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The NTP Server Protocol Made Easy

The Network Time Protocol (NTP) was developed over 25 years ago as a means of distributing accurate time across the Internet. It is one of the oldest Internet protocols still in use today. NTP is a client-server based protocol for the distribution of accurate time to network time clients across a computer network. This article attempts to elaborate some of the terminology used in computer timing and also to discuss some features of the NTP protocol. NTP runs mainly on Linux and Unix operating systems but has also been ported to Microsoft Windows.

NTP servers obtain accurate time from an external timing reference, such as GPS or Radio time and frequency transmissions. A NTP Server provides networked clients primarily with three peices of information: system clock offset, network delay and dispersion relative to an external reference clock. The NTP protocol is configured in a hierarchical manner; primary servers, secondary servers and time clients.

Primary NTP servers are synchronised to an accurate external clock and is attributed a stratum, or hierarchy, level of one. Second level NTP servers obtain time from primary NTP servers and are used to spread the load of requests for time from clients. Secondary servers are attributed a stratum of greater than one. As the stratum increases, so the accuracy of the server decreases. NTP utilises the UDP (User Data-gram Protocol) protocol.

NTP protocol messages consist of a number of distinct fields: Leap Indicator; Version Number; Mode; Stratum; Poll; Precision; Root Delay; Root Dispersion; Reference Identifier; Reference Timestamp; Originate Timestamp; Receive Timestamp; Transmit Timestamp; Key Identifier and Message Digest. A NTP server can operate in three modes: unicast; anycast and multicast. In unicast and anycast modes, the client transmits a NTP request message to the server.

The server responds with a NTP time message that the client uses for time synchronisation. In multicast mode, NTP time messages are broadcast at periodic specified intervals. The current release of NTP is version 4.

The only significant modification to the protocol between versions 3 and 4 is a slight header re-interpretation to accommodate IPv6. All new releases of NTP are backwards compatible with previous versions of the protocol. SNTP, or Simple Network Time Protocol, is a simplification of the full-blown Network Time Protocol. It can be used where the complexities of the full-blown protocol are not required. SNTP is often implemented on Microsoft Windows platforms where many of the complex algorithms for maintaining accurate time are unavailable.

SNTP can be implemented when the high synchronisation performance of NTP is not required. The message format of the SNTP protocol is almost identical to that of the NTP protocol. However, the complex subroutines designed to maintain a highly accurate synchronised time are removed or simplified. Small computers with reduced processing power, such as micro-controllers or monitoring equipment most often use SNTP. The NTP and SNTP protocols are interoperable and can be interchanged without problem.

Dave Evans has a number of years experience as a technical author in the telecommunications and computer timing industries. Click here for more information on Windows NTP Server systems.


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