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The Clock Mini-HOWTO
Ron Bean, firstname.lastname@example.org
v2.1, November 2000
How to set and keep your computer's clock on time.
Table of Contents
1.1 Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
1.2 Where to Find Stuff: "The Usual Places"
2. How Linux Keeps Track of Time
2.1 Basic Strategies
2.2 Potential Conflicts
2.3 Should the RTC use Local Time or UTC, and What About DST?
2.4 How Linux keeps Track of Time Zones
2.5 The Bottom Line
3.1 Clock(8) and Hwclock(8)
3.3 Xntpd and ntpd: the Network Time Protocol
4. Radio Clocks
4.1 CHU and the "Gadget Box"
4.2 WWV and the "Most Accurate Clock"
4.3 GPS and the "Totally Accurate Clock"
4.4 Low-frequency Time Signals: DCF77, MSF(Rugby), WWVB
1.1. Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
The Real-Time-Clock (RTC) chips used on PC motherboards are
notoriously inaccurate, usually gaining or losing the same amount of
time each day. Linux provides a simple way to correct for this in
software, which can make the clock *very* accurate, even without an
external time source. But most people don't know how to set it up, for
� It's not mentioned in most of the general documentation on how to
set up linux, and it can't be set up automatically (unless you have
an external time source), so the default is not to use it.
� If you type "man clock" you may get the man page for clock(3),
which is not what you want. Try "man 8 clock" or "man 8 hwclock"
(some distributions search the man pages in numerical order if you
don't give a section number, others search in the order specified
� Most people don't seem to care what time it is anyway.
� Those few who do care often want to sync the system clock to an
external time source, such as a network time server or radio clock.
This makes the accuracy of the RTC (mostly) irrelevant.
This mini-HOWTO describes the low-tech approach (which can be very
accurate by itself), and provides pointers to several more
sophisticated options. In most cases the documentation is well
written, so I'm not going to repeat that information here.
Previous versions included detailed instructions for the old clock(8)
program for anyone still running an older system, but I've dropped
that section because most distributions now use hwclock(8) instead,
which has much better documentation. If you still want a copy of the
clock(8) instructions I can email them to you, but read the section on
You must be logged in as "root" to run any program that affects
the RTC or the system time, which includes most of the programs
described here. If you normally use a graphical interface for
everything, you may also need to learn some basic unix shell
If you run more than one OS on your machine, you should only let
one of them set the RTC, so they don't confuse each other. The
exception is the twice-a-year adjustment for Daylight Saving(s)
Time (see the section on DST for details).
If you run a dual-boot system that spends a lot of time running
Windows, you may want to check out some of the clock software
available for that OS instead. Follow the links on the NTP website at
<http://www.eecis.udel.edu/~ntp/software.html>. Many of the radio
clocks mentioned here include software for Windows.
1.2. Where to Find Stuff: "The Usual Places"
In some places I've mentioned that software can be downloaded from
"the usual places", which means any place you could download a
complete Linux system if you didn't get it on a CD-ROM. In the old
days that meant the ftp archive at sunsite.unc.edu, and various mirror
sites around the world. That site has been renamed
<http://metalab.unc.edu/linux/> (since Sun no longer sponsors it).
Some distributions also have their own websites, which may include a
lot of this stuff.
I assume most people get Linux on CD these days, and those CDs often
include software that is not part of the default installation, so you
may already have some of the programs mentioned here without knowing
The latest version of this mini-HOWTO can be found at the home of the
Linux Documentation Project, which is currently
<http://www.linuxdoc.org/> (and is also reachable from the metalab
site mentioned above). I think all the old links are now forwarded to
All HOWTOs are written in SGML and converted to various other formats
by standardized conversion programs. Most people seem to want the HTML
version, which is at <http://www.linuxdoc.org/HOWTO/mini/Clock.html>.
Revision history can be found as comments in the SGML source. Most
Linux distributions install a complete set of HOWTO's in
/usr/doc/HOWTO/ and /usr/doc/HOWTO/mini.
This mini-HOWTO has been greatly improved thanks to various people who
have sent me email since the first version in 1996. In some cases
they wrote with questions but ended up giving me as much information
as I gave them. Unfortunately I haven't compiled a list of names
(maybe next time). You know who you are :-).
