Archive for the 'atomic clocks' Category

The NTP Server – Selecting a Time Source Check List

In selecting a timing source to synchronise a computer network to using a NTP server (Network Time Protocol) it is important that the time source is accurate, secure and a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC is a global timescale used by computer networks, business and commerce across the globe.

Whilst UTC is freely available across the Internet it is neither accurate nor secure (being as it is external to your firewall).  Also Internet time sources cannot be authenticated which is NTP’s own method of ensuring a time source is what it says it is. There are two secure, accurate and reliable methods for receiving UTC via a NTP server and both come with their own advantages and drawbacks.

The first method is to use the GPS network (Global Positioning System).The main advantage of using the signals transmitted from a GPS satellite’s onboard atomic clock is that a signal is available anywhere on the planet. However it does come with a downside. As the signals are all line-of-sight it means that the GPS antenna needs to be placed on a roof to ensure connectivity with a satellite.

An alternative to the GPS signal but equally as accurate and reliable is to make use of the long wave radio transmissions broadcast by several national physics laboratories. These signals, such as the UK’s MSF, Germany’s DCF-77 and the United States’ WWVB transmissions, can often be picked up inside buildings making them ideal for a solution if a rooftop is unavailable for a GPS antenna. It must be noted that not every country broadcasts such a signal and whilst most transmissions can be picked up in neighbouring countries the signals are vulnerable to interference and local geography.

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NTP Server the German DCF 77 signal

The NTP server is a tool for keeping computer networks synchronised. Without adequate synchronisation networks can be left vulnerable to security threats, data loss, fraud and may find it impossible to interact with other networks across the globe.

Computer networks are normally synchronised to the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) enabling them to communicate effectively with other networks also running UTC.

In Europe there are several methods of receiving UTC time. The Internet is an obvious choice but as these time signals are external to the network firewall they can prove a security risk. Internet time sources can also be unreliable in their precision or too far away to make any useful synchronisation.

The GPS network is available everywhere on the planet as long as there is a good clear view of the sky and many NTP server devices are designed to receive such a signal.

In Europe there is another alternative, however, to provide accurate and reliable time. The National Physics Laboratory near Frankfurt, Germany broadcast a long wave frequency time signal based on a constellation of atomic clocks. This time signal is known as the DCF-77 signal and is available across much of Europe (as far as Portugal during the evening).

DCF 77 is an reliable and secure method of receiving UTC and as it is derived from a constellation for atomic clocks is highly accurate.  A NTP server received a DCF time signal can provide accuracy to within a few milliseconds of UTC.

Useful NTP server related resources

NTP.org – The home for the NTP Project who provides support and additional development resources for the Official Reference Implementation of NTP.

NTP Project support pages

THE NTP pool – list of public servers

NPL – The National Physical Laboratory in the UK who control the MSF radio signal.

The University of Delaware and David Mills’ information page, Professor Mills is the original inventor and developer of NTP

David Mills’ list of Public NTP Time Servers a list of public NTP servers

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who operate the USA’s WWVB radio signal

Europe’s largest supplier of NTP server related products.

Galleon UK – NTP server products for the UK

ntp-time-server.com – one of the largest time and frequency suppliers in the United States

NTP – Wikipedia article on NTP

NTP server checker – free tool to ensure time server accuracy

NTP server – Instruments of Precision

Time synchronisation in the modern age is highly precise. Modern atomic clocks can keep time so accurately that in 100 million years these timekeeping devices will not lose even a second.

Bit is this sort of accuracy necessary in the modern world? How important can a second possibly be, after all, a second has always been seen as one of the smallest units of time.

However, when you consider modern technology such as the satellite navigation then a second suddenly becomes a huge gulf in time. Modern satellite navigation devices work by calculating distance by using the time form the atomic clocks on GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites.

However, when you consider that the speed of light is close to 300, 000 km a second then you can understand that if a GPS clock is a second out then your navigation could be inaccurate by hundreds of thousands of kilometres.

The same is true for modern computer networks. Computers can process thousands of transactions a second so when it comes to global network communication a second can be a huge amount of time.

That is why modern NTP server’s, responsible for synchronising networks offer precision to the millisecond, ensuring that network across the globe are within a hare’s breath of each other.