Most of us check the time throughout the day, whether it’s looking at our watch, our mobile phone, our computer or the clock on the office wall.
What we might not consider though is how accurate each of these sources are, and whether they all display the same time. If they differ by just a few minutes, it’s not likely to have much of an effect on our daily lives. However, there are some situations where clocks being inaccurate or out of synchronization by even a minute can cause major issues, such as a transaction failing, or enabling fraud to occur.
Within computer networks, time synchronization is vital for elements such as security and efficiency, providing a unified source which all connected devices adhere to. Without this, there is no way to guarantee accurate timestamping for your digital processes.
Computers and other electronic devices often come with an internal RTC, or Real Time Clock chip. This clock supplies the device with the time and date, usually with a battery backup so it can retain that information even during a power cut. This internal time source in your PC might be good enough for some functions, but it’s not designed to be highly accurate.
As a result, computers often experience time drift, where the internal clock slowly drifts further away from the actual precise time. Although this might not be much of an issue if operating alone, it’s when a computer communicates with another, either online or through a local network, that time drift can be a major problem. Imagine the chaos this could cause with time sensitive transactions in a bank or on the trading floor.
The solution to this is to use a NTP (Network Time Protocol) time server. Acting as a benchmark for time on your network, NTP time servers distribute a time signal to synchronize all connected devices. Often, the time signal uses a standard such as UTC (Universal Coordinated Time), derived from atomic clocks or GPS (Global Positioning System) service.
Atomic clocks are the most accurate sources of time available. Due to their high cost, they are usually accessible only in scientific institutions such as the National Physical Laboratory near London. NTP gives you easy access to the accuracy of atomic clocks through a format such as UTC.
Although NTP can be used to distribute any time across a network, it is much more preferable to use a standard such as UTC time whenever possible. Even outside of the industries where UTC is mandatory (such as banking, financial trading and aviation), there are definite benefits to all organisations, such as increased efficiency and security. It is highly likely you will need to communicate with other networks, and using this universal time standard gives you additional protection against data loss and fraud.
NTP time can also be accessed through the internet, via public time servers (also known as public stratum-1 NTP servers), although with significantly less accuracy. In fact, at the current NTP standard (version 4), using a local network can often be around 50 times more precise than over the internet. That’s why it is highly recommended to use a local dedicated NTP time server for time synchronization.