Importance of Time Synchronisation when Working in the Cloud

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Cloud computing has been foreseen as being the next big step in the development of information technology with more and more businesses and IT networks becoming cloud reliant and doing away with traditional methods.

The term ‘Cloud Computing’ refers to the use of on demand programs and services online including the storing of information over the internet, and using applications not installed on host machines.

Cloud computing mean that users no longer need to own, install and run software in individual machines, and doesn’t require large capacity storage. It also allows remote computing, enabling users to use the same services, work on the same documents, or access the network at any workstation able to log onto the cloud service.

While these advantages are appealing to businesses enabling them to lower IT costs while providing the same network capabilities, there are disadvantages to cloud computing.

Firstly, to work on the cloud you are reliant on a working network connection. If there is a problem with the line, whether in your locale or with the cloud service provider, you can’t work—even offline.

Secondly, peripherals such as printers and back up drives may not work properly on a cloud-orientated machine, and if you are using a non-specified computer, you won’t be able to access any network hardware unless the specific drivers and software are installed on the machine.

Lack of control is another issue. Being part of a cloud service means that you have to adhere to the terms and conditions of the cloud host, which may affect all sorts of issues such as data ownership and the number of users that can access the system.

Time synchronisation is essential for cloud services, with precise and accurate time needed to ensure that every device that connects to the cloud is logged accurately. Failure to ensure precise time could lead to data getting lost or the wrong version of a job overriding new versions.

To ensure precise time for cloud services, NTP time servers, receiving the time from an atomic clock, are used to maintain accurate and reliable time. A cloud service will essentially be governed by an atomic clock once it is synchronised to an NTP server, so no matter where users are in the world, the cloud service can ensure the correct time is logged preventing data loss and errors.

Galleon NTP server

Keeping a Windows 7 Network Secure, Reliable and Accurate

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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).

Mechanisms of Time History of Chronological Devices

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Nearly every device seems to have a clock attached to it these days. Computers, mobile phones and all the other gadgets we use are all good sources of time. Ensuring that no matter where you are a clock is never that far away – but it wasn’t always this way.

Clock making, in Europe, started around the fourteenth century when the first simple mechanical clocks were developed. These early devices were not very accurate, losing perhaps up to half an hour a day, but with the development of pendulums these devices became increasingly more accurate.

However, the first mechanic al clocks were not the first mechanical devices that could tell and predict time. Indeed, it seems Europeans were over fifteen hundred years late with their development of gears, cogs and mechanical clocks, as the ancients had long ago got there first.

Early in the twentieth century a brass machine was discovered in a shipwreck (Antikythera wreck) off Greece, which was a device as complex as any clock made in Europe up in the mediaeval period. While the Antikythera mechanism is not strictly a clock – it was designed to predict the orbit of planets and seasons, solar eclipses and even the ancient Olympic Games – but is just as precise and complicated as Swiss clocks manufactured in Europe in the nineteenth century.

While Europeans had to relearn the manufacture of such precise machines, clock making has moved on dramatically since then. In the last hundred or so years we have seen the emergence of electronic clocks, using crystals such as quartz to keep time, to the emergence of atomic clocks that use the resonance of atoms.

Atomic clocks are so accurate they won’t drift by even a second in a hundred thousand years which is phenomenal when you consider that even quartz digital clocks will drift several seconds n a day.

While few people will have ever seen an atomic clock as they are bulky and complicated devices that require teams of people to keep them operational, they still govern our lives.

Much of the technologies we are familiar with such as the internet and mobile phone networks, are all governed by atomic clocks. NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) are used to receive atomic clock signals often broadcast by large physics laboratories or from the GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite signals.

NTP servers then distribute the time around a computer network adjusting the system clocks on individual machines to ensure they are accurate. Typically, a network of hundreds and even thousands of machines can be kept synchronised together to an atomic clock time source using a single NTP time server, and keep them accurate to within a few milliseconds of each other (few thousandths of a second).

UTC One Time to Rule Them All

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In a global economy time has become a more crucial than ever before. As people across the globe, communicate, conference and buy and sell from each other, being aware of the each other’s time is vital for conducting business successfully.

And with the internet, global communication and time awareness are even more important as computers require a source of time for nearly all their applications and processes. The difficulty with computer communication, however, is that if different machines are running different times, all sorts of errors can occur. Data can get lost, errors fail to log; the system can become unsecure, unstable and unreliable.

Time synchronisation for computer networks communicating with each other is, therefore, essential – but how is it achieved when different networks are in different time-zones?

The answer lies with Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) an international time-zones developed in the 1970’2 that is based on accurate atomic clocks.  UTC is set the same the world over, with no accounting for time-zones so the time on a network in the UK – will be identical to the network time in the USA.