2. How Linux Keeps Track of Time
2.1. Basic Strategies
A Linux system actually has two clocks: One is the battery powered
"Real Time Clock" (also known as the "RTC", "CMOS clock", or "Hardware
clock") which keeps track of time when the system is turned off but is
not used when the system is running. The other is the "system clock"
(sometimes called the "kernel clock" or "software clock") which is a
software counter based on the timer interrupt. It does not exist when
the system is not running, so it has to be initialized from the RTC
(or some other time source) at boot time. References to "the clock" in
the ntpd documentation refer to the system clock, not the RTC.
The two clocks will drift at different rates, so they will gradually
drift apart from each other, and also away from the "real" time. The
simplest way to keep them on time is to measure their drift rates and
apply correction factors in software. Since the RTC is only used when
the system is not running, the correction factor is applied when the
clock is read at boot time, using clock(8) or hwclock(8). The system
clock is corrected by adjusting the rate at which the system time is
advanced with each timer interrupt, using adjtimex(8).
A crude alternative to adjtimex(8) is to have chron run clock(8) or
hwclock(8) periodically to sync the system time to the (corrected)
RTC. This was recommended in the clock(8) man page, and it works if
you do it often enough that you don't cause large "jumps" in the
system time, but adjtimex(8) is a more elegant solution. Some
applications may complain if the time jumps backwards.
The next step up in accuracy is to use a program like ntpd to read the
time periodically from a network time server or radio clock, and
continuously adjust the rate of the system clock so that the times
always match, without causing sudden "jumps" in the system time. If
you always have a network connection at boot time, you can ignore the
RTC completely and use ntpdate (which comes with the ntpd package) to
initialize the system clock from a time server-- either a local server
on a LAN, or a remote server on the internet. But if you sometimes
don't have a network connection, or if you need the time to be
accurate during the boot sequence before the network is active, then
you need to maintain the time in the RTC as well.
2.2. Potential Conflicts
It might seem obvious that if you're using a program like ntpd, you
would want to sync the RTC to the (corrected) system clock. But this
turns out to be a bad idea if the system is going to stay shut down
longer than a few minutes, because it interferes with the programs
that apply the correction factor to the RTC at boot time.
If the system runs 24/7 and is always rebooted immediately whenever
it's shut down, then you can just set the RTC from the system clock
right before you reboot. The RTC won't drift enough to make a
difference in the time it takes to reboot, so you don't need to know
its drift rate.
Of course the system may go down unexpectedly, so some versions of the
kernel sync the RTC to the system clock every 11 minutes if the system
clock has been adjusted by another program. The RTC won't drift enough
in 11 minutes to make any difference, but if the system is down long
enough for the RTC to drift significantly, then you have a problem:
the programs that apply the drift correction to the RTC need to know
*exactly* when it was last reset, and the kernel doesn't record that
Some unix "traditionalists" might wonder why anyone would run a linux
system less than 24/7, but some of us run dual-boot systems with
another OS running some of the time, or run Linux on laptops that have
to be shut down to conserve battery power when they're not being used.
Other people just don't like to leave machines running unattended for
long periods of time (even though we've heard all the arguments in
favor of it). So the "every 11 minutes" feature becomes a bug.
This "feature/bug" appears to behave differently in different versions
of the kernel (and possibly in different versions of xntpd and ntpd as
well), so if you're running both ntpd and hwclock you may need to test
your system to see what it actually does. If you can't keep the kernel
from resetting the RTC, you might have to run without a correction
factor on the RTC.
The part of the kernel that controls this can be found in
/usr/src/linux-2.0.34/arch/i386/kernel/time.c (where the version
number in the path will be the version of the kernel you're running).
If the variable time_status is set to TIME_OK then the kernel will
write the system time to the RTC every 11 minutes, otherwise it leaves
the RTC alone. Calls to adjtimex(2) (as used by ntpd and timed, for
example) may turn this on. Calls to settimeofday(2) will set
time_status to TIME_UNSYNC, which tells the kernel not to adjust the
RTC. I have not found any real documentation on this.
