/100th of a second (10 milliseconds) and can perform even better over LANs.

Keeping accurate time on Linux

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If you want to be sure that your computer clock is accurate you can configure your system to use NTP (Network Time Protocol), one of the oldest Internet protocols and the industry standard for time synchronisation.

NTP on will synchronise your computer’s clock to a pool of time servers around the world that are official ‘timekeepers’. It is best to choose the closest to you so response time is minimized and to use more than one in case one goes down. There are more than 1.500 servers to choose from, but some areas are better served than others. Many servers on the internet are extremely inaccurate and Internet time references should not be used as a replacement for a dedicated time server.

However, for basic time synchronisation purposes, Internet providers will suffice. The first step should be to select three servers close to you – preferably in your country, or if there aren’t enough, in your ‘zone. Go to ntp home and browse through the tree of zones and servers to select which ones are best for you. The follow these commands to configure:

1. Configure /etc/ntp.conf
Edit this file with a text-editor. Replace
server <example-server-name>
with your servers, such as:

server 0.br.pool.ntp.org
server 1.br.pool.ntp.org
server 2.br.pool.ntp.org

2. Synchronise your clock manually
If your clock is drifting too NTP might refuse to synchronise it, but it can be done manually:

ntpdate 0.br.pool.ntp.org (server name that you choose)

3. Make your ntp daemon executable

chmod +x /etc/rc.d/rc.ntpd

4. Start NTP now without rebooting
Again, a simple command:

/etc/rc.d/rc.ntpd start

Basic Time Server Information

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All PC’s and networking devices use clocks to maintain an internal system time. These clocks, called Real Time Clock chips (RTC) provide time and date information. The chips are battery backed so that even during power outages, they can maintain time.

Computer networks rely on timekeeping for nearly all their applications, from sending an email to saving data, a timestamp is necessary for computer to keep track. All routers and switches need to run at the same rate, out of sync devices can lead to data being lost and even entire connections.

For some transactions it is necessary for computers to be perfectly synchronised, even a few seconds difference between machines can have serious effects, such as finding an airline ticket you had booked had been sold moments later to another customer or you could draw your savings out of a cash machine and when your account is empty you could quickly going to another machine and withdraw it all again.

However, personal computers are not designed to be perfect clocks, their design has been optimized for mass production and low-cost rather than maintaining accurate time. However, these internal clocks are prone to drift and although for many application this can be quite adequate, often machines need to work together on a network and if the computers drift at different rates the computers will become out of sync with each other and problems can arise particularly with time sensitive transactions.

Time servers are like other computer servers in the sense they are usually located on a network. A time server gathers timing information, usually from an external hardware source and then synchronises the network to that time.

Most time servers use NTP (Network Time Protocol) which is one of the Internet’s oldest protocols still used, invented by Dr David Mills from the University of Delaware, it has been in utilized since 1985. NTP is a protocol designed to synchronize the clocks on computers and networks across the Internet or Local Area Networks (LANs).

NTP utilises an external timing reference and then synchronises all devices on the network to that time.

There are various sources that a NTP time server can use as a timing reference. The Internet is an obvious source, however, internet timing references from the Internet such as nist.gov and windows.time can not be authenticated, leaving the time server and therefore the network vulnerable to security threats.

Often time servers are synchronised to a UTC (Coordinated Universal time) source which is the global standard time scale and allows computers all over the world to synchronised to exactly the same time. This has obvious importance in industries where exact timing is crucial such as the stock exchange or airline industry.

Network Time Protocol (NTP), Understanding Synchronisation.

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Network Time Protocol seems to have been around for ever. In fact it is indeed one of the Internet’s oldest protocols having been developed in the 1980’s by Professor David Mills and his team from Delaware University.

In a laid-back world it perhaps doesn’t matter if computer networks are not synchronised. The only consequences of timing errors could be that an email arrives before it was sent but in industries such as airline seat reservation, the stock exchange or satellite communication, fractions of a second can cause serious errors such as selling seats more than once, the loss of millions of dollars or even fraud.

Computers are logical machines and as time is linear to a computer any event that happens on one machine must happen before news of that event reaches another. When networks are not synchronised computers struggle to deal with events that have obviously occurred (such as an email being sent) but according to their clock and time stamp it hasn’t yet, just think back to the millennium bug where it was feared clocks would jump back to 1900!

For this very reason NTP was developed.  NTP uses an algorithm (Marzullo’s algorithm) to synchronise the time with the current version of NTP can maintain time over the public Internet to within 10 milliseconds and can perform even better over LANs. NTP time servers work within the TCP/IP suite and rely on UDP (User Datagram Protocol).

NTP servers are normally dedicated NTP devices that use a single time reference to synchronise a network to. This time reference is most often a UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) source. UTC is a global time scale distributed by atomic clocks via the Internet, specialist long wave radio transmissions or via the GPS (Global Positioning System) network.

