Archive for the 'synchronisation' Category

The NTP Server and Accurate Time

Accurate time on a network is essential for all businesses and institutions. Without an accurately synchronised system a computer network can be vulnerable to all sorts of problems, from malicious hackers and other security threats to fraud and data loss.

Network Time Protocol
is the key to keeping accurate time it is a software algorithm that has been constantly developed for over two decades. NTP takes a single time source that is received by the NTP server and distributes it across a network ensuring all machines in that network are running to exact same time.

Whilst NTP can maintain synchronisation of a network to within a few milliseconds it is only as good as the time source it receives. A dedicated NTP server will use a time signal from an external source and so keep the network secure as the firewall will not have to be disturbed.

The two preferred methods for most users of NTP servers is the GPS network (Global Positioning System) or specialist time and frequency transmissions put out be several national physics labs such as the UK’s NPL.

These time signals are UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is the world’s civil timescale. A NTP server receiving time source from either a frequency transmission or the GPS network can realistically provide accuracy to within a few milliseconds of UTC

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.

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.

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.

MSF signal interruption – Notice from the National Physical Laboratory

For users of MSF time server or other NTP related devices:

Notice of Interruption MSF 60 kHz Time and Frequency Signal – NPL
The MSF 60 kHz time and frequency signal broadcast from Anthorn Radio Station will be shut down over the period:

11 December 2008 – from 10:00 UTC to 14:00 UTC

The interruption to the transmission is required to allow scheduled maintenance work to be carried out in safety.

If you require any additional information, please contact NPL

Or alternatively please see the NPL time website.

Finding a Public NTP Server

A public NTP Server is a time server on the Internet that, as the name suggests, members of the public can use as a timing source. The best location on the Internet to find a list of public NTP servers is the home of NTP – www.ntp.org

There are two lists of public NTP servers on ntp.org, one for primary servers and one for secondary servers. Primary servers have up to several hundred clients each. However, many primary servers are ‘closed access’ meaning that only agreed clients can access them. This is because if there is too much traffic attempting to receive a timing source from a primary source then it will clog the network making the server useless.

Primary servers are known as a stratum 1 server in that they get their timing source direct from an atomic clock often using the GPS or national time and frequency transmissions. Secondary NTP servers tend to be stratum 2 time servers, that is a time server that receives its timing source from a stratum 1 server.

Most users that require a public NTP server will find that most primary servers are closed access and that they will have to use a secondary NTP server. When using a public NTP server it is important that access policies are adhered to as many institutions require on these servers for timing information.

NTP Server – Using Stratum

NTP (Network Time Protocol) is the most prevalent time synchronisation software available. On of the reasons NTP is so successful is the way it organises its clients into a hierarchy.

The hierarchy of NTP is divided into stratum with each strata representing the distance from the original reference clock.  For instance an atomic clock that generates a UTC (coordinated universal time) signal is referred to as a stratum 0 device.

A NTP server that receives a stratum  1 time signal is referred to as a stratum 1 device and a device that receives a time source from a NTP server is a stratum 2 device. NTP can support up to 16 strata although the further away from the reference clock you get (stratum 0) the less accurate the device will be.

However, by arranging the network into stratum and allowing stratum 2 devices to pass on the time to a stratum 3 device (and so on) it reduced the demand on the NTP server and the network. By using a stratum based network, realistically thousands of machines can be synchronised to just one NTP server.