Worlds Most Famous Clock Reaches 150

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It’s one of the world’s most iconic land marks. Standing proudly over the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben celebrates its 150th birthday. Yet despite living in an age of atomic clocks and NTP time servers, it is one of the most used timepieces in the world with hundreds of thousands of Londoners relying on its chimes to set their watches to.

Big Ben is actually the name of the main bell inside the clock that creates the quarter hourly chimes but the bell didn’t start chiming when the clock was first built. The clock began keeping time on 31 May 1859, while the bell didn’t strike for the first time until July 11.

Some claim the twelve tonne bell was named after Sir Benjamin Hall the Chief Commissioner of Works who worked on the clock project (and was said to be a man of great girth). Others claim the bell was named after heavyweight boxer Ben Caunt who fought under the moniker Big Ben.

The five-tonne clock mechanism works like a giant wristwatch and is wound three times a week. Its accuracy if in tuned by adding or removing old pennies on the pendulum which is quite far removed from the accuracy that modern atomic clocks and NTP server systems generate with near nanosecond precision.

While Big Ben is trusted by tens of thousands of Londoners to provide accurate time, the modern atomic clock is used by millions of us every day without realising it. Atomic clocks are the basis for the GPS satellite navigation systems we have in our cars they also keep the internet synchronised by way of the NTP time server (Network Time Protocol).

Any computer network can be synchronised to an atomic clock by using a dedicated NTP server. These devices receive the time from an atomic clock, either via the GPS system or specialist radio transmissions.

The Atom and Time keeping

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Nuclear Weapons, computers, GPS, atomic clocks and carbon dating – there is much more to atoms than you think.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century mankind has been obsessed with atoms and the minutiae of our universe. Much of the first part of the last century, mankind became obsessed with harnessing the hidden power of the atom, revealed to us by the work of Albert Einstein and finalised by Robert Oppenheimer.

However, there has been much more to our exploration of the atom than just weapons. The studying of the atoms (quantum mechanics) has been at the root of most of our modern technologies such as computers and the Internet.  It is also in the forefront of chronology – the measuring of time.

The atom plays a key role in both timekeeping and time prediction. The atomic clock, which is utilised all over the world by computer networks using NTP servers and other technical systems such as air traffic control and satellite navigation.

Atomic clocks work by monitoring the extremely high frequency oscillations of individual atoms (traditionally caesium) that never changes at particular energy states. As caesium atoms resonate over a 9 billion times every second and never alters it its frequency it makes the m highly accurate (losing less than a second every 100 million years)

But atoms can also be used to work out not just accurate and precise time but they can also be utilised in establishing the age of objects. Carbon dating  is the name given to this method which measures the natural decay of carbon atoms. All of us are made primarily of carbon and like other elements carbon ‘decays’ over time where the atoms lose energy by emitting ionizing particles and radiation.

In some atoms such as uranium this happens very quickly, however, other atoms such as iron are highly stable and decay very, very slowly. Carbon, while it decays quicker than iron is still slow to lose energy but the energy loss is exact over time so by analysing carbon atoms and measuring their strength it can be quite accurately ascertained when the carbon originally formed.

The NTP Time Server Essential Network Protection

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There are a myriad of hardware and software methods of protecting computers. Anti-virus software, firewalls, spyware and routers to name but a few yet perhaps the most important tools for keeping a network safe is often the most overlooked.

One of the reasons for this is that the network time server’s often referred to as the NTP time server (after the protocol Network Time Protocol) primary task is time synchronisation and not security.

The NTP server’s primary task is to retrieve a time signal from a UTC source (Coordinated Universal Time) which it then distributes it amongst the network, checking the clock on each system device and ensuring its running in synchronisation with UTC.

Here is where many network administrators fall down. They know that time synchronisation is vital for computer security. Without it, errors can not be logged (or even spotted) network attacks can’t be countered, data can be lost and if a malicious user does get into the system it is near impossible to discover what they were up to without all machines on a network corresponding to the same time.

