Archive for August, 2008

The NTP Server – a Beginners Guide

Computer networking is one of the most difficult aspects of information and communications technology (ICT). The logistics of connecting terminals, routers, printers and all the other devices can leave many administrators with a constant headache.
One of the most important aspects that often gets overlooked and can have disastrous consequences is that of time synchronization.

It is imperative that all devices on a network are telling the same time as timestamps, the format a computer relays time to each other, are the only form of reference a computer can use to establish a sequence of events. If different machines on a network are telling different times then unforeseen consequences such as emails arriving before they have technically been sent and other anomalies will make the administrator’s headache even worse.

What’s more a computer network that is not synchronized is open to security threats and even fraud. Fortunately the NTP time server has been around for many years and can ease the headache of time synchronization .

NTP (Network Time Protocol) is one of the oldest protocols used by computer networks. Developed nearly three decades ago NTP is a protocol that checks the time on all devices on network and adds or subtracts enough time to ensure they are all synchronized.

NTP requires a time reference to synchronise the network’s clocks to. Whilst NTP can synchronize a network to any time an authoritative time source is obviously the best solution. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is a globally used timescale based on the time told by atomic clocks. As atomic clocks lose less than a second of time in over a thousand years, UTC is by far the best timing source to synchronize a network to. Not only will your network be perfectly synchronized together but also your network will be synchronized to the same time as millions of computer networks all from around the world.

A NTP server can receive a UTC time reference from several sources. The Internet is the most obvious source, however Internet timing sources are notoriously inaccurate and those that are not can be relatively useless if the distance is too far away. Also having placed your NTP server securely behind your firewall it does seem pointless to have to keep a hole open in it to allow the NTP server to poll the timing reference from across the web and leave the entire network vulnerable, particularly as NTP authentication (NTP’s own security measure) is not possible over the Internet.

There are two far more secure and accurate methods of receiving a UTC timing reference. The first is to utilise the national time and frequency transmissions that several countries broadcast from their national physics laboratories. These are usually broadcast via long wave which has an advantage of being able to be picked up inside a server room although many countries do not have such a signal.

However, many NTP servers can utilize the timing signal broadcast by the onboard atomic clocks of the GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites.  This signal is available everywhere but a GPS antenna is required that can get a clear view of the sky.

By utilizing a UTC timing source either through the GPS network of radio transmission a computer network can be synchronized to within a few milliseconds of UTC time.