NTP server – GPS or radio?

The NTP server is an essential network tool. Whilst other protocols do exist, NTP is by far the standard time synchronisation protocol and is utilised in the majority of time servers.

A NTP server is reliant on a single time source it is this time reference that it uses to distribute amongst the network and synchronise to. This timing reference tends to be a UTC time source (coordinated universal time) which is a global time source based on the time told by atomic clocks.

There are only two viable options for receiving a UTC timing source. Although the Internet can be used, the signal can’t be authenticated this is a security measure used by NTP to ensure the reference is what it says it is. Also by using an Internet time source a hole must be left open in the network firewall to allow for communication to the server, this has its own security risks.

The only two secure methods for receiving a UTC time signal is to either use the GPS network or national time and frequency transmissions that are broadcast by several countries’ national physics laboratories.

In selecting a timing source for a NTP server, location is the key consideration. The national time and frequency transmissions are not available in every country. Whilst the USA, UK, Germany, France, Japan and Finland have a signal there are many countries that do not. Furthermore being a long wave radio transmission it can easily be blocked by local topography, although the radio aerial can pick op a signal indoors which is something a GPS NTP server can’t do.

GPS antennas have to be situated on a roof. This can have logistical problems if the server room is in the basement of a high storey building but on the plus inside the GPS signal can be received literally anywhere in the world.

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