We live in an age of wonders. Really. Not too many years ago, the idea that I could forget about most of the hassles of installing hardware, access industrial-strength database software, or run a high-end Web server for basically zero marginal cost seemed like science fiction. But Plug and Play, Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Express Edition, and Internet Information Server (which is sort of free--given that you've already purchased Server) have taken the fiction out of the notion. Heck, watch a $100 million movie from just 10 years ago that incorporated special effects and compare it with the graphics produced by a $39 game on your PC, and you'll see what I mean. The down-side of these now-prosaic technological wonders, however, is that they lead me to expect everything techie to just get better and better--and that has led me to great disappointment over the zillions of things that have clocks on them.
I looked around my house the other day and asked myself, "What time is it exactly?" The microwave had one opinion. The oven, which was actually part of an integrated unit with the microwave, disagreed by three minutes. My cell phone agreed with the microwave oven, possibly because they both emit microwaves. (That's scary.) The "amazingly accurate atomic clock" that resets itself every day with WWVB AM signals out of Fort Collins now thinks that it's always six o'clock, because anything sensitive enough to pick up Colorado signals from Virginia is sensitive enough that electromagnetic pulses from lightning will kill it in short order. And the DVRs . . . well they're in agreement now, but when daylight savings time reverts to standard time on a different day than the previous year, then they'll be an hour out of agreement for a few weeks. And then there's the time issue that affects us computer techies: making sure that all our computers are closely enough in sync that things such as authentications can happen without trouble.
Yes, there are plenty of time servers out there. Some are run by governments; others are run by kind souls who maintain free time servers. Microsoft runs a bunch of time servers under the collective name of "time.windows.com," and every version of Windows since Windows 2000 has included an extensive set of time server and client software. And yet, time synchronization problems are rife-- just look at my online forum at www.minasi.com/forum. Trying to sync time on my Vista Ultimate laptop, which still looks to time.windows.com for its time source, yields an error revealing that my computer's "stratum" is--embarrassingly--less than time.windows.com's stratum. (In case you're wondering, the easiest solution seems to be to just find a different time server, technically called a "NTP server." And you can find links to available time servers on the Internet at www.ntp.org.)
What impels me to write this article isn't that I don't appreciate the kindness of the many folks who host NTP servers on the Internet. I do. But I always wonder as I walk around the house resetting the dozen or so digital clocks that adorn sundry devices in my house, "Why do we have to do this in the first place?" We've got a perfectly good national network in the form of the power grid. I've always wondered why power companies don't just put a simple, low-speed time signal on their power lines. Such signals could appear once every minute or so and could feature a distinctive signature and error-checking to make them distinguishable from normal power noise. The electronics to read these power signals would be childishly simple to build, although they'd need a bit of designer's attention, as the signal would be lost in the process of converting the AC's line current to that DC used by virtually every digital device.
Clearly a time server transmitting over power lines couldn't be depended upon to maintain time to the nearest nanosecond, as power companies would need to spend a lot of money to provide that accuracy. But the fact is that for most network security and most corporate needs, a minute's error would offer no trouble. Maybe it's--sorry, I can't resist--time!