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How do NTP Servers Manage to Stay so Accurate?

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Many of us have had the occasional problem with our computers and other devices retaining accurate time settings, but a quick sync with an NTP server makes all well again. But if our own devices can lose accuracy, how do NTP servers manage to stay so accurate?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

Photo courtesy of LEOL30 (Flickr).

The Question

SuperUser reader Frank Thornton wants to know how NTP servers are able to remain so accurate:

I have noticed that on my servers and other machines, the clocks always drift so that they have to sync up to remain accurate. How do the NTP server clocks keep from drifting and always remain so accurate?

How do the NTP servers manage to remain so accurate?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Michael Kjorling has the answer for us:

NTP servers rely on highly accurate clocks for precision timekeeping. A common time source for central NTP servers are atomic clocks, or GPS receivers (remember that GPS satellites have atomic clocks onboard). These clocks are defined as accurate since they provide a highly exact time reference.

There is nothing magical about GPS or atomic clocks that make them tell you exactly what time it is. Because of how atomic clocks work, they are simply very good at, having once been told what time it is, keeping accurate time (since the second is defined in terms of atomic effects). In fact, it is worth noting that GPS time is distinct from the UTC that we are more used to seeing. These atomic clocks are in turn synchronized against International Atomic Time or TAI in order to not only accurately tell the passage of time, but also the time.

Once you have an exact time on one system connected to a network like the Internet, it is a matter of protocol engineering enabling transfer of precise times between hosts over an unreliable network. In this regard a Stratum 2 (or farther from the actual time source) NTP server is no different from your desktop system syncing against a set of NTP servers.

By the time you have a few accurate times (as obtained from NTP servers or elsewhere) and know the rate of advancement of your local clock (which is easy to determine), you can calculate your local clock’s drift rate relative to the “believed accurate” passage of time. Once locked in, this value can then be used to continuously adjust the local clock to make it report values very close to the accurate passage of time, even if the local real-time clock itself is highly inaccurate. As long as your local clock is not highly erratic, this should allow keeping accurate time for some time even if your upstream time source becomes unavailable for any reason.

Some NTP client implementations (probably most ntpd daemon or system service implementations) do this, and others (like ntpd’s companion ntpdate which simply sets the clock once) do not. This is commonly referred to as a drift file because it persistently stores a measure of clock drift, but strictly speaking it does not have to be stored as a specific file on disk.

In NTP, Stratum 0 is by definition an accurate time source. Stratum 1 is a system that uses a Stratum 0 time source as its time source (and is thus slightly less accurate than the Stratum 0 time source). Stratum 2 again is slightly less accurate than Stratum 1 because it is syncing its time against the Stratum 1 source and so on. In practice, this loss of accuracy is so small that it is completely negligible in all but the most extreme of cases.


Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

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  • Published 05/27/14