UTC time on a computer network is also kept synchronised through the use of NTP (Network Time Protocol) and an NTP server.  NTP ensures all devices on a networked system have exactly the right time as different computer clocks will drift at varying rates – even if the machines are identical.

While UTC makes no accounting for time-zones system clocks can still be set to the local time-zone but the applications and functions of a computer will use UTC.

UTC time is delivered to computer networks through a variety of sources: radio signals, the GPS signal, or across the internet (although the accuracy of internet time is debatable). Most computer networks have a NTP time server somewhere in their server room which will receive the time signal and distribute it through the network ensuring all machines are within a few milliseconds of UTC and that the time on your network corresponds to every other UTC network on the globe.

Origin of Synchronisation (Part 1)

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Part One

With modern NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) synchronisation is made easy. By receiving a signals from GPS or radio signals such as MSF or WWVB, computer networks consisting of hundreds of machines can easily be synchronised together, ensuring trouble free networking and accurate time-stamping.

Modern NTP time servers are reliant on atomic clocks, accurate to billions of parts of a second, but atomic clocks have only been around for the last sixty years and synchronisation has not always been so easy.

In the early days of chronology, clocks mechanical in nature, were not very accurate at all. The first time-pieces could drift by up to an hour a day so the time could differ from town clock to town clock, and most people in the agricultural based society regarded them as a novelty, relying in stead on sunrise and sunset to plan their days.

However, following the industrial revolution, commerce became more important to society and civilisation, and with it, the need to know what the time was; people needed to know when to go to work, when to leave and with the advent of railways, accurate time became even more crucial.

In the early days if industry, workers were often woken for work by people paid to wake them up. Known as ‛knocker-uppers.’ Relying on the factory time-peice, they would go around town and tap on people’s windows, alerting them to the start of the day, and the factory hooters signalled the beginning and end of shifts.

However, as commerce developed time became even more crucial, but as it would take another century or so for more accurate timepieces to develop (until at least the invention of electronic clocks), other methods were developed.

To follow…

The Accuracy of the Speaking Clock

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The UK speaking clock has been around for nearly eighty years. It was started in 1936 when time keeping started to become more important to people’s lives. Initially available only in the London it was rolled out to the whole country during World War II.

There have been four people that have had honour of providing the permanent voice to the speaking clock over the last 70. And over 70 million calls are made to the speaking clock making it an important from of accurate time but have you ever wondered how accurate it is and where the time comes from and how accurate it is?

The speaking clock is controlled by a major British telecoms company who took over the General Post Office (GPO) and the time was originally supplied by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) who also provide the MSF signal that NTP time servers use as a source of atomic clock synchronisation.

NPL no longer help with the speaking clock but the time is still controlled by NTP servers, either GPS or MSF, which ensures that the time you hear on the end of the telephone is accurate.

NTP servers are also commonly used by computer networks to ensure that IT systems, from traffic light signals to the office PC are all running an accurate form of time.

NTP time servers can either receive the MSF radio signal broadcast by NPL or, more commonly now, GPS signals beamed directly from space.

Often network administrators opt to use online NTP servers that send time signals over the internet but these are not as accurate and cause security problems so it is far better to have a dedicated NTP time server to control the time if you wish to have a computer network that is running accurately.

Finding an Online NTP Time Source

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Finding a source of time to synchronise a computer network to can be a challenge as there are a myriad of online time sources, all pertaining to be accurate and reliable; however, the truth can be rather different with many online sources either in too much demand, too far away or inaccurate.

NTP (Network Time Protocol) requires a source of UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) which is kept true by atomic clocks. Online time sources are not themselves atomic clocks but NTP server devices that receive the time from an atomic clock which is then relayed to the devices that connect to the online time server.

There are two types of online time server: stratum 1 devices – devices that receive the time directly from an atomic clock, either using GPS or a radio reference signal. Stratum 2 devices  on the other hand are one step further away in that they are receive their time from a stratum 1 time server.

Because of demand, finding an online stratum 1 time server is next to impossible, and those that do take request usually do so under a subscription, which leaves the only choice for most people being a stratum 2 device.

There are plenty of resources on the internet that provide locations for online time servers such as https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/262680/a-list-of-the-simple-network-time-protocol-sntp-time-servers-that-are

But there are drawbacks to using such devices; firstly, online stratum 2 time sources can’t be guaranteed and several surveys taken have found that the reliability and accuracy of many of them can’t be taken for granted.  Secondly, online sources of time require an open firewall port which can be manipulated by malicious bots or users – leading to security risks.

A far better solution for most networks is to install your own stratum 1 NTP server. These time server devices sync to atomic clocks outside the firewall (using GPS or radio signals) and therefore are not security risks. They are also accurate to a few milliseconds ensuring the network will always be accurate to UTC.