I've heard reports that some versions of the kernel may have problems
with "sleep modes" that shut down the CPU to save energy. The best
solution is to keep your kernel up to date, and refer any problems to
the people who maintain the kernel.
If you get bizarre results from the RTC you may have a hardware
problem. Some RTC chips include a lithium battery that can run down,
and some motherboards have an option for an external battery (be sure
the jumper is set correctly). The same battery maintains the CMOS RAM,
but the clock takes more power and is likely to fail first. Bizarre
results from the system clock may mean there is a problem with
2.3. Should the RTC use Local Time or UTC, and What About DST?
The Linux "system clock" actually just counts the number of seconds
past Jan 1, 1970, and is always in UTC (or GMT, which is technically
different but close enough that casual users tend to use both terms
interchangeably). UTC does not change as DST comes and goes-- what
changes is the conversion between UTC and local time. The translation
to local time is done by library functions that are linked into the
This has two consequences: First, any application that needs to know
the local time also needs to know what time zone you're in, and
whether DST is in effect or not (see the next section for more on time
zones). Second, there is no provision in the kernel to change either
the system clock or the RTC as DST comes and goes, because UTC doesn't
change. Therefore, machines that only run Linux should have the RTC
set to UTC, not local time.
However, many people run dual-boot systems with other OS's that expect
the RTC to contain the local time, so hwclock needs to know whether
your RTC is in local time or UTC, which it then converts to seconds
past Jan 1, 1970 (UTC). This still does not provide for seasonal
changes to the RTC, so the change must be made by the other OS (this
is the one exception to the rule against letting more than one program
change the time in the RTC).
Unfortunately, there are no flags in the RTC or the CMOS RAM to
indicate standard time vs DST, so each OS stores this information
someplace where the other OS's can't find it. This means that hwclock
must assume that the RTC always contains the correct local time, even
if the other OS has not been run since the most recent seasonal time
If Linux is running when the seasonal time change occurs, the system
clock is unaffected and applications will make the correct conversion.
But if linux has to be rebooted for any reason, the system clock will
be set to the time in the RTC, which will be off by one hour until the
other OS (usually Windows) has a chance to run.
There is no way around this, but Linux doesn't crash very often, so
the most likely reason to reboot on a dual-boot system is to run the
other OS anyway. But beware if you're one of those people who shuts
down Linux whenever you won't be using it for a while-- if you haven't
had a chance to run the other OS since the last time change, the RTC
will be off by an hour until you do.
Some other documents have stated that setting the RTC to UTC allows
Linux to take care of DST properly. This is not really wrong, but it
doesn't tell the whole story-- as long as you don't reboot, it does
not matter which time is in the RTC (or even if the RTC's battery
dies). Linux will maintain the correct time either way, until the next
reboot. In theory, if you only reboot once a year (which is not
unreasonable for Linux), DST could come and go and you'd never notice
that the RTC had been wrong for several months, because the system
clock would have stayed correct all along. But since you can't predict
when you'll want to reboot, it's better to have the RTC set to UTC if
you're not running another OS that requires local time.
The Dallas Semiconductor RTC chip (which is a drop-in replacement for
the Motorola chip used in the IBM AT and clones) actually has the
ability to do the DST conversion by itself, but this feature is not
used because the changeover dates are hard-wired into the chip and
can't be changed. Current versions change on the first Sunday in April
and the last Sunday in October, but earlier versions used different
dates (and obviously this doesn't work in countries that use other
dates). Also, the RTC is often integrated into the motherboard's
"chipset" (rather than being a separate chip) and I don't know if they
all have this ability.
2.4. How Linux keeps Track of Time Zones
You probably set your time zone correctly when you installed Linux.
But if you have to change it for some reason, or if the local laws
regarding DST have changed (as they do frequently in some countries),
then you'll need to know how to change it. If your system time is off
by some exact number of hours, you may have a time zone problem (or a
Time zone and DST information is stored in /usr/share/zoneinfo (or
/usr/lib/zoneinfo on older systems). The local time zone is
determined by a symbolic link from /etc/localtime to one of these
files. The way to change your timezone is to change the link. If
your local DST dates have changed, you'll have to edit the file.
