A Brief History of Computer Time

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Telling the time is something may of us learn when we are very small children. Knowing what time it is is an essential part of our society and we couldn’t function without it. Just imagine if we didn’t tell the time – when would you go to work? When would you leave and how would it be possible to meet other people or arrange any kind of function.

While telling the time is crucial to us, it is even more vital for computers who use time as the only point of reference and amongst computer networks time synchronisation is vital. Without recording the passing of time, computers couldn’t function as there would be no reference to order programs and functions.
But the way computers tell the time and date is far different to the way we record it. Rather than record a separate time, date and year – computer systems use a single number. This number is based on the number of seconds from a set point in time – known as the prime epoch.

When this epoch is, depends on the operating system or programming language in question. For instance, Unix systems have a prime epoch which starts at 1 January 1970 and the number of seconds from the epoch are counted in a 32 bit integer. Other operating systems, such as Windows, use a similar system but the epoch is different (Windows starts on 1 January 1601).

There are, however, disadvantages to this integer system. For instance as the Unix system is a 32-bit integer which started in 01 Jan 1970, by 19 January 2038 the integer will have exhausted every possible number and will have to return to zero’s. This could cause problems with systems reliant on Unix in a problem reminiscent of the Millennium bug.
There are other issues involving computer time also. Because of the global requirements of the Internet all computer time is now based on UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). However, UTC is altered on occasion by adding Leap Seconds to ensure the time matches the rotation of the Earth (the Earth’s rotation is never exact due to gravitational forces) so leap second handling has to be encompassed into a computer time systems.

Computer time is often associated with NTP (Network Time Protocol) which is used to synchronise computers often using a network time server.

Time Synchronisation on a Windows 7 Network

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Windows 7 is the latest instalment in the Microsoft operating system family. Following on from the much maligned Windows Vista, Windows 7 has a much warmer reception from critics and consumers.

Time synchronisation on Windows 7 is extremely straight forward as the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) is built-in to Windows 7 and the operating system automatically synchronises the computer’s clock by connecting to the Microsoft time service time.windows.com.

This is useful for many home users but the synchronisation across the Internet is not secure enough for a computer network for the following reason:

To connect to any Internet time source such as time.windows.com a post is required to be left open in the firewall. As with any open port in a network firewall this can be used as a point of entry by a malicious user or some malicious software.

The time synchronisation facility in Windows 7 can be turned off and is quite simple to do by opening the time and date dialogue box and uncheck the synchronization box.

However, time synchronisation on a network is vital so if the Internet time service is turned off it needs to be replaced with a secure and accurate source of time.

By far the best way of doing this is to use a time source that’s external to the network (and the firewall).

The simplest, safest and most accurate way of synchronizing a Windows 7 network is to use a dedicated NTP server. These devices use a time reference from either a radio frequency (usually distributed by national physics laboratories such as Britain’s NPL and America’s NIST) or from the GPS satellite network.

Because both these reference sources come from atomic clock sources they are incredibly accurate too and a Windows 7 network that consists of hundreds of machines can be synchronised to within a few milliseconds of the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) by utilising just one NTP time server.

Common Time Synchronization Pitfalls Finding UTC

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Time synchronization can be a headache for many network administrators attempting to synchronize a network for the first time. There are many pitfalls that an unaware network administrator can fall into when attempting to get every machine on a network to synchronize to the same time.

The first problem many network administrators make is the selection of the time source. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is a global timescale and is used throughout the world as a basis for time synchronization as it doesn’t rely on time zones enabling the global community to base itself on one timescale.

UTC is also controlled by a constellation of atomic clocks which ensures its accuracy; however, it is regularly adjusted to ensure that it matches mean solar time by the addition of leap seconds which are added to counter the natural slowing of the Earth’s rotation.

UTC is readily available as a time reference from a number of sources. The Internet is a popular location to receive a UTC time source. However, an Internet time source is located through the network firewall and security issues can arise from having to leave the UDP port open to receive the time requests.

Internet time sources can also be inaccurate and as NTP’s own security system known as NTP authentication cannot work across the Internet further security issues can arise.

A far better solution for getting a source of UTC is to use either the Global Positioning System (GPS) or the long wave radio transmissions broadcast by several national physics laboratories such as NIST in the USA and the UK’s NPL.

Dedicated NTP time servers can receive these secure and authenticated signals and then distribute them amongst all devices on a network.

Setting up Windows XP as an NTP Server

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A network time server or NTP server (Network Time Protocol), is a central computer or server on a network that controls the time and synchronises all machines on that network to it.

Windows XP can be set up to operate as an NTP server to synchronise the rest of the computers and devices on a network. Setting up a Windows XP machine to act as a NTP server involves editing the registry, however, editing an operating system registry can lead to potential problems and should only be conducted by somebody with experience of registry editing.

