Time Synchronization Using the GPS Network

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The GPS (Global Positioning System) systems has revolutionized navigation for pilots, mariners and drivers a like. Nearly every brand new car is sold with an inbuilt satellite navigation system already installed and similar detachable devices continue to sell in their millions.

Yet the GPS system is a multi purpose tool thanks mainly to the technology it employs to provide navigational information. Each GPS satellite contains an atomic clock which signal is used to triangulate positioning information.

GPS has been around since the late 1970’s but it was only in 1983 that is stopped from being purely a tool of the military and was opened up to allow free commercial access following an accidental shooting down of a passenger airliner.

To utilise the GPS system as a timing reference, a GPS clock or GPS time server is required. These devices usually rely on the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute the GPS time signal that arrives via the GPS antenna.

GPS time is not the same as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is normally used  NTP for time synchronization via radio transmissions or the internet. GPS time did originally match UTC in 1980 during its inception but sine that time there have been leap seconds added to UTC to counteract the variations of the earth’s rotation, however the on-board satellite clocks are corrected to compensate for the difference between GPS time and UTC, which is 17seconds, as of 2009.

By utilising a GPS time server an entire computer network can be synchronized to within a few milliseconds of UTC ensuring that all computers are safe, secure and able to deal effectively with time sensitive transactions.

Dealing With Time computers synchronisation and timestamps

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Time is important for the smooth running of our day to day lives. Everything we do is either governed by or restrained because of time. Yet time is even more essential for computer systems as it is the only point of reference a computer has to distinguish between events and processes.

Everything a computer does is logged by the processor with what process was done and exactly when it was carried out. As computers can process hundreds if not thousands of transactions a second so the time stamp is vital for establishing the order of events.

Computers do not read and use the time in the same format that we do. A computer timestamp takes the form of a single digit that counts the number of seconds from a set point in time. In most systems this is known as the ‘prime epoch’ and is set from 00:00:00 UTC on January 1, 1970. So a timestamp for the date 23 June 2009 the timestamp would read: 1246277483 as this is the number of seconds from the prime epoch.

Computer timestamps are sent across networks and the internet, for instance every time an email is sent it is accompanied by a timestamp. When the email is replied to this too comes with a timestamp. Yet, when neither computer is synchronized the replied email could arrive back with an earlier code and this can cause untold confusion for a computer as according to its logs the email will have arrived back before the original was sent.

For this reason computer networks are synchronized to the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC is kept true by a constellation of atomic clocks which means that and computer network synchronised to a UTC source will be highly accurate.

Time synchronization on computers is dealt with by the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol). Special dedicated NTP servers are available the receive a secure time code from either the GPS network or from specialist radio transmissions broadcast by national physical laboratories and then synchronize entire networks to the single time source.

Choosing a Time Source what to do and what not to do

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Time synchronization is crucial for many of the applications that we do across the internet these days; internet banking, online reservation and even online auctions all require network time synchronization.

Failing to ensure their servers are adequately synchronized would mean many of these applications would be impossible to achieve; seat reservations could be sold more than once, lower bids could win internet auctions and it would be possible to withdraw you life savings from the bank twice if they didn’t have adequate synchronization (good for you not for the bank).

Even computer networks that on the face of it do not rely on time sensitive transactions also need to be adequately synchronized as it could be near impossible to track down errors or protect the system from malicious attacks if the timestamps on differ on various machines on the network.

Many organisations opt to use internet time servers as a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) – the atomic clock controlled global timescale. Although there are many security issues in doing so such as leaving a hole in the firewall to communicate with the time server and not having any authentication for the time synchronization protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol).

However, in saying that many network administrators still opt to use online time servers as a UTC source regardless of the security implications although there are other issues that administrators should be aware of. On the internet there are two types of time server – stratum 1 and stratum 2. Stratum 1 servers receive a time signal direct from an atomic clock while stratum 2 servers receive a time signal from a stratum 1 server. Most internet stratum 1 servers are closed – unavailable to most administrators and there can be some shortfall in accuracy in using a stratum 2 server.

