The atomic clock is the culmination of mankind's obsession of telling accurate time. Before the atomic clock and the nanosecond accuracy they, employ time scales were based on the celestial bodies.
However, thanks to the development of the atomic clock it has now been realised that even the Earth in its rotation is not as accurate a measure of time as the atomic clock as it loses or gains a fraction of a second each day.
Because of the need to have a timescale based somewhat on the Earth's rotation (astronomy and farming being two reasons) a timescale that is kept by atomic clocks but adjusted for any slowing (or acceleration) in the Earth's spin. This timescale is known as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) as employed across the globe ensuring commerce and trade utilise the same time.
Computer networks use network time servers to synchronise to UTC time. Many people refer to these time server devices as atomic clocks but that is inaccurate. Atomic clocks are extremely expensive and highly sensitive pieces of equipment and are only usually to be found in universities or national physics laboratories.
Fortunately national physics laboratories like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time - USA) and NPL (National Physical Laboratory - UK) broadcast the time signal from their atomic clocks. Alternatively the GPS network is another good source of accurate time as each GPS satellite has onboard its own atomic clock.
The network time server receives the time from an atomic clock and distributes it using a protocol such as NTP (Network Time Protocol) ensuring the computer network is synchronised to the same time.
Because network time servers are controlled by atomic clocks they can keep incredibly accurate time; not losing a second in hundreds if not thousands of years. This ensures that the computer network is both secure and unsusceptible to timing errors as all machines will have the exact same time.
Richard N Williams and Richard Hawkesford are technical authors and specialists in atomic clocks, telecommunications, NTP and network time synchronisation helping to develop dedicated NTP clocks. Please visit us for more information about an NTP server or other network time server solutions.
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