The Time According to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time)

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The modern world is a small one. These days, in business you are just as likely to be communicating across the Atlantic as you are trading with you neighbour but this can cause difficulties – as anybody trying to get hold of somebody across the other-side of the world will know.

The problem, of course, is time. There are 24 time zones on Earth which means that people you may wish to talk to across the other side of the world, are in bed when you are awake – and vice versa.

Communication is not jus a problem for us humans either; much of our communication is conducted through computers and other technologies that can cause even more problems. Not just because time-zones are different but clocks, whether they are those that power a computer, or an office wall clock, can drift.

Time synchronisation is therefore important to ensure that the device you are communicating with has the same time otherwise whatever transaction you are conducting may result in errors such as the application failing, data getting lost or the machines believing an action has taken place  when it has not.

Coordinated Universal Time

Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is an international timescale. It pays no heed to time-zones and is kept true by a constellation of atomic clocks – accurate timepieces that do not suffer from drift.

UTC also compensates for the slowing of the Earth’s spin by adding leap seconds to ensure there is no drift that would eventually cause noon to drift towards night (albeit in many millennia; so slow is the slowing of the Earth).

Most technologies and computer networks across the globe use UTC as their source of time, making global communication more feasible.

Network Time Protocol and NTP Time Servers

Receiving UTC time for a computer network is the job of the NTP time server. These devices use Network Time Protocol to distribute the time to all technologies on the NTP network. NTP time servers receive the source of time from a number of different sources.

  • The internet – although  internet time sources can be insecure and unreliable
  • The GPS (Global Positioning System) – using the onboard atomic clocks from navigation satellites.
  • Radio signals – broadcast by national physics laboratories like NPL and NIST.

Using Atomic Clocks for Time Synchronisation

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The atomic clock is unrivalled in its chronological accuracy. No other method of maintaining time comes close to the precision of an atomic clock. These ultra-precise devices can keep time for thousands of years without losing a second in drift – in comparison to electronic clocks, perhaps the next most accurate devices, which can drift up to a second a day.

Atomic clocks are not practical devices to have around though. They use advanced technologies such as super-coolant liquids, lasers and vacuums – they also require a team of skilled technicians to keep the clocks running.

Atomic clocks are deployed in some technologies. The Global Positioning System (GPS) relies on atomic clocks that operate onboard the unmanned orbiting satellites. These are crucial for working out accurate distances. Because of the speed of light that the signals travel, a one second inaccuracy in any GPS atomic clock would lead to positing information being out by thousands of kilometres – but the actual accuracy of GPS is within a few metres.

While these wholly accurate and precise instruments for measuring time are unparalleled and the expensive of running such devices is unobtainable to most people, synchronising your technology to an atomic clock, in actual fact, is relatively simple.

The atomic clocks onboard the GPS satellites are easily utilised to synchronise many technologies to. The signals that are used to provide positioning information can also be used as a source of atomic clock time.

The simplest way to receive these signals is to use a GPS NTP server (Network Time Protocol). These NTP servers use the atomic clock time signal from the GPS satellites as a reference time, the protocol NTP is then used to distribute this time around a network, checking each device with the GPS time and adjusting to ensure accuracy.

Entire computer networks can be synchronised to the GPS atomic clock time by using just one NTP GPS server, ensuring that all devices are within milliseconds of the same time.

Time Synchronisation of Technology

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Many technologies are reliant and precise, accurate and reliable time. Time synchronisation is vital in many technical systems that we encounter everyday, from CCTV cameras and ATMs to air traffic control and telecommunication systems.

Without synchronisation and accuracy many of these technologies would become unreliable and in could cause major problems, even catastrophic ones in the case of air traffic controllers.

Precise time and synchronisation also plays an increasingly important part in modern computer networking, ensuring the network is secure, data is not lost, and the network can be debugged. Failing to ensure a network is synchronised properly can lead to many unexpected problems and security issues.

Ensuring accuracy

To ensure accuracy and precise time synchronisation modern technologies and computer networks the time controlling Network Time Protocol (NTP) is most commonly employed. NTP ensures all devices on a network, whether they are computers, routers, CCTV cameras or almost any other technology, are maintained at the exact same time as every other device on the network.