You can also use the TZ environment variable to change the current
time zone, which is handy of you're logged in remotely to a machine in
another time zone. Also see the man pages for tzset and tzfile.
This is nicely summarized at
2.5. The Bottom Line
If you don't need sub-second accuracy, hwclock(8) and adjtimex(8) may
be all you need. It's easy to get enthused about time servers and
radio clocks and so on, but I ran the old clock(8) program for years
with excellent results. On the other hand, if you have several
machines on a LAN it can be handy (and sometimes essential) to have
them automatically sync their clocks to each other. And the other
stuff can be fun to play with even if you don't really need it.
On machines that only run Linux, set the RTC to UTC (or GMT). On
dual-boot systems that require local time in the RTC, be aware that if
you have to reboot Linux after the seasonal time change, the clock may
be temporarily off by one hour, until you have a chance to run the
other OS. If you run more than two OS's, be sure only one of them is
trying to adjust for DST.
3.1. Clock(8) and Hwclock(8)
All linux distributions install either the old clock(8) or the newer
hwclock(8), but without a correction factor. Some may also install
adjtimex(8), or they may include it on the CD as optional (or you can
download it from the usual Linux archive sites). Some distributions
also include a graphical clock setting program that runs in an X-
window, but those are designed for interactive use, and the system
will still install clock(8) or hwclock(8) for use in the startup
Clock(8) requires you to calculate the correction factor by hand, but
hwclock(8) calculates it automatically whenever you use it to reset
the RTC (using another program to set the RTC will interfere with the
drift correction, so always use the same program if you're using a
correction factor). If you have an older system that still uses
clock(8) and you want to upgrade, you can find hwclock(8) in the
"util-linux" package, version 2.7 or later. See the man page for more
The man page for hwclock(8) may be called "clock" for backward
compatibility, so try both names. Hwclock(8) will respond to
commands written for clock(8), but the result may not be the
same-- in particular, "hwclock -a" is not quite the same as
"clock -a", so if you're upgrading to hwclock I'd suggest
replacing all references to "clock" in your startup scripts to
use hwclock's native commands instead.
The startup scripts vary from one distribution to another, so you may
have to search a bit to find where it sets the clock. Typical
locations are /etc/rc.local, /etc/rc.d/rc.sysinit, /etc/rc.d/boot, or
some similar place.
The correction factor for the RTC is stored in /etc/adjtime. Red Hat
has a script in /etc/sysconfig/clock that controls the options to
When you're setting the clock to determine the drift rate, keep in
mind that your local telephone time announcement may or may not be
accurate. If you don't have a shortwave radio or GPS receiver, you can
hear the audio feed from WWV by calling (303)499-7111 (this is a toll
call to Boulder, Colorado). It will cut you off after three minutes,
but that should be long enough to set the clock. USNO and Canada's CHU
also have telephone time services, but I prefer WWV's because there is
more time between the announcement and the "beep". You can also get
the time from a network time server using the ntpdate program that
comes with ntpd, and there's a javaclock at <www.time.gov>.
In any case, what you're setting is the system clock, not the RTC (see
the man page for the date command for the formats to use). Then use
hwclock to set the RTC and calculate the drift rate. If you're doing
this by hand, you should be able to set it within a second or two, and
get a reasonable approximation of the drift rate after a few weeks.
Then you can run adjtimex(8) to fine-tune the system clock.
Adjtimex(8) allows the user to adjust the kernel's time variables, and
therefore change the speed of the system clock (you must be logged in
as "root" to do this). It is cleverly designed to compare the system
clock to the RTC using the same correction factor used by clock(8) or
hwclock(8), as stored in /etc/adjtime. So, once you've established
the drift rate of the RTC, it's fairly simple to correct the system
clock as well. Once you've got it running at the right speed, you can
add a line to your startup scripts to set the correct kernel variables
at boot time. Since adjtimex(8) was designed to work with clock(8) or
hwclock(8), it includes a work-around for the "every 11 minutes" bug.
After you've installed adjtimex(8) you can get more information on
setting it up by typing "man 8 adjtimex" (there is also an adjtimex(2)
man page, which is not what you want) and by reading the README file
in /usr/doc/adjtimex-1.3/README (where the version number in the path
will be the current version of adjtimex(8)).
