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.

Ensure Accurate Time with an Atomic Wall Clock

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Written By Richard Williams for Galleon Systems

Accuracy in timekeeping is forever becoming more important in the modern global economy. Industries and business around the globe are now often communicating with each despite the time zone differences.

There was a time when a few minutes here or there rarely mattered but now, knowing exactly what time it is has become more and more important as conference calls and over-the-internet webinars are often scheduled as part of regular business.

Global Timescale

Fortunately, to prevent the headache of working out all the different time-zones you may have to deal with, there is a global timescale that is now adopted by the global community. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is an atomic clock controlled time used globally and kept precise and accurate by physics laboratories around the world.

UTC enables accurate communication and forms and is used by many high end technologies to ensure accuracy such as the network time server (NTP server – Network Time Protocol). Often these devices receive the UTC time directly from atomic clocks thanks to radio broadcasts from people like NIST (USA’s National Institute for Standards and Time) and NPL (UK’s National Physical Laboratory)

Atomic Wall Clocks

And when it comes to people telling the time, these same radio signals can also be utilised by an atomic wall clock. Atomic wall clocks, despite what the name suggests, are not atomic clocks. In essence they are comprised of a standard clock device and a radio antenna and receive. The atomic clocks signals broadcast by the physics laboratories can be received and the clock regularly adjusts itself to ensure that the clock is accurate to UTC to the second.

Do I Really Need A NTP Server For Time Synchronisation?

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Time synchronisation is a critical aspect to modern computing, especially when computers are on a network or need to communicate with other networked machines.

Timestamps are crucial for computers to acknowledge when an event occurred and it is the only information they have to ascertain if an event has occurred. Without accurate time stamps the consequences can include:

• Loss of data
• Difficult to log errors
• Difficult to debug
• Failure to save
• Time sensitive applications may fail

Modern operating systems like Windows 7 have automatic synchronisation software already installed. W32Time has been a part of Microsoft’s different generations of operating systems for some time but in Windows 7 it is set to be automatically on (Rather than the user having to set it) – synchronising your PC straight out of the box.

With such NTP (Network Time Protocol) based synchronisation available by using internet time servers (normally Microsoft and NIST) many people may wonder if a dedicated time server is still required.

Problems with Internet Time Servers

There are several drawbacks to using this Internet time as a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time – the global timescale often referred to as GMT).

The first and most important drawback to internet time servers is their location through the firewall. Having to rely on a source of time across the internet means keeping the TCP port open – a crucial security weakness that can be used by malicious users or bots.

Another downside to internet time servers is their lack of guaranteed accuracy. While places like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) and Microsoft have reliable and accurate time servers – the accuracy can be dependent on how far away you are peering from. And many other time servers available as a source of internet time are less reliable – and as NTP can’t authenticate a time signal from across the internet – it can be difficult to assess.

Benefits of an External NTP Server

Dedicated external NTP servers are far more secure. They receive their tie from GPS satellites of Long Wave transmissions so the signals can’t be intercepted by computer hackers or malicious software. Also, NTP can authenticate the signals ensuring you know where they are coming from and how accurate they are.

With time being so important on modern networked computers, taking a risk with internet time may cost a lot more than any minor investment in a dedicated NTP time server.

Competition for GPS Ever Closer

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Written by Richard N Williams for Galleon Systems

Since its release to the civilian population the Global Positioning System (GPS) has greatly improved and enhanced our world. From satellite navigation to the precise time used by NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) and much or our modern world’s technology.

And GPS has for several years been the only Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and is used the world over, however, times are now changing.

There are now three other GNSS systems on the horizon that will not only act as competition for GPS but will also increase its precision and accuracy.

Glonass is a Russian GNSS system that was developed during the Cold War. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union the system fell into disrepair but it has finally been revamped and is now back up and running.

The Glonass system is now being used as a navigational aid by Russian airlines and their emergency services with in-car GNSS receivers also being rolled out for the general population to use. And the Glonass system is also allowing time synchronisation using NTP time servers as it uses the same atomic clock technology as GPS.

And Glonass is not the only competition for GPS either. The European Galileo system is on track with the first satellites expected to be launched at the end of 2010 and the Chinese Compass system is also expected to be online soon which will make four fully operational GNSS systems orbiting above Earth’s orbit.

