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If we invented time why does our MSF radio signal not get past Luton?

June 18, 2012

Everybody knows the Brits invented time.  Prior to the invention of time and GMT (and all of those less important time zones) you couldn’t say to someone “lets have a meeting at 2pm” because nobody knew exactly when 2pm was.  Now, time is a serious business and to ensure we all agree on the right time there are a number of physics laboratories  around the world doing clever things waiting for atoms to get tooth decay (or something like that).

To be fair, until recently I never really gave all of this much thought.  I was brought up listening to “the pips” on the radio and a posh bloke on the telephone telling me the exact time.  Then the world went all “PC” and “web connected” so I switched to trusting the little digital clock in the bottom right corner of my screen.  Later as a server admin I became accustomed to something called “Windows Time” and a little box called a “time server” for all of my time needs.

I’m not exactly sure when all the data centres and server rooms started getting these time servers.  They just seemed to appear, one moment we didn’t know we needed them and the next thing they were everywhere.  This year I worked for a company that didn’t actually have one.  No, hang on…that’s a lie they had one as my boss had bought one it just hadn’t been plugged in and set up yet. “That should take no time” I told the boss, thoroughly intending the pun.

The time server in question was a Galleon 6000 MSF, a 2U rack mounted NTP time server that gets it’s time sync from something called the “MSF Radio Time Signal”.  If you haven’t heard of it here is the blurb from the web site http://www.npl.co.uk…

“The MSF radio signal is a dedicated time broadcast that provides an accurate and reliable source of UK civil time, based on the NPL time scale UTC(NPL). It is available 24 hours a day across the whole of the UK and beyond. The signal operates on a frequency of 60 kHz and carries a time and date code that can be received and decoded by a wide range of readily available radio-controlled clocks.

The MSF signal is transmitted from Anthorn Radio Station in Cumbria by Babcock (formerly VT Communications), under contract to NPL.”

So I racked the kit up, attached the aerial and powered it up.  “Cannot sync with MSF” or something or other the console told me.  No problem I thought, this was a trial and we were planning to put the aerial on the roof, so I set about dragging the aeriel out of the server room (propping the door open with a fire extinguisher, of course) and went and sat the aerial by the window.

Nothing.

Now the SQL DBA who sat by the window ,managed to get Radio bloody 1 (as I like to call it) on his  boom box thing; much to the annoyance of most of the IT department (who would switch it off whenever he went for a coffee, meeting, loo break or lunch). So I should be able to get the MSF signal, right?

I turned off Radio bloody 1 and dangled the Galleon’s aerial out of the window.

Still nothing.

I telephoned the support company for Galleon and spoke to a rather pleasant Brummie chap.  He  told me to download some software and run some tests.  From the results we were told if it was a fine day, with no cloud and the correct atmospheric pressure that we stood absolutely no chance of getting the right time from the MSF signal.

“Whereabouts in the country are you?” he asked in his soothing Brummie accent.

“London” I said.  “Big place with a river running through it, you might of heard of it, the Queen lives here”.

“Ahhh” he said, “that explains it, you won’t get the MSF signal past Luton, you should have been sold the GPS aerial”.

Typical.  There is an MSF transmitter in Germany somewhere that sends a signal around the whole of Europe; the Americans have sent a lander craft to Mars that knows the right time but our time signal can”t even make it past bloody Luton.

Now I would like to point out that none of this was Galleon’s fault, our supplier had recommended the wrong aerial and for a few quid we sent the MSF one back and got a GPS aeriel.

So I put the new aerial on and all was good right?

Not really, you see the GPS aerial needs a direct, unobstructed line of site to the sky to work (just like the GPS on your mobile or your car) and I couldn’t get this from dangling the aerial out of the window.  I therefore needed to get said aerial mounted on the roof, which required landlord permission and building services to fill out a billion health and safety forms before donning high-vis jackets and using a drill and a screwdriver (another billion forms).  The contract finished before all of this happened.

It’s a shame really, I did want to get this system going.  I do hope in the future I will get to put another one in and talk to the friendly Brummie support guy at Galleon. If you are interested in buying an NTP time server the companies web site can be found below, my advice is to buy the GPS aerial.

http://www.atomic-clock.galleon.eu.com

Finally, if you live South of Luton and have managed to get any NTP server synced with the MSF radio signal please let me know.

C

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