Do I Really Need an NTP Time Server?

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NTP (Network Time Protocol) is one of the oldest protocols still in use today. It was developed in the 1980’s when the internet was still in its infancy and was designed to help computers synchronise together, preventing drift and ensuring devices can communicate with unreliable time causing errors.

NTP is now packaged in most operating systems and forms the basis for time synchronisation in computers, networks and other technologies. Most technologies and networks use a network time server (commonly called an NTP time server) for this task.

These time servers are external devices that receive the time from a radio frequency or GPS signal (both generated by atomic clocks). This time signal is then distributed across the network using NTP ensuring all devices are using the exact same time.

As NTP is ubiquitous in most operating systems and the internet is awash with sources of atomic clock time, this begs the question of whether NTP time servers are still necessary for modern computer networks and technology.

There are two reasons why networks should always use a NTP time server and not rely on the internet as a source of time for synchronisation. Firstly, internet time can never be guaranteed. Even if the source of time is 100% accurate and kept true (incidentally most sources of internet time are derived using an NTP time server at the host’s end) the distance from the host can lead to discrepancies.

Secondly, and perhaps fundamentally more important to most business networks is security. NTP time servers work externally to the network. The source of time either radio of GPS, is secure, accurate and reliable and as it is external to the network it can’t be tampered with en-route, or used to disguise malicious software and bots.

NTP servers don’t require an open port in the firewall, unlike internet sources of time which can be used as an entry point by malicious users and software.

From Pennies to NTP Servers the Intricacies of Keeping Time

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Keeping accurate time is an essential aspect of our day to day lives. Nearly everything we do is reliant on time from getting up for work in the morning to arranging meetings, nights out or just when it’s time for dinner.

Most of us carry some kind of clock or watch with us but these timepieces are prone to drift which is why most people regularly use another clock of device to set their time too.

In London, by far the most common timepiece that people use to set their watches too is Big Ben. This world famous clock can be seen for miles, which is why so many Londoners use it to ensure their watches and clocks are accurate – but have you ever wondered how Big Ben keeps itself accurate?

Well the unlikely truth lies in a pile of old coins. Big Ben’s clock mechanism uses a pendulum but for fine tuning and ensuring accuracy a small pile of gold coins resting on the top of the pendulum.  If just one coin is removed then the clock’s speed will change by nearly half a second

Ensuring accuracy on a computer network is far less archaic. All computer networks need to run accurate and synchronised time as computers too are completely reliant on knowing the time.

Fortunately, NTP time servers are designed to accurately and reliably keep entire computer networks synchronised. NTP (Network Time Protocol) is a software protocol designed to keep networks accurate and it works by using a single time source that it uses to correct drift on

Most network operators synchronise their computers to a form of UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time) as this is governed by atomic clocks (highly accurate timepieces that never drift – not for several thousand years, anyway).

A source of atomic clock time can be received by a NTP server by using either GPS satellite (Global Positioning System) signals or radio frequencies broadcast by national physics laboratories.

NTP servers ensure that computer networks all across the globe are synchronised, accurate and reliable.

Time Synchronisation Getting it Right

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Time is essential for computers, networks and technology. It is the only reference technology has to ascertain if a task has happened or is due to take place. As time, in the from of timestamps, is so important for technology, when there is uncertainty over time, due to different devices on a network having different times, it can cause untold errors.

The problem with time in computing is that all devices, from routers to desktop PCs, have their own onboard timepiece that governs the system clocks. These system clocks are just normal electronic oscillators, they type commonly found in battery powered watches, and while these are adequate for humans to tell the time, the drifting of these clocks can see devices on a network, seconds and even minutes out of sync.

There are two rules for time synchronisation:

  • All devices on a network should be synchronised together
  • The network should be synchronised to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time)

 

NTP

To synchronise a network you need to make use of Network Time Protocol (NTP). NTP is designed for accurate network time synchronisation.  IT works by using a single source of time which it then distributes it to all devices on the NTP network.

NTP continually checks the devices for any drift and then adjusts to ensure the entire network is within a few milliseconds of the reference time.

UTC

Coordinated Universal Time is a global timescale that is kept true by atomic clocks. By synchronising a network to UTC you are in effect ensuring your network is synchronised to every other UTC network on the planet.

Using UTC as a reference source is a simple affair too. NTP time servers are the best way to find a secure source of UTC time. They use either GPS (Global Positioning System) as a source of this atomic clock time or specialist radio signals keeping the UTC time source external to the network for security reasons.

A single NTP server can synchronise a network of hundreds and even thousands of devices ensuring the entire network is to within a few milliseconds of UTC.