Network Time Protocol (NTP) is one of the Internet’s oldest protocols still in use. Developed by Dr David Mills from the University of Delaware, it has been in constant use and continually updated since 1985. NTP is a protocol designed to synchronize the clocks on computers and networks across the Internet or Local or Wider Area Networks (LANs/WANS).
In a modern global economy time synchronisation is essential for carrying out time sensitive transactions such as booking an airline ticket to bidding on an Internet auction site. If clocks were not synchronised to the same time you may find your airline seat sold after you had bought it and Ebay’s administrators would not be able to discover whose bid was the latest.
NTP is a multi-tiered system, each tier being called a stratum. Servers at each tier communicate with each other (peer) and provide time to lower strata. Servers at the top stratum, stratum 1 connect to an atomic clock either over the Internet or by a radio or GPS receiver while a stratum 2 server will connect to a stratum 1.
NTP uses an algorithm (Marzullo’s algorithm) to synchronise time on a network using time scales like UTC (Coordinated Universal Time or Temps Universel Coordonné) and can support such features as leap seconds – added to compensate for the slowing of the Earth’s rotation.
NTP (version 4 being the latest) 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 time servers work within the TCP/IP suite and rely on UDP (User Datagram Protocol). A less complex form of NTP called Simple Network Time Protocol (SNTP) that does not require the storing of information about previous communications, needed by NTP, is used in some devices and applications where high accuracy timing is not as important and is also included as standard in Windows software (although more recent versions of Microsoft Windows have the full NTP installed and the source code is free and readily available on the Internet).
The NTP program (known as a daemon on UNIX and a service on Windows) runs in the background and refuses to believe the time it is told until several exchanges have taken place, each passing a set of tests. If the replies from a server satisfy these ‘protocol specifications’, the server is accepted. It usually takes about five good samples (five minutes) until a NTP server is accepted as a source for synchronisation.
Synchronisation with NTP is relatively simple, it synchronises time with reference to a reliable clock source such as an atomic clock, although these are extremely expensive and are generally only to be found in large-scale physics laboratories, however NTP can use either the Global Positioning system (GPS) network or specialist radio transmission to receive UTC time from these clocks.
A simplified version of NTP called Simple Network Time Protocol (SNTP) exists that does not require the storing of information about previous communications as required by NTP. It is used in some devices and applications where high accuracy timing is not as important and is installed on older versions of Microsoft Windows. Windows since 2000 has included the Windows Time Service (w32time.exe) which uses SNTP to synchronise the computer clock. NTP is also available on UNIX and LINUX (download via NTP.org).