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.


This post was written by:

Richard N Williams is a technical author and a specialist in the NTP Server and Time Synchronisation industry. Richard N Williams on Google+