However, the NTP server is where many network administrators think they can save a little money. ‘Why bother?’ ‘They say, ‘when you can log on to an Internet NTP server for free.’

Well, as the old saying goes there is no such thing as a free lunch or as it goes a free source of UTC time. Using internet time providers may be free but this is where many computer networks leave themselves open to abuse.

To utilise an internet source of time such as Microsoft’s, NIST or one of those on the NTP pool project may be free but they are also outside a networks firewall and these is where many network administrators come unstuck.

Essentials of Traffic Management NTP Server

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There are now reportedly as many cars on the road as there are households and it only takes a brief journey during rush hour to realise that this claim is quite possibly true.

Congestion is a huge problem in our towns and cities and controlling this traffic and keeping it moving is one of the most essential aspects of reducing congestion. Safety is also a concern on our roads as the chances of all those vehicles travelling around without occasionally hitting each other is close to zero but the problem can be exemplified by poor traffic management.

When it comes to controlling the traffic flows of our cities there is no greater weapon than the humble traffic light. In some cities these devices are simple timed lights that stop traffic one way and allow it the other and vice versa.

However, the potential of how traffic lights can reduce congestion is now being realised and thanks to the millisecond synchronisation made possible with NTP servers is now drastically reducing congestion is some of the world’s major cities.

Rather than just simple timed segments of green, amber and red, traffic lights can respond to the needs of the road, allowing more cars through in one direction whilst reducing it in others. They can also be used in conjunction with each other allowing green light passageways for cars in main routes.

However, all this is only possible if the traffic lights system throughout the whole city is synchronised together and that can only be achieved with a NTP time server.

NTP (Network Time Protocol) is simply an algorithm that is widely used for the purposes of synchronisation. A NTP server will receive a time signal from a precise source (normally an atomic clock) and the NTP software then distributes it amongst all devices on a network (in this case the traffic lights).

The NTP server will continually check the time on each device and ensure it corresponds to the time signal, ensuring all devices (traffic lights) are perfectly synchronised together allowing the entire traffic light system to be managed as a single, flexible traffic management system rather than individual random lights.

The World in Perfect Synchronization

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Synchronization is something we are familiar with everyday of our lives. From driving down the highway to walking crowded street; we automatically adapt our behaviour to synchronize with those around us. We drive in the same direction or walk the same thoroughfares as other commuters as failing to do so would make our journey a lot more difficult (and dangerous).

When it comes to timing, synchronisation is even more important. Even in our day to day dealings we expect a reasonable amount of synchronisation from people. When a meeting starts at 10am we expect everybody to be there within a few minutes.

However, when it comes to computer transactions across a network, accuracy in synchronisation becomes even more important where accuracy to a few seconds is too inadequate and synchronisation to the millisecond becomes essential.

Computers use time for every transaction and process they do and you only have to think back to the furore caused by the millennium bug to appreciate the importance computer’s place on time. When there is not precise enough synchronisation then all sorts of errors and problems can occur, particularly with time sensitive transactions.

Its not just transactions that can fail without adequate synchronisation but time stamps are used in computer log files so if something goes wrong or if a malicious user has invaded (which is very easy to do without adequate synchronisation) it can take a long time to discover what went wrong and even longer to fix the problems.

A lack of synchronisation can also have other effects such as data loss or failed retrieval it can also leave a company defenceless in any potential legal argument as a badly or unsynchronised network can be impossible to audit.

Millisecond synchronisation is however, not the headache many administrators assume it is going to be. Many opt to take advantage of many of the online timeservers that are available on the internet but in doing so can generate more problems than it solves such as having to leave the UDP port open in the firewall (to allow the timing information through) not-to-mention no guaranteed level of accuracy from the public time server.

A better and simpler solution is to use a dedicated network time server that uses the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol). A NTP time server will plug straight into a network and use the GPS (Global Positioning System) or specialist radio transmissions to receive the time direct from an atomic clock and distribute it amongst the network.