The NTP algorithm uses this time reference to determine the amount to advance or retreat the system or network clock. NTP analyses the timestamp’s values including the frequency of errors and its stability. A NTP server will maintain an estimate the quality of both the reference clocks and itself.

NTP is hierarchical. The distance from the timing reference is divided into strata. Stratum 0 is the atomic clock reference; Stratum 1 is the NTP server, while Stratum 2 is a server that receives timing information from the NTP server. NTP can support almost limitless strata although the further away from the timing reference you go the less accurate it will be.

As each stratum level can both receive and send timing signals, the advantage of this hierarchical system is that thousands of machines can be synchronised with only the need for one NTP server.

NTP contains its a security measure called authentication. Authentication verifies that each timestamp has come from the intended time reference by analysing a set of encryption keys that are sent with the time reference.  NTP analyses it and confirms whether it has come from the time source by verifying it against a set of trusted keys in its configuration files.

However, authentication is unavailable from timing sources from across the Internet which is why Microsoft and Novell amongst others strongly recommend only external time references are used such as a dedicated GPS NTP server or one that receives the national time and frequency long wave transmission.

Six Reasons why you need a Dedicated Network Time Server!

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Security
Having inaccurate time or running a network that is not synchronised can leave a computer system vulnerable to security threats and even fraud. Timestamps are the only point of reference for a computer to track applications and events. If these are inaccurate all sorts of problems can occur such as emails arriving before they were sent. It also makes possible such time sensitive transactions as e-commerce, online reservation and trading in stocks and share where exact timing with a network time server is essential and prices can fall or rise by millions in a second.

Protection:
Failure to synchronise a computer network can allow hackers and malicious uses the opportunity to get at your system, even fraudsters can take advantage. Even those machines that are synchronised can fall victim, especially when the use the Internet as a timing reference which allows an open door for malicious users to inject a virus into your network. Using Radio or GPS atomic clocks provide accurate time behind your firewall maintaining you security.

Accuracy:
NTP Time Servers ensure that all networked computers are synchronized automatically to the accurate time and date, now and in the future, automatically updating the network during daylight saving and leap seconds.

Legality:
If computer data is ever to be used in a court of law then it essential that the information comes from a network that is synchronised. If the system is not then the evidence may be inadmissible.

Happy users:
Stop users complaining about incorrect time on their workstations

Control:
You have control of the configuration. For example you can automatically changes the time forward and back each Spring and Autumn for daylight saving time or set your server time to be locked to UTC time only or any time zone you choose.

The Atomic Clock and the NTP Time Server

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Most people have heard of atomic clocks, their accuracy and precision are well known. An ato0mic clock has the potential to keep time for several hundred million years and not lose a second in drift. Drift is the process where clocks lose or gain time because of the inaccuracies in the mechanisms that make them work.

Mechanical clocks, for instance, have been around for hundreds of years but even the most expensive and well engineered will drift at least a second a day. Whilst electronic clocks are more accurate they also will drift by about a second a week.

Atomic clocks have no comparison when it comes to time keeping. Because an atomic clock is based on the oscillation of an atom (in most cases the caesium 133 atom) which has an exact and finite resonance (caesium is 9,192,631,770 every second) this makes them accurate to within a billionth of a second (a nanosecond).

While this type of accuracy is unparalleled it has made possible technologies and innovations that have changed the world. Satellite communication is only possible thanks to the time keeping of atomic clocks, so is satellite navigation. As the speed of light (and therefore radio waves) travel at over 300,000km a second an inaccuracy of a second could see a navigation system be hundreds of thousands of miles out.

Precise accuracy is also essential in many modern computer applications. Global communication, particularly financial transactions have to be done precisely. In Wall Street or the London stock exchange a second can see the value of stock rise or fall by millions. Online reservation also requires the accuracy and perfect synchronisation only atomic clocks can provide otherwise tickets could be sold more than once and cash machines could end up paying out your wages twice if you found a cash machine with a slow clock.

Whilst this may sound desirable to the more dishonest of us, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand what problems a lack of accuracy and synchronisation could cause. For this reason an International timescale based on the time told by atomic clocks has been developed.

UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is the same everywhere and can account for the slowing of the Earth’s rotation by adding leap seconds to keep UTC inline with GMT (Greenwich Meantime). All computer networks that participate in global communication need to be synchronised to UTC. Because UTC is based on the time told by atomic clocks it is the most precise timescale possible. For a computer network to receive and keep synchronised to UTC  it first needs access to an atomic clock. These are expensive and large pieces of equipment and are generally only to be found in large scale physics laboratories.

Fortunately the time told by these clocks can still be received by a network time server wither by utilising time and frequency long wave broadcasts transmitted by national physics laboratories or from the GPS (Global Positioning system). NTP (network time protocol) can then distribute this UTC time to the network and use the time signal to keep all devices on the network perfectly synchronised to UTC.