To configure Windows XP as an NTP server the first thing to do is to open the registry editor in Windows. This is done by clicking the Start button and selecting “Run” from the menu. Enter “regedit” in the run menu and press return. This should open the Windows registry editor.

Select the: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\W32Time\TimeProviders\NtpServer\ folder in the left hand pane. This folder holds the values for the NTP server.

Right-click the “Enabled” key in the right window pane and select “Properties”. This should open a dialog box where you can alter the value of the registry key. Enter “1” in the window, setting the value to “True” which turns the XP computer into a time server.

Close the registry and open the DOS command prompt by clicking the Windows Start button, selecting “Run”. Then type “cmd” in the text box and press return.

Type “Net stop w32time” into the command prompt and press “Enter.” Now type “net start w32time” this will restart the time server for Windows XP.

However, the XP machine, which is now set as a NTP server, will merely distribute the time it currently holds. If this time is inaccurate then it will inaccurate time that is distributed amongst the network.

To ensure an accurate and secure source of time is used then a dedicated NTP time server that receives the time from an atomic clock source should be used.

Network Time Protocol Time Synchronisation Made Easy

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One of the most important aspects of networking is keeping all devices synchronised to the correct time. Incorrect network time and lack of synchronisation can play havoc with system processes and can lead to untold errors and problems debugging.

And failing to ensure devices are continually checked to prevent drift can also lead to a synchronised network slowly becoming unsynchronised and leading to the kinds of problems aforementioned.

However, ensuring a network not only has the correct time but that that time is not drifting is achieved using the time protocol NTP.

Network Time Protocol (NTP) is not the only time synchronisation protocol but it is by far the most widely used. It is an open source protocol but is continually updated by a large community of Internet time keepers.

NTP is based around an algorithm that can work out the correct and most accurate time from a range of sources. NTP allows a single time source to be used by a network of hundreds and thousands of machines and it can keep each one accurate to that time source to within a few milliseconds.

The easiest way of synchronising a network with NTP is to use a NTP time server, also known as a network time server.

NTP servers use an external source of time, either from the GPS network (Global Positioning System), or from broadcasts from national physics laboratories such as NIST in the US or NPL in the UK.

These time signals are generated by atomic clocks which are many times more accurate than the clocks on computers and servers. NTP will distribute this atomic clock time to all devices on a network it will then keep checking each device to ensure there is no drift and correcting the device if there is.

When Time is Money Accuracy Matters

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We live in a fast paced world where time matters. In some industries even a second can make all the difference. Millions of dollars are exchanged hands in the stock exchange each second and share prices can rise or plummet.

Getting the right price at the right time is essential for trading in such a fast paced money market and perfect network time synchronization is the essential to be able to make that happen.

Ensuring every machine that deals in stocks, shares and bonds has the correct time is vital if people are going to trade in the derivatives market but when traders are sat in different parts of the world how can this possibly be achieved.

Fortunately Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), a global timescale developed after the development of atomic clocks, allows the same time to govern every trader, regardless of where they are in the world.

As UTC is based on atomic clock time and is kept accurate by a constellation of these clocks, it is high reliable and accurate. And industries like the stock exchange use UTC to govern the time on their computer networks.

Computer network time synchronization is achieved in computer networks by using the NTP server (Network Time Protocol). NTP servers receive a source of UTC from an atomic clock reference. This is either from the GPS network or through specialist radio transmissions (it is available through the internet too but is not as reliable).

Once received, the NTP server distributes the highly accurate time throughout the network, continually checking each device and workstation to ensure the clock is as precise as possible.

These network time servers can keep entire networks of hundreds and thousands of machines in perfect synchronization – to within a few milliseconds of UTC!

Time Synchronization on Windows 7

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Windows 7, the latest operating system from Microsoft is also their first operating system that automatically synchronizes the PC clock to an internet source of UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time). From the moment a Windows 7 computer is switched on and is connected to the Internet it will request time signals from the Microsoft time service – time.windows.com.

While for many home users this will save them the hassle of setting and correcting their clock as it drifts, for business users it may be problematic as internet time sources are not secure and receiving a time source through the UDP port on the firewall could lead to security breaches and as Internet time sources can’t be authenticated by NTP (Network Time Protocol) the signals can be hijacked by malicious users.

This internet time source can be deactivated by opening the clock and date dialogue box, and opening the Internet Time tab, clicking the ’Change’ setting button and unchecking the ‘Synchronize with an Internet time server< option.’

Whilst this will unsure no unwanted traffic will be coming through your firewall it will also mean that the Windows 7 machine will not be synchronised to UTC and its timekeeping will be reliant on the motherboard clock, which will eventually drift.

