Posted by Richard N Williams on November 27th, 2008
NTP (Network Time Protocol) is the most flexible, accurate and popular method of sending time over the Internet. It is perhaps the Internet’s oldest protocol having been around in one form or another since the mid 1980’s.
The main purpose of NTP is to ensure that all devices on a network are synchronised to the same time and to compensate for some network time delays. Across a LAN or WAN NTP manages to maintain an accuracy of a few milliseconds (Across the Internet, time transfer if far less accurate due to network traffic and distance).
NTP is by far the most widely used time synchronisation protocol (somewhere in the region of 95% of all time servers use NTP) and it owes much of its success to its continual updates and its flexibility. NTP will run on UNIX, LINUX, and Windows based operating systems (it is also free, another possible reason for its huge success).
NTP uses a single time source that it distributes among all devices on a network; it also checks each device for drift (the gaining or losing of time) and adjusts for each. It is also hierarchical in that literally thousands of machines can be controlled using just one NTP server as each machine can in itself be used by neighbouring machines as a time server.
NTP is also highly secure (when using an external time reference not when using the Internet for a timing source) with an authentication protocol able to establish exactly where a timing source comes from.
For a network to be really effective most NTP time servers use an atomic clock as a basis for their time synchronisation. An international timescale based on the time told by atomic clocks has been developed for this very purpose. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).
There are really two methods to receive a secure UTC atomic clock time signal to be utilised by NTP. The first being the time and frequency transmissions that several national physics laboratories broadcast on long wave around the world; the second (and by far the most readily available) is by using the timing information in the GPS satellite transmissions. These can be picked up anywhere on the globe and provide safe, secure and highly accurate timing information.