Posted by Richard N Williams on January 31st, 2008
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).
It is strongly recommended by Microsoft and others, that external based timing should be used rather than Internet based, as these can’t be authenticated. Specialist NTP servers are available that can synchronise time on networks using either the MSF (or equivalent) or GPS signal.
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 or specialist radio transmission (MSF in Britain).
The MSF national time and frequency radio transmissions used to synchronise an NTP server is broadcast by the National Physics Laboratory in Cumbria which serves as the United Kingdom’s national time reference, there are also similar systems in Colorado, US (WWVB) and in Frankfurt, Germany (DCF-77).
A radio based NTP server usually consists of a rack-mountable time server, and an antenna, consisting of a ferrite bar inside a plastic enclosure, which receives the radio time and frequency broadcast. The antenna should always be mounted horizontally at a right angle toward the transmission for optimum signal strength. Data is sent in pulses, 60 a second. These signals provides UTC time to an accuracy of 100 microseconds, however, the radio signal has a finite range and is vulnerable to interference.
A radio referenced NTP server is easily installed and can provide an organization with a precise time reference enabling the synchronization of entire networks.