Technologies that rely on Atomic Clocks (Part 2)

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GPS is not the only technology that is dependent on atomic clocks. The high levels of accuracy that are supplied by atomic clocks are used in other crucial technologies that we take for granted everyday.

Air traffic Control Not only are all aeroplanes and airliners now equipped with GPS to enable pilots and ground staff to know their exact location but atomic clocks are also used by air traffic controllers who need precise and accurate measurements and time between planes.

Traffic Lights and Road Congestion Systems – Traffic lights are another system that relies on atomic clock timing. Accuracy and synchronization is vital for traffic light systems as small errors in synchronization could lead to fatal accidents.

Congestion cameras and other systems such as parking metres also use atomic clocks as a basis of their timekeeping as this prevents any legal issues when issuing penalty notices.

CCTV – Closed circuit television is another large scale user of atomic clocks. CCTV cameras are often used in the fight against crime but as evidence they are ineffective in a court of law unless the timing information on the CCTV camera can be proved to be accurate. Failure to do so could lead to criminals escaping prosecution because despite the identification by the camera, proof that it was at the time and date of the offence can’t be clarified without accuracy and synchronization.

Internet – Many of the applications we now entrust to the internet are only made possible thanks to atomic clocks. Online trading, internet banking and even online auction houses all need accurate and synchronized time.

Imagine taking your savings from your bank account only finding that you can withdraw them again because another computer has a slower clock or imagine bidding on an internet auction site only to have your bid rejected by a bid that came before yours because it was made on a computer with a slower clock.

Using atomic clocks as a source for time is relatively straight forward for many technologies. Radio signals and even the GPS transmissions can be used as a source of atomic clock time and for computer systems, the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) will ensure any sized network will be synchronized perfectly together. Dedicated NTP time servers are used throughout the world in technologies and applications that require precise time.

The Vulnerability of GPS

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An increase in GPS ‘attacks’ has been causing some concern amongst the scientific community.  GPS, whilst a highly accurate and reliable system of transmitting time and positing information, relies on very weak signals that are being hampered by interference from the Earth.

Both unintentional interference such as from pirate radio stations or intentional deliberate ‘jamming’ by criminals is still rare but as technology that can hamper GPS signals becomes more readily available, the situation is expected to get worse.

And while the effects of signal failure of the GPS system may have obvious results for people who use it for navigation (ending up in the wrong location or getting lost) it could have more serious and profound repercussions for the technologies that rely on GPS for time signals.

As so many technologies now rely on GPS timing signals from telephone networks, the internet, banking and traffic lights and even our power grid any signal failure no matter how briefly, could cause serious problems.

The main problem with the GPS signal is that it is very weak and as it comes from space bound satellites, little can be done to boost the signal so any similar frequency being broadcast in a local area can easily drown out GPS.

However, GPS is not the only accurate and secure method of receiving the time from an atomic clock source. Many national physics laboratories from across the globe broadcast atomic clock signals via radio waves (usually long wave). In the USA these signals are broadcast by NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time (known as WWVB) whilst in the UK, it’s MSF signal is broadcast by NPL (National Physical Laboratory).

Dual time servers that can receive both signals are available and are a safer bet for any high technology company that can’t afford to risk losing a time signal.

New Technologies and the Growing Importance of Time Synchronisation

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The NTP protocol (Network Time Protocol) has since the earliest days of the internet been responsible for synchronising the time across computer networks. Not only is NTP effective at this, but when connected to a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) NTP is also extremely accurate.

Most computer networks connect to UTC via a dedicated NTP time server. These devices use an external connection to an atomic clock to receive the time and then distribute it across a network. By connecting externally, via GPS (Global Positioning System) or long wave radio , not only are NTP time servers incredibly accurate but they are also very secure as they don’t rely on an internet connection for the time.
NTP time servers are also increasingly being used for other new innovations. Not only have traditional technologies such as CCTV, traffic lights, air traffic control and the stock exchange, become reliant on time synchronisation with time servers but an increasing amount of modern technologies are too.