NTP Time Server Frequently Asked Questions

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Q. What is NTP?
A. NTP – Network Time Protocol is an Internet protocol for time synchronisation, whilst other time synchronisation protocols are available NTP is by far the most widely used having been around since the mid 1980’s when the Internet was still in its infancy.

Q. What is UTC?
A.  UTC – Coordinated Universal Time is a global timescale based on the time told by atomic clocks. Because these clocks are so accurate every year or so ‘leap seconds’ have to be added as UTC is even more accurate than the Earth’s rotation which slows and speeds up thanks to the Moon’s gravity.

Q. What is a Network Time Server?
A. A network time server also known as a NTP time server is a network device that receives a UTC time signal and then distributes it among the other devices on a network. The time protocol NTP then ensures that all machines are kept synchronised to that time.

Q. Where does a network time server receive a UTC time from?
A. There are several sources where a UTC time reference can be taken. The Internet is the most obvious with hundreds of different time servers relaying their UTC time signals. However these are notoriously inaccurate depending on many variable the Internet is also not a secure source and not suitable for any computer network where security issues are a concern. The other methods that provide a more accurate, secure and reliable source of UTC time is to either use the transmissions of the GPS (global positioning system) network or the national time and frequency transmissions broadcast on long-wave.

Q. Can I receive a radio time signal from anywhere?
A. Unfortunately not. Only certain countries have a time signal broadcast from their national physics laboratories and these signals are finite and vulnerable to interference. In the USA the signal is broadcast from Colorado and is known as WWVB, in the UK it is broadcast from Cumbria and is called MSF. Similar systems exist in Germany, Japan, France and Switzerland.

Q. What about the GPS signal?
A. A satellite navigation system relies on the time signals from the onboard atomic clocks in the GPS satellites. It is this time signal that is used to triangulate positioning and it can also be received by a network time server fitted with a GPS antenna. GPS is available everywhere in the World but an antenna does need to have a clear view of the sky.

Q. If I have large network then I will need multiple network time servers?
A. Not necessarily. NTP is hierarchical and divided into ‘stratum’ an atomic clock is a stratum 0 device, a time server that receives the clocks signal is a stratum 1 device and a network device that receives a signal from a time server is a stratum 2 device. NTP can support 12 stratum (realistically, although more is possible) and each strata can be used as a device to synchronise to. Therefore a stratum 2 device can synchronise other machine lower down the strata and so on. This means no matter how big a network is, only one network time server would be required.

Receiving a Time Source

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A NTP Server connects to a computer network with the purpose of synchronising all computers, routers and other devices to the exact same time. NTP servers use Network Time Protocol to adjust the drift of different machines to match the reference time.

NTP servers rely on using a reference clock; most networks that use a NTP server will use a UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) time source. UTC is based on the time told by the incredibly accurate and expensive atomic clocks.

Atomic clocks work on the principle that a single atom (in most cases the caesium -133) will resonate at an exact rate at certain energy levels. The accuracy of atomic clocks is so proficient that UTC was developed to allow international Atomic Time (TAI) and Greenwich Meantime (GMT) to be combined, allowing for the slowing of the Earth’s rotation by adding leap seconds and therefore keeping the Sun at the Earth’s meridian at noon.

Failure to account for this slowing in the Earth’s spin would result in the eventual drift of day and night (albeit in many millennia).
A NTP server can be set to receive a UTC time signal from across the Internet although these can vary tremendously in accuracy and are reliant on reasonably close distances from client and server.

Relying on an Internet based timing references can also leave a network open to malicious users as they can not utilise NTP authentication which is a security measure used to ensure a timing reference is what it says it is.

Many dedicated NTP servers are designed to receive a more accurate and authenticated timing reference. One method utilises radio transmissions that are broadcast by several national physics laboratories such as NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology) in the US (WWVB signal) and NPL (National Physical Laboratory) in the UK (MSF signal). These signals are broadcast in long wave and can be picked up within the broadcast area although the signals can be blocked by local geographical features.

Another method to receive a UTC timing reference is to use the onboard atomic clocks on GPS (Global Positioning System) network. While GPS is most commonly known as a positioning system the satellite actually relays timing information which is used by GPS receivers to calculate the time it has travelled and therefore the distance.
While the GPS signals are not broadcast in UTC format they are highly accurate and NTP has no problem in converting them.

The NTP server checks the time stamp from the UTC source and uses the information to calculate if the network clocks are drifting and adds or subtracts a second to match the reference clock. The NTP server will do this at set intervals, normally every fifteen minutes to ensure perfect accuracy.

NTP is accurate to within 1/100th of a second (10 milliseconds) over the public Internet and can perform even better over LANs and WANS with accuracies of 1/5000th of a second (200 microseconds) not unheard of.

To ensure further accuracy the NTP service (or daemon on Linux) runs in the background and does not believe the time it is told until after several exchanges and each one has passed a protocol specification (a test), the server is then considered. It usually takes about five good samples) until a NTP server is accepted as a timing source.