For the most accurate, secure and precise timing information external NTP time servers are the best option as these are stratum 1 devices that can synchronize hundreds of machines on a network to the exact same UTC time.

Milestones in Chronology From Crystals to Atoms

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Telling the time may seem a simple affair these days with the number of devices that display the time to us and with the incredible accuracy of devices such as atomic clocks and network time servers it is quite easy to see how chronology has been taken for granted.

The nanosecond accuracy that powers technologies such as the GPS system, air traffic control and NTP server systems (Network Time Protocol) is a long way from the first time pieces that were invented and were powered by the movement of the sun across the heavens.

Sun dials were indeed the first real clocks but they obviously did have their downsides – such as not working at night or in cloudy weather, however, being able to tell the time fairly accurately was a complete innovation to civilisation and helped for more structured societies.

However, relying on celestial bodies to keep track of time as we have done for thousands of years, would not prove to be a reliable basis for measuring time as was discovered by the invention of the atomic clock.

Before atomic clocks, electronic clocks provided the highest level of accuracy. These were invented at the turn of the last century and while they were many times more reliable than mechanical clocks they still drifted and would lose a second or two every week.

Electronic clocks worked by using the oscillations (vibrations under energy) of crystals such as quartz, however, atomic clocks use the resonance of individual atoms such as caesium which is such a high number of vibrations per second it makes the incredibly accurate (modern atomic clocks do not drift by even a second every 100 million years).

Once this type of time telling accuracy was discovered it became apparent that our tradition of using the rotation of the earth as a means of telling time was not as accurate as these atomic clocks. Thanks to their accuracy it was soon discovered the Earth’s rotation was not precise and would slow and speed up (by minute amounts) each day. To compensate for this the world’s global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) has additional seconds added to it once or twice a year (Leap seconds).

Atomic clocks provide the basis of UTC which is used by thousands of NTP servers to synchronise computer networks to.

What is the Best Source of UTC Time?

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UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is the world’s global timescale and replaced the old time standard GMT (Greenwich Meantime) in the 1970’s.

Whilst GMT was based on the movement of the Sun, UTC is based on the time told by atomic clocks although it is kept inline with GMT by the addition of ‘Leap Seconds’ which compensates for the slowing of the Earth’s rotation allowing both UTC and GMT to run side by side (GMT is often mistakenly referred to as UTC – although as there is no actual difference it doesn’t really matter).

In computing, UTC allows computer networks all over the world to synchronise to the same time making possible time sensitive transactions from across the globe. Most computer networks used dedicated network time servers to synchronise to a UTC time source. These devices use the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute the time across the networks and continually checks to ensure there is no drift.

The only quandary in using a dedicated NTP time server is selecting where the time source comes from which will govern the type of NTP server you require. There are really three places that a source of UTC time can be easily located.

The first is the internet. In using an internet time source such as time.nist.gov or time.windows.com a dedicated NTP server is not necessarily required as most operating systems have a version of NTP already installed (in Windows just double click the clock icon to see the internet time options).

*NB it must be noted that Microsoft, Novell and others strongly advise against using internet time sources if security is an issue. Internet time sources can’t be authenticated by NTP and are outside the firewall which can lead to security threats.

The second method is to use a GPS NTP server; these devices use the GPS signal (most commonly used for satellite navigation) which is actually a time code generated by an atomic clock (from onboard the satellite). Whilst this signal is available anywhere on the globe, a GPS antenna does need a clear view of the sky which is the only drawback in using GPS.

Alternatively, many countries’ national physics laboratories such as NIST in the USA and NPL in the UK, transmit a time signal from their atomic clocks. These signals can be picked up with a radio referenced NTP server although these signals are finite and vulnerable to local interference and topography.

Leap Second Errors and Configuration

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Apart from the usual celebrations and revelry the end of December brought with the addition of another Leap Second to UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time).

UTC is the global timescale used by computer networks across the world ensuring that everybody is keeping the same time. Leap Seconds are added to UTC by the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS) in response to the slowing of the Earth’s rotation due to tidal forces and other anomalies. Failure to insert a leap second would mean that UTC would drift away from GMT (Greenwich Meantime) – often referred to as UT1. GMT is based on the position of the celestial bodies so at midday the sun is at its highest above the Greenwich Meridian.