To synchronize a network of Windows 7 machines to an accurate and secure source of UTC then the most practical and simplest solution is to plug in a dedicated NTP time server. These connect directly to a router or switch and enable the safe receiving of an atomic clock time source.

NTP time servers use the highly accurate and secure GPS signal (Global Positioning System) available everywhere on the planet or more localized long wave radio signals transmitted by several national physics laboratories such as NIST and NPL.

Configuring a Dedicated NTP Time Server on Windows 7

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Windows 7 is the very latest operating system from Microsoft. Replacing the rather disappointing Windows Vista, Windows 7 promises to correct the flaws that made its predecessor so unpopular.

One of the changes Windows 7 makes is that it automatically synchronizes the time using the Windows Time service located at windows.time.com. Whilst this is an accurate stratum 2 time server, managed by Microsoft, it can be changed for another source of Internet time. However, even Microsoft recommend that Internet time sources should not used for computer networks as they can’t be authenticated by the time protocol NTP (Network Time protocol). Furthermore, an internet time source needs a port left open in the firewall for the time signals to make it through. Any open port in a firewall can be used by a malicious user to gain access to the network.

For a secure, authenticated and accurate method of synchronizing a Windows 7 network, then it is wise to use a dedicated network time server. Most of these time servers use the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) which can easily distribute a single time server throughout a network of hundreds and even thousands of machines.

Time servers plug directly into the router/switch for the network or can be installed on a single machine. Rather than rely on the Internet for a source of time and risk leaving the firewalls UDP port open, dedicated NTP time servers use either the GPS signals or long wave radio broadcasts transmitted from national physics laboratories such as the MSF signal broadcast by the UK’s NPL and the USA WWVB signal broadcast by NIST.

As these signals are external to the firewall and are able to be authenticated by NTP to establish the authority of the signals and are a more accurate and secure method of synchronizing a Windows 7 network.

IBM takes over London Congestion Charge with Galleon Time Servers

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Computer giants IBM have taken over the running of London’s congestion charge scheme this week and like their predecessors, Capita, they will be synchronizing the system with Galleon Systems time servers.

Essential for the running of the London congestion charge scheme and ensuring all the 400 cameras are synchronized to the exact same time, the blue-chip company have chosen Galleon Systems as their supplier of network time servers to control the congestion charging system.

Having supplied Capita the former controllers of the congestion charging scheme with its NTS network time servers to accurately synchronize the camera system, Galleon Systems are now supplying IBM with its mission critical hardware too.

Galleon Systems range of network time servers can synchronize networks with millisecond accuracy and receive an accurate and secure atomic clock time source from the GPS network (Global Positioning System) or the radio time signal broadcast by national physics laboratories like NPL.

The London congestion scheme may not be popular with many who have to pay the daily charge but the scheme has been recognised worldwide as an effective method of reducing city congestion and similar schemes to the London congestion zone are being implemented in cities across the globe.

Galleon Systems are the UK’s leading supplier of network time servers and NTP (Network Time Protocol) time synchronisation equipment, having been providing network timing solutions for over a decade.

Benefits of Accurate Network Time Synchronization

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Your computer probably does hundreds and thousands of tasks a day. If that is part of a network then the number of tasks could be millions. From sending emails to saving data, and everything else your computer is tasked to do, they are all logged by the computer or server.

Computers use timestamps to logo processes and indeed, timestamps are used as the only method a computer has to indicate when and if a task or application has been conducted. Timestamps are normally a 16 or 32 bit integer (one long number) that counts back the seconds from a prime epoch – normally 01 January 1970.

So for every task you computer does it will be stamped with the number of seconds from 1970 that the transaction was conducted. These timestamps are the only piece of information a computer system has to ascertain what tasks have been completed and what tasks have yet to be instigated.

The problem with computer networks of more than one machine is that the clocks on individual devices are not accurate enough for many modern time sensitive applications. Computer clocks are prone to drift they are typically based on inexpensive crystal oscillator circuits and can often drift by over a second a day.

This may not seem much but in today’s time sensitive world a second can be a long time indeed especially when you take into account the needs of industries like the stock exchange where a second can be the difference in price of several percent or online seat reservation, where a second can make the difference between an available seat and one that is sold.

This drift is also accumulative so within only a few months the computer systems could be over a minute out of sync and this can have dramatic effects on time sensitive transactions and can result in all sorts of unexpected problems from emails not arriving as a computer thinks they have arrived before they have been sent to data not being backed up or lost completely.

A NTP time server or network time server are increasingly becoming crucial pieces of equipment for the modern computer network. They receive an accurate source of time from an atomic clock and distribute it to all devices on the network. As atomic clocks are incredibly accurate (they won’t drift by a second even in a 100,000 years) and the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) continually checks the devices time against the master atomic clock time – it means the computer network will be able to run perfectly synchronised with each device within a few milliseconds of the atomic clock.