NTP Time Server Frequently Asked Questions

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Q. What is NTP?
A. NTP – Network Time Protocol is an Internet protocol for time synchronisation, whilst other time synchronisation protocols are available NTP is by far the most widely used having been around since the mid 1980’s when the Internet was still in its infancy.

Q. What is UTC?
A.  UTC – Coordinated Universal Time is a global timescale based on the time told by atomic clocks. Because these clocks are so accurate every year or so ‘leap seconds’ have to be added as UTC is even more accurate than the Earth’s rotation which slows and speeds up thanks to the Moon’s gravity.

Q. What is a Network Time Server?
A. A network time server also known as a NTP time server is a network device that receives a UTC time signal and then distributes it among the other devices on a network. The time protocol NTP then ensures that all machines are kept synchronised to that time.

Q. Where does a network time server receive a UTC time from?
A. There are several sources where a UTC time reference can be taken. The Internet is the most obvious with hundreds of different time servers relaying their UTC time signals. However these are notoriously inaccurate depending on many variable the Internet is also not a secure source and not suitable for any computer network where security issues are a concern. The other methods that provide a more accurate, secure and reliable source of UTC time is to either use the transmissions of the GPS (global positioning system) network or the national time and frequency transmissions broadcast on long-wave.

Q. Can I receive a radio time signal from anywhere?
A. Unfortunately not. Only certain countries have a time signal broadcast from their national physics laboratories and these signals are finite and vulnerable to interference. In the USA the signal is broadcast from Colorado and is known as WWVB, in the UK it is broadcast from Cumbria and is called MSF. Similar systems exist in Germany, Japan, France and Switzerland.

Q. What about the GPS signal?
A. A satellite navigation system relies on the time signals from the onboard atomic clocks in the GPS satellites. It is this time signal that is used to triangulate positioning and it can also be received by a network time server fitted with a GPS antenna. GPS is available everywhere in the World but an antenna does need to have a clear view of the sky.

Q. If I have large network then I will need multiple network time servers?
A. Not necessarily. NTP is hierarchical and divided into ‘stratum’ an atomic clock is a stratum 0 device, a time server that receives the clocks signal is a stratum 1 device and a network device that receives a signal from a time server is a stratum 2 device. NTP can support 12 stratum (realistically, although more is possible) and each strata can be used as a device to synchronise to. Therefore a stratum 2 device can synchronise other machine lower down the strata and so on. This means no matter how big a network is, only one network time server would be required.


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Richard N Williams is a technical author and a specialist in the NTP Server and Time Synchronisation industry. Richard N Williams on Google+