It works by using a single time source that it then distributes around the network, checking for drift, and correcting devices to ensure parity with the time source. It has many other features such as being able to assess errors and calculating the best time from multiple sources.

Obtaining the time

When using NTP, getting the most accurate source of time allows you to keep your network synchronised – not just together but also synchronised to every other device or network that uses that same time source.

A global timescale known as Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is what most NTP servers and technologies use. A sit is a global timescale, and is not concerned with time zones and daylight saving, UTC allows networks across the world to communicate precisely with the exact same time source.

NTP time servers

Despite their being many sources of UTC across the internet, these are not recommended for accuracy and security reasons; to receive an accurate source of NTP there are really only two options: using a NTP time server that can receive radio transmissions from atomic clock laboratories or by using the time signals from GPS satellites.

The Time According to Cumbria Using the UKs MSF Time and Frequency Signal

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Getting an accurate source of time for computer networks and other technologies is increasingly becoming more important. As technologies advance and global communications mean that we are just as liable to communicate with technology across the other side of the planet as we are at home.

The need for accurate time is therefore essential if you wish to prevent time sensitive applications on your network failing or to avoid debugging problems – not too mention keeping your system secure.

NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) are common devices that many computer networks use to provide a source of accurate time as NTP is able to ensure entire networks are synchronised to just a few milliseconds to the time reference.

The time reference that NTP servers use can come from several locations:

  • The internet
  • GPS satellite
  • And National Physical Laboratories

In the UK, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) produce a time signal that can be received by radio referenced NTP time servers. This used to be broadcast from rugby in central England but in recent years the transmission has been moved to Cumbria.

The Cumbrian signal, known as MSF, is broadcast from Anthorn with a signal strength of 100 microvolts per metre at a distance of 1000 km. This should mean that the signal is available everywhere in the UK; however, this is not strictly the case as many MSF clocks and time servers can run into trouble when first trying to receive this atomic clock generated signal.

However, a simple checklist should ensure that no matter what your location you should be able to receive a signal to your MSF clock or NTP time server:

  • Check the power. Perhaps the most common problem ensure the battery is inserted and if the clock uses both mains power and a battery, remember to switch the mains power on. It can take quite a few minutes for the clock to pick up the MSF signal, so be patient.
  • Try rotating the clock or time server. As the MSF signal is long wave the antenna needs to be perpendicular to the signal for best reception.
  • If all else fails move the clock or time server to a different location. The signal can be blocked by local interference from electrical and mechanical devices.

* Note the MSF signal is down for scheduled maintenence on Tuesday 9 September 2010 from 10:00 BST to 14:00 BST


How accurate does NTP Synchronisation need to be?

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Computers advance at a remarkable rate; in effect computers double in power, speed and memory every five years, and with such advances in technology many people assume that the clocks that control the time of a computer are just as powerful.

However, nothing could be further from the truth; most system clocks are crude crystal oscillators that are prone to drift, which is why computer time synchronisation is so important.

In modern computing, nearly every aspect of managing a network is reliant on time. Timestamps are the only frame of reference a computer has to ascertain if an event has occurred, is due to, or shouldn’t occur.

From debugging, to conducting time sensitive transactions over the internet, accurate time is essential. But how accurate does it have to be?

Coordinated Universal Time

Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is a global timescale derived from atomic clocks. UTC was developed to allow technological devices, such as computer networks, to communicate with a single time.

Most computer networks use time servers governed by NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute UTC across the network. For most applications, accuracy to within a few hundred milliseconds is sufficient – but achieving this accuracy is where the difficulty lies.

Getting an accurate source of time

There are several options for synchronizing a network to UTC. Firstly, there is the internet. The internet is awash with time servers that proclaim to supply an accurate source of UTC. However, surveys of these online sources of time indicate that many of them are wholly inaccurate being seconds, minutes and even days out.

And even the most accurate and respected sources from NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) and Microsoft, can vary depending on the distance your network is away.

Dedicated Time servers

Dedicated NTP time servers use a more direct approach to achieve accurate synchronisation. Using atomic clocks, either from the GPS satellite network or from physics laboratories (like NIST and the UKs NPL); the time is beamed directly to the NTP time server that is connected to the network.