NTP time servers are now common in modern digital signage systems (the use of flat screen TVs for out of home advertising). These networked screens are often synchronised to allow scheduled and orchestrated campaigns.

A synchronized digital signage campaign is one method of making an out of home advertising campaign stand-out. This is increasingly important as more and more digital signage is being implemented making a conventional digital signage campaign difficult to engage and catch the eye.

By synchronising multiple screens together with a NTP time server and running a scheduled and timed campaign. This allows content to be scheduled or timed to maximise its impact.

Small time servers can eben be installed directly into the digital signage of LCD enclosure although as most of these tiem synchnisation devices require a GPS or long wave signal the antenna can be problamtic. A better solution is to network the digtal signage and use a single NTP server as a method fo synchonisation.

NTP may be the oldest protocol on the internet and NTP time servers have been around for nearly two decades but this comparatively antique technology and software has never been so much in demand.

Using the WWVB Signal for Time Synchronization

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We all rely on the time to keep our days scheduled. Wristwatches, wall clocks and even the DVD player all tell us the time but on occasion, this is not accurate enough, especially when time needs to be synchronized.

There are many technologies that require extremely accurate precision between systems, from satellite navigation to many internet applications, accurate time is becoming increasingly important.

However, achieving precision is not always straight forward, especially in modern computer networks. While all computer systems have inbuilt clocks, these are not accurate time pieces but standard crystal oscillators, the same technology used in other electronic clocks.

The problem with relying on system clocks like this is that they are prone to drift and on a network consisting of hundreds or thousands of machines, if the clocks are drifting at a different rate – chaos can soon ensue. Emails are received before they are sent and time critical applications fail.

Atomic clocks are the most accurate time pieces around but these are large scale laboratory tools and are impractical (and highly expensive) to be used by computer networks.

However, physics laboratories like the North American NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) do have atomic clocks which they broadcast time signals from. These time signals can be used by computer networks for the purpose of synchronization.

In North America, the NIST broadcasted time code is called WWVB and is transmitted out of Boulder, Colorado on long wave at 60Hz. The time code contains the year, day, hour, minute, second, and as it is a source of UTC, any leap seconds that are added to ensure parity with the rotation of the Earth.

Receiving the WWVB signal and using it to synchronize a computer network is simple to do. Radio reference network time servers can receive this broadcast throughout North America and by using the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol).

A dedicated NTP time server that can receive the WWVB signal can synchronize hundreds and even thousands of different devices to the WWVB signal ensuring each one is to within a few milliseconds of UTC.

Atomic Clock Synchronization made easy with a NTP Time Server

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Atomic clocks are the ultimate in timekeeping devices. Their accuracy is incredible as an atomic clock will not drift by as much as a second within a million years, and when this is compared to the next best chronometers, such as electronic clock that can drift by a second in a week, an atomic clock is incredibly more precise.

Atomic clocks are used the world over and are the heart of many modern technologies making capable a multitude of applications that we take for granted. Internet trading, satellite navigation, air traffic control and international banking are all industries that rely heavily on

They also govern the world’s timescale, UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is kept true by a constellation of these clocks (although UTC has to be adjusted to accommodate the slowing of the Earth’s spin by adding leap seconds).

Computer networks are often required to run synchronized to UTC. This synchronisation is vital in networks that conduct time sensitive transactions or require high levels of security.

A computer network without adequate time synchronization can cause many issues including:

Loss of data

  • Difficulties in identifying and logging errors
  • Increased risk of security breaches.
  • Unable to conduct time sensitive transactions

For these reasons many computer networks have to be synchronized to a source of UTC and kept as accurate as possible. And although atomic clocks are large bulky devices kept in the confines of physics laboratories, using them as a source of time is incredibly simple.

