Accurate time on a network is essential for all businesses and institutions. Without an accurately synchronised system a computer network can be vulnerable to all sorts of problems, from malicious hackers and other security threats to fraud and data loss.
Network Time Protocol is the key to keeping accurate time it is a software algorithm that has been constantly developed for over two decades. NTP takes a single time source that is received by the NTP server and distributes it across a network ensuring all machines in that network are running to exact same time.
Whilst NTP can maintain synchronisation of a network to within a few milliseconds it is only as good as the time source it receives. A dedicated NTP server will use a time signal from an external source and so keep the network secure as the firewall will not have to be disturbed.
The two preferred methods for most users of NTP servers is the GPS network (Global Positioning System) or specialist time and frequency transmissions put out be several national physics labs such as the UK’s NPL.
These time signals are UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is the world’s civil timescale. An NTP server receiving time source from either a frequency transmission or the GPS network can realistically provide accuracy to within a few milliseconds of UTC
Network time servers are preferred as a synchronisation tool rather than the much simpler internet time servers because they are far more secure. Using the internet as a basis for time information would mean using a source outside the firewall which could allow malicious users to take advantage.
Network time servers on the other hand work inside the firewall, both of these type of signals are incredibly accurate and secure with each method providing millisecond accuracy to UTC. However, there are downsides to both systems. The radio signals broadcast by nation time and frequency laboratories are susceptible to interference and locality, while the GPS signal, although available literally everywhere on the globe can occasional be lost too (often due to bad weather interfering with the line-of-sight GPS signals.
For computer networks where high levels of accuracy are imperative, dual systems are often incorporated. These dual network time servers receive the time signal from both the GPS network and the radio transmissions and select an average for even more accuracy. However, the real advantage of using a dual system is that if one signal fails, for what ever the reason, the network will not have to rely on the inaccurate system clocks as the other method of receiving UTC time should still be operational.