Because dedicated devices like this receive the time directly from atomic clocks they are incredibly accurate, enabling the entire network to be synchronised to within just a few milliseconds of NTP.

NTP Servers versus Internet Time What is the best method for Accurate Time?

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Accurate and reliable time is highly important and as networks and the internet gets faster and faster – accuracy becomes even more essential.

Computers internal clock systems are nowhere near accurate enough for many networked tasks. As simple quartz chronometers they will drift, by as a much as a second which perhaps wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that all the clocks on the network may drift at different rates.

And as the world becomes more global, ensuring computer networks can talk to each other is also important meaning that synchronisation to the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is now a prerequisite for most networks.

Methods of Synchronisation

There are currently, only two methods for getting truly accurate and reliable time:

  • Use of an internet based time server from places like NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) or Microsoft.
  • Use of a dedicated NTP time server – that receives external time sources such as from GPS

There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of sources – but which method is best?

Internet Time

Internet time has one great advantage – it is often free. However there are disadvantages to using an internet tie source. The first is distance. Distance across the internet can have a dramatic effect and as the internet gets quicker the distance has an even bigger effect meaning that accuracy become more tenuous.

Another disadvantage of internet time is the lack of authentication and the security risk it poses. Authentication is what the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) uses to establish the true identity of a time source.

Furthermore, an internet time source can only be accessed through a network firewall so a UDP port has to be kept open providing a possible entrance for software nasties or malicious users.

NTP Time Server

NTP time servers on the other hand are dedicated devices. They retrieve a source of UTC externally to the firewall from either GPS or a long wave radio transmission. These come direct from atomic clocks (in the cased of GPS the atomic clock is onboard the satellite) and so can’t be hijacked by malicious users or viruses.

NTP servers are also far more accurate and are not impinged by distance meaning that a network can have millisecond accuracy all the time.

Understanding GPS Time in Relation to UTC

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Accurate time is so important for modern computer systems that it is now unimaginable for any network administer to configure a computer system without any regard to synchronisation.

Ensuring all machines are running an accurate and precise time, and that the entire network is synchronised together, will prevent problems arising such as data loss, failure of time sensitive transactions and enable debugging and error management which can be near impossible on networks that lack synchronicity.

There are many sources of accurate time for use with NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol). NTP servers tend to use time that is controlled by atomic clocks to ensure accuracy, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each system.

Ideally as a source of time you want it to be a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) as this is the international time standard as used by computer systems worldwide. But UTC is not always accessible but there is an alternative.

GPS time

GPS time is the time as relayed by the atomic clocks on board GPS satellites. These clocks form the basic technology for the Global Positioning System and their signals are what are used to work out positing information.

But GPS time signals can also provide an accurate source of time for computer networks – although strictly speaking GPS time does differ to UTC.

No Leap Seconds

GPS time is broadcast as an integer. The signal contains the number of seconds from when the GPS clocks were first turned on (January 1980).

Originally GPS time was set to UTC but since GPS satellite have been in space the last thirty years, unlike UTC, there has been no increase to account for leap seconds – so currently GPS is running exactly 17 seconds behind UTC.


Whilst GPS time and UTC are not strictly the same as they were originally based on the same time and only the lack of leap seconds not added to GPS makes the difference, and as this is exact in seconds, conversion of GPS time is simple.

Many GPS NTP servers will convert GPS time to UTC time (and local time if you so wish) ensuring you can always have an accurate, stable, secure and reliable source of atomic clock based time.

When Time Servers go Bad

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“Time is what prevents everything from happening at once,’ said eminent physicist John Wheeler. And when it comes to computers his words couldn’t be any more relevant.

Timestamps are the only method that a computer has to establish if an event has occurred, is meant to occur or shouldn’t be occurring just yet. For a home PC, the computer relies on the inbuilt clock that displays the time on the corner of your operating system, and for most home uses this is satisfactory enough.

However for computer networks that have to communicate with each other, relying in individual system clocks can cause untold problems:

All clocks drift, and computer clocks are no different and problems occur when two machines are drifting at different rates as the time does not match up. This poses a conundrum for a computer as it is unsure of which time to believe and time critical events can fail to occur and even simple tasks like sending an email can cause time confusion on a network.