If UTC and GMT were to drift apart it would make life difficult for people like astronomers and farmers and eventually night and day would drift (albeit in a thousand years or so).

Normally leap seconds are added to the very last minute of December 31 but occasionally if more than one is required in a year then is added in the summer.

Leap seconds, however, are controversial and can also cause problems if equipment isn’t designed with leap seconds in mind. For instance, the most recent leap second was added on 31 December and it caused database giant Oracle’s Cluster Ready Service to fail. It resulted in the system automatically rebooting itself on New Year.

Leap Seconds can also cause problems if networks are synchronised using Internet time sources or devices that require manual intervention.  Fortunately most dedicated NTP servers are designed with Leap Seconds in mind. These devices require no intervention and will automatically adjust the entire network to the correct time when there is a Leap Second.

A dedicated NTP server is not only self-adjusting requiring no manual intervention  but also they are highly accurate being stratum 1 servers (most Internet time sources are stratum 2 devices in other words devices that receive time signals from stratum 1 devices then reissue it) but they are also highly secure being external devices not required to be behind the firewall.

The NTP Server Time Synchronisation Made Easy

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Time synchronisation is often described as a ‘headache’ by network administrators. Keeping computers on a network all running the same time is increasingly important in modern network communications particularly if a network has to communicate with another network running independently.

For this reason UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) has been developed to ensure all networks are running the same accurate timescale. UTC is based on the time told by atomic clocks so it is highly precise, never losing even a second. Network time synchronisation is however, relatively straight forward thanks to the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol).

UTC time sources are widely available with over a thousand online stratum 1 servers available on the Internet. The stratum level describes how far away a time server is to an atomic clock (an atomic clock that generates UTC is known as a stratum 0 device). Most time servers available on the Internet are in fact not stratum 1 devices but stratum in that they get their time from a device that in turn receives the UTC time signal.

For many applications this can be accurate enough but as these timing sources are on the Internet there is very little you can do to ensure both their accuracy and their precision. In fact even if an Internet source is highly accurate the distance away form it can cause delays int eh time signal.

Internet time sources are also unsecure as they are situated outside of the firewall forcing the network to be left open for the time requests. For this reason network administrators serious about time synchronisation opt to use their own external stratum 1 server.

These devices, often called a NTP server, receive a UTC time source from a trusted and secure source such as a GPS satellite then distribute it amongst the network. The NTP server is far more secure than an Internet based time source and are relatively inexpensive and highly accurate.

NTP Server Time synchronisation for Dummies

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Time synchronisation is extremely important for modern computer networks. In some industries time synchronisation is absolutely vital especially when you are dealing with technologies such as air traffic control or marine navigation where hundreds of lives could be put at risk by lack of precise time.

Even in the financial world, correct time synchronisation is vital as millions can be added or wiped off share prices every second. For this reason the entire world adheres to a global timescale known as coordinated universal time (UTC). However, adhering to UTC and keeping UTC precise are two different things.

Most computer clocks are simple oscillators that will slowly drift either faster or slower. Unfortunately this means that no matter how accurate they are set on Monday they will have drifted by Friday. This drift may be only a fraction of a second but it soon won’t take long for the originally UTC time to be over a second out.

In many industries this may not mean a matter of life and death of the loss of millions in stocks and shares but lack of time synchronisation can have unforeseen consequences such as leaving a company less protected from fraud. However, receiving and keeping true UTC time is quite straight forward.

Dedicated network time servers are available that uses the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) to continually check the time of a network against a source of UTC time. These devices are often referred to as an NTP server, time server or network time server. The NTP server constantly adjusts all devices on a network to ensure that the machines are not drifting from UTC.

UTC is available from several sources including the GPS network. This is an ideal source of UTC time as it is secure, reliable and available everywhere on the planet. UTC is also available via specialist national radio transmissions which are broadcast from national physics laboratories although they are not available everywhere.