3.3. Xntpd and ntpd: the Network Time Protocol
Xntpd (NTPv3) has been replaced by ntpd (NTPv4); the earlier version
is no longer being maintained.
Ntpd is the standard program for synchronizing clocks across a
network, and it comes with a list of public time servers you can
connect to. It can be a little more complicated to set up than the
other programs described here, but if you're interested in this kind
of thing I highly recommend that you take a look at it anyway.
The "home base" for information on ntpd is the NTP website at
<http://www.eecis.udel.edu/~ntp/> which also includes links to all
kinds of interesting time-related stuff (including software for other
OS's). Some linux distributions include ntpd on the CD. There is a
list of public time servers at
A relatively new feature in ntpd is a "burst mode" which is designed
for machines that have only intermittent dial-up access to the
Ntpd includes drivers for quite a few radio clocks (although some
appear to be better supported than others). Most radio clocks are
designed for commercial use and cost thousands of dollars, but there
are some cheaper alternatives (discussed in later sections). In the
past most were WWV or WWVB receivers, but now most of them seem to be
GPS receivers. NIST has a PDF file that lists manufacturers of radio
clocks on their website at
<http://www.boulder.nist.gov/timefreq/links.htm> (near the bottom of
the page). The NTP website also includes many links to manufacturers
of radio clocks at <http://www.eecis.udel.edu/~ntp/hardware.htm> and
<http://www.eecis.udel.edu/~mills/ntp/refclock.htm>. Either list may
or may not be up to date at any given time :-). The list of drivers
for ntpd is at
Ntpd also includes drivers for several dial-up time services. These
are all long-distance (toll) calls, so be sure to calculate the effect
on your phone bill before using them.
Xntpd was originally written for machines that have a full-time
connection to a network time server or radio clock. In theory it can
also be used with machines that are only connected intermittently, but
Richard Curnow couldn't get it to work the way he wanted it to, so he
wrote "chrony" as an alternative for those of us who only have network
access when we're dialed in to an ISP (this is the same problem that
ntpd's new "burst mode" was designed to solve). The current version
of chrony includes drift correction for the RTC, for machines that are
turned off for long periods of time.
You can get more information from Richard Curnow's website at
<http://www.rrbcurnow.freeuk.com/chrony> or <http://go.to/chrony>.
There are also two chrony mailing lists, one for announcements and one
for discussion by users. For information send email to chrony-users-
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Chrony is normally distributed as source code only, but Debian has
been including a binary in their "unstable" collection. The source
file is also available at the usual Linux archive sites.
Another option is the clockspeed program by DJ Bernstein. It gets the
time from a network time server and simply resets the system clock
every three seconds. It can also be used to synchronize several
machines on a LAN.
I've sometimes had trouble reaching his website at
<http://Cr.yp.to/clockspeed.html>, so if you get a DNS error try again
on another day. I'll try to update this section if I get some better
4. Radio Clocks
4.1. CHU and the "Gadget Box"
CHU, the Canadian shortwave time station near Ottawa, is similar to
WWV in the US but with one important difference: in addition to
announcing the time in both French and English, it also broadcasts the
current time once per minute using the old "Bell 103" (300 baud) modem
tones. These tones are very easy to decode, and Bill Rossi realised
that you don't even need a modem-- just a shortwave radio and a sound
card. If you're able to receive the signal from CHU, this may be the
cheapest radio clock available. Shortwave reception varies throughout
the day, but Bill claims that by changing frequencies twice a day
(morning and evening) he gets almost 24-hour coverage. CHU broadcasts
on 3.33, 7.335, and 14.670 MHz.
For more information see Bill Rossi's website at
<http://www.rossi.com/chu/>. The source file is also available at the
usual Linux archive sites. For information on CHU's time services see
The NTP website has plans for a "gadget box" that decodes the CHU time
broadcast using an inexpensive 300 baud modem chip and any shortwave
radio, at <http://www.eecis.udel.edu/~ntp/ntp_spool/html/gadget.htm>.
The plans include a Postscript image of a 2-sided custom printed
circuit board, but you have to make the board yourself (or find
someone who can make it for you).