And this is good news for those interested in ultra high time synchronisation as the systems should all be interoperable meaning anyone looking to GNSS satellites can use multiple systems to ensure even greater accuracy.

It is expected that interoperable GNSS NTP time servers will soon be available to make use of these new technologies.

Choosing a Source of Time for Computer Network Synchronization

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You don’t need me to tell you how important computer network time synchronization is. If you are reading this then you are probably well aware of the importance in ensuring all your computers, routers and devices on your network are running the same time.

Failure to synchronize a network can cause all sorts of problems, although with a lack of synchronicity the problems may go unnoticed as error finding and debugging a network can be nigh on impossible without a source of synchronized time.

There are multiple options for finding a source of accurate time too. Most time sources used for synchronisation are a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is the international timescale.
However, there are pro’s and con’s to all sources:

Internet time

There are an almost an endless number of sources of UTC time on the internet. Some of these time sources are wholly inaccurate and unreliable but there are some trusted sources put out by people like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) and Microsoft.

However, regardless of how trusted the time source is, there are two problems with internet time sources. Firstly, an internet time server is actually a stratum 2 device. In other words, an internet time server is connected to another time server that gets its time from an atomic clock, usually from one of the sources below. So an internet source of time is never going to be as accurate or precise as using a stratum 1 time server yourself.

Secondly, and more importantly, internet sources of time operate through the firewall so a potential security breach is available to any malicious user who wishes to take advantage of the open ports.

GPS Time

GPS time is far more secure. Not only is a GPS time signal available anywhere with a line of sight view of the sky, but also GPS time signals can be received externally to the network. By using a GPS time server the GPS time signals can be received and by using NTP (Network Time Protocol) this time can be converted to UTC (GPS time is currently 17 seconds exactly behind GPS time) then distributed around the network.

MSF/WWVB Time

Radio broadcasts in long wave are transmitted by several national physics labs. NIST and the UK’s NPL are two such organisations and they transmit the UTC signals MSF (UK) and WWVB (USA) which can be received and utilised by a radio referenced NTP server.

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.

NTP Time Servers Keeping Technology Precise

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Atomic clocks are much underrated technologies their development has revolutionised the way we live and work and has made possible technologies that would be impossible without them.

Satellite navigation, mobile phones, GPS, the internet, air traffic control, traffic lights and even CCTV cameras are reliant on the ultra precise timekeeping of an atomic clock.

The accuracy of an atomic clock is incomparable to other time keeping devices as they don’t drift by even a second in hundreds of thousands of years.

But atomic clocks are large sensitive devices that need team of experienced technicians and optimum conditions such as those found in a physics laboratory. So how do all these technologies benefit from the high precision of an atomic clock?

The answer is quite simple, the controllers of atomic clocks, usually national physics laboratories, broadcast via long wave radio the time signals that their ultra precise clocks produce.

To receive these time signals, servers that use the time synchronization protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) are employed to receive and distribute these timestamps.

NTP time servers, often referred to as network time servers, are a secure and accurate method of ensuring any technology is running accurate atomic clocks time. These time synchronization devices can synchronise single devices or entire networks of computers, routers and other devices.

NTP servers that use GPS signals to receive the time from the atomic clock satellites are also commonly used. These NTP GPS time servers are as accurate as those that receive the time from physics laboratories but use the weaker, line of sight GPS signal as their source.

MSF Downtime on March 11

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The National Physical Laboratory has announced scheduled maintenance this week (Thursday) meaning the MSF60kHz time and frequency signal will be temporarily turned off to allow the maintenance to be conducted in safety at the Anthorn radio Station in Cumbria.

Normally these scheduled maintenance periods only last a few hours and should not cause any disturbance to anybody relying on the MSF signal for timing applications.
NTP (Network Time Protocol) is well suited to these temporary losses of signal and little if no drift should be experienced by any NTP time server user.

However, there are some high level users of network time servers or may have concerns on the accuracy of their technology during these scheduled periods of no signal. There is another solution for ensuring a continuous, secure and equally accurate time signal is always being used.