For these reasons, time servers are commonly used to receive the time from an external source and distribute it around the network. Most of these devices use the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) which is designed to provide a method of synchronising time on a network.

However, time servers are only as good as the time source that they rely on and when there is a problem with that source, synchronisation will fail and the problems mentioned above can occur.

The most common cause for time server failure or inaccuracy is the reliance on internet based sources of time. These can neither be authenticated by NTP nor guaranteed to be accurate and they can also lead to security issues with firewall intrusion and other malicious attacks.

Ensuring the NTP time server continues to get a source of highly accurate time is fairly straight forward and is all a matter of choosing an accurate, reliable and secure time source.

In most parts of the world there are two methods that can provide a secure and reliable source of time:

  • GPS time signals
  • Radio referenced time signals

GPS signals are available anywhere on the planet and are based on GPS time which is generated by atomic clocks onboard the satellites.

Radio referenced signals like MSF and WWVB are broadcast on long wave from physics laboratories like NIST and NPL.

A Guide to Network Time Protocol

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NTP (Network Time Protocol) is perhaps the oldest and most commonly used protocol employed by computers and yet it is probably the least understood.

NTP is used by nearly all computers, networks and other devices that are involved in communicating across the internet or internal networks. It was developed in the very earliest stages of the internet when it became evident that some method of ensuring accuracy over distance was required.

The protocol works by selecting a single time source, of which NTP has the ability to establish the accuracy and reliability of, which it then distributes around every device on the NTP network.

Each device is regularly checked against this reference clock and adjusted if any drift is noticed. A version of NTP is now deployed with virtually every operating system allowing any machine to be synchronized to a single time source.

Obviously if every network in the world selected a different time source as its reference, the reason for of all this synchronization would be lost.

Fortunately, a global timescale based on an international consortium of atomic clocks has been developed to provide a single time source for the purposes of global synchronisation.

UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is used by computer networks worldwide as a time reference which means any device that is synchronised to UTC with NTP will in effect be synchronised with every network that uses UTC as its base time.

There are many different methods that NTP can access UTC time. The internet is a common location although this does provide security and firewall issues. A more secure (and accurate) method is to use a dedicated NTP time server that takes the time from external sources such as the GPS network (GPS works by broadcasting an atomic clock timestamp that is easily converted to UTC by a NTP server).

With NTP, a dedicated time server and access to UTC an entire network can be synchronised to within a few milliseconds of the universal time providing a secure and accurate network that can operate in complete synchronicity with other networks across the globe.

Synchronizing a PC to an Atomic Clock

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Atomic clocks are without doubt the most accurate time pieces on the face of the planet. In fact the accuracy of an atomic clock in incomparable to any other chronometer, watch or clock.

While an atomic clock will not lose even a second in time in thousands upon thousands of years, you’re average digital watch will perhaps lose a second in just a few days which after a few weeks or months will mean your watch is running slow or fast by several minutes.

The same can also be said for the system clock that controls your computer the only difference is that computers rely even more heavily on time than we ourselves do.

Nearly everything a computer does is reliant on timestamps, from saving work to performing applications, debugging and even emails are all reliant on timestamps which can be a problem if the clock on your computer is running too fast or slow as errors can quite often occur, especially if you are communicating with another computer or device.

Fortunately, most PCs are easily synchronized to an atomic clock meaning they can be accurate as these powerful time keeping devices so any tasks performed by your PC can be in perfect synchronicity with whatever device you are communicating with.

In most PC operating systems an inbuilt protocol (NTP) allows the PC to communicate with a time server that is connected to an atomic clock. In most versions of Windows this is accessed through the date and time control setting (double clicking the clock in the bottom right).

However, for business machines or networks that require secure and accurate time synchronization, online time servers are just not secure or accurate enough to ensure your network is not vulnerable to security flaws.

However, NTP time servers that receive the time direct from atomic clocks are available that can synchronize entire networks. These devices receive a broadcasted timestamp distributed by either national physics laboratories or via the GPS satellite network.

NTP servers enable entire networks to all have exactly synchronized time which is as accurate and secure as is humanly possible.