Network Time Protocol (NTP) is one of the Internet’s oldest protocols still used, invented by Dr David Mills from the University of Delaware, it has been in utilized since 1985. NTP is a protocol designed to synchronize the clocks on computers and networks across the Internet or Local Area Networks (LANs).
NTP (version 4) can maintain time over the public Internet to within 10 milliseconds (1/100th of a second) and can perform even better over LANs with accuracies of 200 microseconds (1/5000th of a second) under ideal conditions.
NTP works within the TCP/IP suite and relies on UDP, a less complex form of NTP exists called Simple Network Time Protocol (SNTP) that does not require the storing of information about previous communications, needed by NTP. It is used in some devices and applications where high accuracy timing is not as important.
Time synchronisation with NTP is relatively simple, it synchronises time with reference to a reliable clock source. This source could be relative (a computer’s internal clock or the time on a wrist-watch) or absolute (A UTC – Universal Coordinated Time – clock source that is accurate as is humanely possible).
Atomic clocks are the most absolute time-keeping devices; however, they are extremely expensive and are generally only to be found in large-scale physics laboratories. However, NTP can synchronise networks to an atomic clock by using either the Global Positioning system (GPS) network, a specialist radio transmission or over the Internet. However, it must be noted that Microsoft strongly recommends that an external based timing should be used rather than Internet based, as these can’t be authenticated.
GPS is an ideal time and frequency source because it can provide highly accurate time anywhere in the world using relatively cheap components. Each GPS satellite transmits in two frequencies L2 for the military use and L1 for use by civilians transmitted at 1575 MHz, Low-cost GPS antennas and receivers are now widely available.
The signal transmitted by the satellite can pass through windows but can be blocked by buildings so the ideal location for a GPS antenna is on a rooftop with a good view of the sky. The more satellites it can receive from the better the signal. However, roof-mounted antennas can be prone to lighting strikes or other voltage surges, so installation of a suppressor inline on the GPS cable is highly recommend.
The cable between the GPS antenna and receiver is also critical. The maximum distance that a cable can run is normally only 20-30 metres but a high quality coax cable combined with a GPS amplifier placed in-line to boost the gain of the antenna can allow in excess of 100 metre cable runs.
A GPS receiver then decodes the GPS signal sent from the antenna to a computer readable protocol which can be utilised by most time servers and operating systems including, Windows, LINUX and UNIX.
The GPS receiver also outputs a precise pulse every second that GPS Network Time Protocol (NTP) servers and computer time servers may utilise to provide ultra-precise timing. The pulse-per-second timing on most receivers is accurate to within 0.001 of a second of UTC.
GPS is ideal in providing NTP time servers or stand-alone computers with a highly accurate external reference for synchronisation. Even with relatively low cost equipment, accuracy of hundred nanoseconds (a nanosecond = a billionth of a second) can be reasonably achieved using GPS as an external reference.