Ntpd includes a driver (type 7) for CHU receivers, which works either
with modems like the "gadget box", or by feeding the audio directly
into the mic input of a Sun SPARCstation (or any other machine with
"compatible audio drivers").
4.2. WWV and the "Most Accurate Clock"
You may have heard about Heathkit's "Most Accurate Clock", which
received and decoded the time signal from WWV and had an optional
serial port for connecting to a computer. Heathkit stopped selling
kits a long time ago, but they continued to sell the factory-built
version of the clock until 1995, when it was also discontinued. For
Heathkit nostalgia (not including the clock) see
<http://www.heathkit-museum.com>. The Heathkit company still exists,
selling educational materials. See <http://www.heathkit.com>.
According to Dave Mills, Heathkit's patent on the "Most Accurate
Clock" is due to expire soon, so maybe someone out there would like to
clone it as a single-chip IC.
The NTP website has a DSP program (and a PDF file describing it) at
<http://www.eecis.udel.edu/~mills/resource.htm> that decodes the WWV
time signal using a shortwave radio and the TAPR/AMSAT DSP-93, a DSP
kit which is no longer available. It was based on the Texas
Instruments TMS320C25 DSP chip. The TAPR website at
<http://www.tapr.org> includes a lot of information on homebrew DSP
Ntpd includes a driver (type 6) for the IRIG-B and IRIG-E time codes,
using /dev/audio on a Sun SPARCstation, with a note that it is "likely
portable to other systems". WWV uses the IRIG-H time code.
WWV is run by NIST, which has a website at
<http://www.boulder.nist.gov/timefreq/index.html>. This site includes
the text of "Special Publication 432", which describes their time and
frequency services, at
broadcasts on 2.5, 5, 10, 15, and 20 Mhz.
4.3. GPS and the "Totally Accurate Clock"
GPS signals include the correct time, and some GPS receivers have
serial ports. Ntpd includes drivers for several GPS receivers. The
1PPS feature ("One Pulse Per Second", required for high accuracy)
usually requires a separate interface to connect it to the computer.
TAPR (Tuscon Amateur Packet Radio) makes a kit for an interface called
"TAC-2" (for "Totally Accurate Clock") that plugs into a serial port
and works with any GPS receiver that can provide a 1PPS output--
including some "bare board" models that can be mounted directly to the
circuit board. For more information see their website at
<http://www.tapr.org>. The price (as of June 1999) is around $140, not
including the GPS receiver. The kit does not include any enclosure or
The CHU "gadget box" (described in another section) can also be used
as an interface for the 1PPS signal. The NTP website has a discussion
of this at <http://www.eecis.udel.edu/~ntp/ntp_spool/html/pps.htm>.
4.4. Low-frequency Time Signals: DCF77, MSF(Rugby), WWVB
These low-frequency stations broadcast a time code by simply switching
the carrier on and off. Each station uses its own coding scheme, and
summaries are available on the NTP website at
<http://www.eecis.udel.edu/~mills/ntp/index.htm> (near the bottom of
the page). DCF77 in Germany broadcasts on 77.5kHz. MSF in England
(also called "Rugby", which apparently refers to its location) and
WWVB in Colorado both broadcast on 60 kHz.
Reception of WWVB varies, but there are plans to increase its
broadcast power, in several stages. You can follow its progress on
NIST's website at
Inexpensive receivers that can plug into a serial port are reported to
be available in Europe. Ntpd includes drivers for a couple of MSF
A number of companies in the US sell relatively inexpensive clocks
that have built-in WWVB receivers (including several analog wall
clocks), but I'm only aware of two that can be connected to a
The Ultralink Model 320 sells for about $120 (as of June 1999) and has
a serial interface and a straightforward ASCII command set, so it
shouldn't be too hard to program. It draws 1mA from the serial port
for power. The antenna can be up to 100 feet away from the computer,
and the unit contains its own clock to maintain the time if it loses
the signal. They also sell a "bare board" version for about $80 that
is designed to work with the "BASIC Stamp" series of microcontrollers.
Arcron Technology sells a desk clock with an optional serial port for
about $130, including software for Windows. See
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