Computer Time Servers

A time server is a computer server that obtains precise timing information from an external hardware clock and provides this information to clients across a computer network. A time server may be located on a local network, or intranet, or may be located on the internet. A time server receives accurate time from an external timing reference to maintain precise internal time.

There are a number of hardware clocks that a time server may utilise to obtain accurate time. One of the most common external hardware clock references is the Global Positioning System, or GPS. GPS satellites provide highly accurate timing and positioning information.

The timing component of GPS transmissions is accurate to within a couple of hundred nanoseconds of the correct time. There is also a number of National time and frequency radio broadcasts available. The WWVB signal is transmitted from Colorado and is available throughout the USA.

The DCF-77 radio time signal is broadcast from Frankfurt, Germany, and is available throughout much of Central and Western Europe. While, the MSF-60 radio time signal is transmitted from Anthorn in Cumbria, UK, and can be received throughout much of North-Western Europe. A time server may also be configured to get time from other time servers in a hierachical structure of time servers. A time server may be an existing file server that also provides timing information in addition to it's primary function as a file server.

Alternatively, it may be a dedicated device whose only function is to provide time to client computers on the network. Many dedicated time server systems incorporate precision hardware time references that help maintain accurate time in the event of failure of external time signals. A dedicated time server often contains a temperature or oven controller crystal oscillator or enen a rubidium oscillator to maintain accurate time.

A Rubidium crystal may typically lose only a few milliseconds per year. There are a number of computer network protocols that have been developed for computer time dissemination. Many computer timing protocols have become obsolete to be replaced by a single standard.

The most common protocol used for time transfer between computers is NTP - the Network Time Protocol. The Network Time Protocol is one of the oldest protocols still in use today. It was developed over 25 years ago as a means of transfering accurate time around the internet. The NTP protocol is descibed in a detailed RFC and defines methods and data structures for sharing accurate time between computers on a network. NTP operates in a hierarchical manner, with a level 1, or stratum 1, time server sitting at the top of the tree and filtering time information to lower stratum time servers.

The lower the stratum of the time server, the further away it is from the reference server and hence less accurate.

D. Evans is an author with a many years experience in the field of NTP server systems and computer timing systems. He has written a number of articles providing information to help organisations install and maintain network timing equipment. Click here, if you would like more information on Time Server solutions.

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