Network Time Protocol (NTP) is a software protocol designed solely for the synchronisation of networks and computer systems and by using a dedicated NTP server the time from an atomic clock can be received by the time server and distributed around the network using NTP.

NTP servers use radio frequencies and more commonly the GPS satellite signals to receive the atomic clock timing signals which is then spread throughout the network with NTP regularly adjusting each device to ensure it is as accurate as possible.

How to Synchronise a Computer Network using the Time Protocol (NTP)

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Synchronisation of modern computer networks is vitally important for a multitude of reasons, and thanks to the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) this is relatively straightforward.

NTP is an algorithmic protocol that analyses the time on different computers and compares it to a single time reference and adjusts each clock for drift to ensure synchronisation with the time source. NTP is so capable at this task that a network synchronised using the protocol can realistically obtain millisecond accuracy.

Choosing the time source

When it comes to establishing a time reference there really is no alternative than to find a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC is the global timescale, used throughout the world as a single timescale by computer networks. UTC is kept accurate by a constellation of atomic clocks throughout the world.

Synchronising to UTC

The most basic method of receiving a UTC Time source is to use a stratum 2 internet time server. These are deemed stratum 2 as they distribute the time after first receiving it from a NTP server (stratum 1) that is connected to an atomic clock (stratum 0). Unfortunately this is not the most accurate method of receiving UTC because of the distance the data has to travel from host to the client .

There are also security issues involved in using an internet stratum 2 time source in that the firewall UDP port 123 has to be left open to receive the time code but this firewall opening can, and has been, exploited by malicious users.

Dedicated NTP Servers

Dedicated NTP time servers, often referred to as network time servers, are the most accurate and secure method of synchronising a computer network. They operate externally to the network so there are no firewall issues. These stratum 1 devices receive the UTC time direct from an atomic clock source by either long wave radio transmissions or the GPS network (Global Positioning System). Whilst this does require an antenna, which in the case of GPS has to be placed on a rooftop, the time server itself will automatically synchronise hundreds and indeed thousands of different devices on the network.

Five Reasons why your Network needs a NTP Server

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Accurate timekeeping if quite often overlooked as a priority for network administrators yet many are risking both security and data loss by not ensuring their networks are synchronised as precisely as possible.

Computers do have their own hardware clocks but these are often just simple electronic oscillators such as exist in digital watches and unfortunately these system clocks are prone to drift, often by as much as several seconds in a week.

Running different machines on a network that have different times – even by only a few seconds – can cause havoc as so many computer tasks rely on time. Time, in the form of timestamps, is the only reference computers use to distinguish between different events and failure to accurately synchronize a network can lead to all sorts of untold problems.

Here are some of the major reasons why your network should be synchronised using Network Time Protocol, prefasbly with a NTP time server.

Data Backups – vital to safeguard data in any business or organization, a lack of synchronisation can lead to not only back ups failing but older versions of files replacing more modern versions.

Malicious Attacks – no matter how secure a network, somebody, somewhere will eventually gain access to your network but without accurate synchronisation it may become impossible to discover what compromises have taken place and it will also give any unauthorised users extra time inside a network to wreak havoc.

Error logging – when faults occur, and they inevitably do, the system logs contain all the information to identify and correct problems. However, if the system logs are not synchronised it can sometimes be impossible to figure out what went wrong and when.

Online Trading – Buying and selling on the internet is now commonplace and in some businesses thousands of online transactions are conducted every second from seat reservation to buying of shares and a lack of accurate synchronisation can result in all sorts of errors in online trading such as items being bought or sold more than once.

Compliance and legality – Many industrial regulations systems require an auditable and accurate method of timing. A unsynchronised network will also be vulnerable to legal issues as the exact time an event is alleged to have taken place can not be proved.

Did you Remember the Leap Second this Year?

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When you counted down on New Year’s Eve to mark the beginning of the next year did you start at 10 or 11? Most revelers would have counted down from ten but they would have been premature this year as there was an extra second added to last year – the leap second.

