Distributed networks rely completely on the correct time. Computers need timestamps to order events and when a collection of machines are working together it is imperative they run the same time.
Unfortunately modern PC’s are not designed to be perfect timekeepers. Their system clocks are simple electronic oscillators and are prone to drift. This is not normally a problem when the machines are working independently but when they are communicating across a network all sorts of problems can occur.
From emails arriving before they have been sent to entire system crashes, lack of synchronisation can causes untold problems across a network and it is for this reason that network time servers are used to ensure the entire network is synchronised together.
Network time servers come in two forms – The GPS time server and the radio referenced time server. GPS NTP servers use the time signal broadcast from GPS satellites. This is extremely accurate as it is generated by an atomic clock on board the GPS satellite. Radio referenced NTP servers use a long wave transmission broadcast by several national physics laboratories.
Both these methods are a good source of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) the world’s global timescale. UTC is used by networks across the globe and synchronising to it allows computer networks to communicate confidently and partake of time sensitive transactions without error.
Some administrators use the Internet to receive a UTC time source. Whilst a dedicated network time server is not required to do this it does have security drawbacks in that a port is needed to be left open in the firewall for the computer to communicate with the NTP server, this can leave a system vulnerable and open to attack. Furthermore, Internet time sources are notoriously unreliable with many either too inaccurate or too far away to serve any useful purpose.