Computer networks rely on timekeeping for nearly all their applications, from sending an email to saving data, a timestamp is necessary for computer to keep track. All routers and switches need to run at the same rate, out of sync devices can lead to data being lost and even entire connections.
All PC’s and networking devices use clocks to maintain an internal system time. These clocks, called Real Time Clock chips (RTC) provide time and date information. The chips are battery backed so that even during power outages, they can maintain time.
However, personal computers are not designed to be perfect clocks, their design has been optimized for mass production and low-cost rather than maintaining accurate time. However, these internal clocks are prone to drift and although for many application this can be quite adequate, often machines need to work together on a network and if the computers drift at different rates the computers will become out of sync with each other and problems can arise particularly with time sensitive transactions.
For some transactions it is necessary for computers to be perfectly synchronised, even a few seconds difference between machines can have serious effects, such as finding an airline ticket you had booked had been sold moments later to another customer or you could draw your savings out of a cash machine and when your account is empty you could quickly going to another machine and withdraw it all again.
Time servers are like other computer servers in the sense they are usually located on a network. A time server gathers timing information, usually from an external hardware source and then synchronises the network to that time.
Most time servers use NTP (Network Time Protocol) which 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 utilises an external timing reference and then synchronises all devices on the network to that time.
Often time servers are synchronised to a UTC (Coordinated Universal time) source which is the global standard time scale and allows computers all over the world to synchronised to exactly the same time. This has obvious importance in industries where exact timing is crucial such as the stock exchange or airline industry.
There are various sources that a time server can use as a timing reference. The Internet is an obvious source, however, internet timing references from the Internet such as nist.gov and windows.time can not be authenticated, leaving the time server and therefore the network vulnerable to security threats.