GPS, most commonly used for navigation and wayfinding it actually an atomic clock based technology. Each of the GPS satellites broadcasts a signal from their onboard atomic clock which is used by satellite navigation devices that work out the location through triangulation.

These GPS signals can also be received by a GPS NTP time server. Just as MSF or other radio signal time servers receive the external signal from the Anthorn transmitter, GPS time servers can receive this accurate and external signal from the satellites.

Unlike the radio broadcasts, GPS should never go down although it can sometimes be impractical to receive the signal as a GPS antenna needs a clear view of the sky and therefore should preferably be on the roof.

For those wanting to make doubly sure there is never a period when a signal is not being received by the NTP server, a dual time server can be used. These pick up both radio and GPS transmissions and the onboard NTP daemon calculates the most accurate time from them both.

The Effect of Solar Flares on GPS

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Forthcoming space weather may affect GPS devices including satellite navigation and NTP GPS time servers.

Whilst many of us have had to cope with some extreme weather last winter, further storms are on their way – this time from space.

Solar flares are a regular occurrence on the surface of the sun. Whilst scientists are not completely sure what causes them we know two things about solar flares: – they are cyclical – and are related to sunspot activity.

For that last eleven years the sun’s sunspot activity – small dark depressions that appear on the surface of the sun – has been very minimal. But this eleven year cycle has come to an end and there has been a rise in sun spots at the end of last year meaning 2010 will be a bumper year for both sunspots and solar flares.

But there is no need to worry about becoming toasted by solar flares as these bursts of hot gases that flare from the sun never get far enough to reach the Earth, however, they can effect us in different ways.

Solar flares are bursts of energy and as such emit radiation and high energy particles. On earth, we are protected by these blasts of energy and radiation by the earth’s magnetic field and ionosphere, however, satellite communications are not and this can lead to trouble.

Whilst the effect of solar flare radiation is very weak, it can slow down and reflect radio waves as they travel through the ionosphere towards Earth. This interference can cause GPS satellites in particular extreme problems as they are reliant on accuracy to provide navigational information.

While the effects of solar flares are mild, it is possible GPS devices will encounter brief periods of no signal and also the problem of inaccurate signals meaning positing information may become unreliable.

This will not just affect navigation either as the GPS system is used by hundreds and thousands of computer networks as a source of reliable time.

Whilst most dedicated GPS time servers should be able to cope with periods of instability without losing precision, for worried network administrators not wanting to go into work to find their systems have crashed because of a lack of synchronisation may want to consider using a radio referenced Network time server that uses broadcast transmission such as MSF or WVBB.

Dual NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) are also available that can receive both radio and GPS, ensuring a source of time is always constantly available.

A Guide to Synchronising a Network with NTP

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Network Time Protocol (NTP) is a TCP/IP protocol developed when the internet was in its infancy. It was developed by David Mills of the University of Delaware who was trying to synchronise computers across a network with a degree of precision.

NTP is a UNIX based protocol but it has been ported to operate just as effectively on PCs and a version has been included with operating systems since Windows 2000 (including Windows 7, Vista and XP).

NTP, and the daemon (application) that controls it, is not just a method of passing the time around. Any system running the NTP daemon can act as a client by querying the reference time from other servers or it can make its own time available for other devices to use which in effect turns it into a time server itself. It can also act as a peer by collaborating with other peers to find the most stable and accurate time source to use.

One of the most flexible aspects of NTP is its hierarchical nature. NTP divides devices into strata, each stratum level is defined by its proximity to the reference clock (atomic clock). The atomic clock itself is a stratum 0 device, the closest device to it (often a dedicated NTP time server) is a stratum 1 device whilst other devices that connect to that become stratum 2. NTP can maintain accuracy to within 16 stratum levels.

Any network that needs to be synchronised, has to first identify and locate a time source for NTP to distribute. Internet sources of time are available but thee are often taken from stratum 2 devices that operate through the firewall. The only way NTP can peer the time is if the TCP/IP port is left open to allow the traffic through. This could lead to security issues as malicious users can take advantage of this firewall hole.

Dedicated NTP time servers find a source of time via GPS or radio signals and so don’t leave a network vulnerable to attack. By attaching a NTP time server to a router and entire network of hundreds and even thousands of devices can be synchronised thanks to NTP’s hierarchical structure.