Leap seconds are normally inserted once or twice a year (normally on New Year’s Eve and in June) to ensure the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) coincides with the astronomical day.

Leap seconds have been used since UTC was first implemented and they are a direct result of our accuracy in timekeeping. The problem is that modern atomic clocks are far more accurate timekeeping devices than the earth itself. It was noticed when atomic clocks were first developed that the length of a day, once thought to be exactly 24 hours, varied.

The variations are caused by the Earth’s rotation which is affected by the moons gravity and tidal forces of the Earth, all of which minutely slow down the earth’s rotation.

This rotational slowing, while only minuscule, if it is not checked then the UTC day would soon drift into the astronomical night (albeit in several thousands of years).

The decision on whether a Leap Second is needed is the remit of the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS), however, Leap Seconds are not popular with everybody and they can cause potential problems when they are introduced.

UTC is used by NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) as a time reference to synchronise computer networks and other technology and the disruption Leap seconds can cause is seen as not worth the hassle.

However, others, such as astronomers, say that failing to keep UTC in line with the astronomical day would make studying of the heavens nearly impossible.

The last leap second inserted before this one was in 2005 but there have been a total of 23 seconds added to UTC since 1972.

Using NTP to Synchronise a Digital Signage System

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Digital signage is advancing quite rapidly for such a burgeoning new industry. Fantastic new innovations and content styles are being developed all the time and there are some really fantastic campaigns out there and more and more adventurous implementations are springing up all the time.

One of a growing number of trends is the use of complicated, scheduled and synchronised campaigns on multiple machines. These are incredibly eye-catching especially when the content is synchronised to provide passers-by with an almost interactive experience.

Synchronised content can be really challenging to implement and this sort of content is certainly not for the beginner as setting up such a sophisticated campaign can be really difficult.

One of the essential aspects of these types of scheduled digital signage campaigns is to ensure all displays are synchronized together. Synchronization is perhaps the most crucial aspect of these types of sophisticated digital signage campaigns. There are multiple methods of synchronising this type of campaign.

One solution is to a network time server which receives a single time source and distributes it amongst all devices on that network using the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol).

NTP servers receive the time from an external source (normally GPS or long wave radio) so there is no need to have the network connected to the internet although it is just as possible to synchronise to an internet time source although this can be problematic if there is any disturbance in the internet connection.

Any large network of digital signage displays also need to be protected, especially if media players or PCs are being used to generate content. The best option for ensuring total security is to place both the screen and media device in a display enclosure, often referred to as an LCD enclosure.

Rubidium Oscillators Additional Precision for NTP Serve (Part 2)

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Continued…

However, there are some occasions when a time server can lose connection with the atomic clock and not receive the time code for a prolonged period of time. Sometimes this may be because of downtime by the atomic clock controllers for maintenance or that nearby interference is blocking the transmission.

Obviously the longer the signal is down the more potential drift may occur on the network as the crystal oscillator in the NTP server is the only thing keeping time. For most applications this should never be a problem as the most prolonged period of downtime is not normally more than three or four hours and the NTP server would not have drifted by much in that time and the occurrence of this downtime is quite rare (maybe once or twice a year).

However, for some ultra precise high end applications rubidium crystal oscillators are beginning to be used as they don’t drift as much as quartz. Rubidium (often used in atomic clocks themselves instead of caesium) is far more accurate an oscillator than quartz and provides better accuracy for when there is no signal to a NTP time server allowing the network to maintain a more accurate time.

Rubidium itself is an alkali metal, similar in properties to potassium. It is very slightly radioactive although poses no risk to human health (and is often used in medicine imaging by injecting it into a patient). It has a half life of 49 billion years (the time it takes to decay by half – in comparison some of the most lethal radioactive materials have half-lives of under a second).

The only real danger posed by rubidium is that it reacts rather violently to water and can cause fire