NTP Server and the Atomic Clock

Many network administrators boast that there networks are perfectly synchronised because they have an atomic clock as an NTP server. In actual fact as atomic clocks cost several millions of pounds and are quite vast in size it is doubtful the average server room contains such a timepiece.

What in fact they are referring to is that they have an NTP server that receives a timing source from an atomic clock. However, just because atomic clocks are the most accurate chronometers in the world, accurate to a few nanoseconds (billionth of a second) it doesn’t necessarily mean that a network using one as a timing source is receiving the same sort of accuracy

Atomic clocks work on the principle that certain atoms (in most atomic clocks the caesium -133 atom) oscillates at an exact frequency at certain energy levels. In the case of the caesium atom it resonates at exactly 9,192,631,770 every second.  Because of this exact resonance, atomic clocks lose less than a second in millions of years. In fact, the resonance of the caesium atom is so precise that the International System of Units has defined the second as exactly that number of oscillations of the caesium atom.

NTP servers can receive the time from an atomic clock through several sources. Obviously the Internet contains thousands of timing servers, some of which are hooked up to an atomic clock, others however, can be over ten seconds out of sync.

Furthermore, using an Internet timing source can leave a system open to abuse as the timing references cannot be authenticated. Also, the distance from a host, client and server can make dramatic differences in the accuracy.

The most accurate and effective way of receiving a timing source from an atomic clock is to use the national time and frequency broadcast that several country’s national physics laboratories transmit. Alternatively the American GPS (Global Positioning System) transmits the time from its own satellite’s atomic clocks. both methods can provide perfect synchronisation and accuracy to within a few milliseconds.


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