NTP synchronizes timekeeping among a set of distributed time servers and clients. This synchronization allows events to be correlated when system logs are created and other time-specific events occur.
NTP uses the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) as its transport protocol. All NTP communication uses Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). An NTP network usually receives its time from an authoritative time source, such as a radio clock or an atomic clock attached to a time server. NTP distributes this time across the network. NTP is extremely efficient; no more than one packet per minute is necessary to synchronize two machines to within a millisecond of each other.
NTP uses the concept of a “stratum” to describe how many NTP “hops” away a machine is from an authoritative time source. A “stratum 1” time server typically has an authoritative time source (such as a radio or atomic clock, or a GPS time source) directly attached, a “stratum 2” time server receives its time via NTP from a “stratum 1” time server, and so on.
NTP avoids synchronizing to a machine whose time may not be accurate, in two ways. First, NTP never synchronizes to a machine that is not synchronized itself. Second, NTP compares the time reported by several machines and does not synchronize to a machine whose time is significantly different than the others, even if its stratum is lower. This strategy effectively builds a self-organizing tree of NTP servers.
The Cisco implementation of NTP does not support stratum 1 service; in other words, it is not possible to connect to a radio or atomic clock (for some specific platforms, however, you can connect a GPS time-source device). We recommend that time service for your network be derived from the public NTP servers available in the IP Internet.
If the network is isolated from the Internet, the Cisco implementation of NTP allows a machine to be configured so that it acts as though it is synchronized via NTP, when in fact it has determined the time using other means. Other machines can then synchronize to that machine via NTP.
Several manufacturers include NTP software for their host systems, and a publicly available version for systems running UNIX and its various derivatives is also available. This software also allows UNIX-derivative servers to acquire the time directly from an atomic clock, which would subsequently propagate time information along to Cisco routers.
The communications between machines running NTP (known as associations) are usually statically configured; each machine is given the IP address of all machines with which it should form associations. Accurate timekeeping is made possible by exchanging NTP messages between each pair of machines with an association.
The Cisco implementation of NTP supports three ways that a networking device can obtain NTP time information on a network:
By polling host servers
By listening to NTP broadcasts
By listening to NTP multicasts
In a LAN environment, NTP can be configured to use IP broadcast or multicast messages. As compared to polling, IP broadcast or multicast messages reduce configuration complexity, because each machine can simply be configured to send or receive broadcast or multicast messages. However, the accuracy of timekeeping is marginally reduced because the information flow is one-way only.
An NTP broadcast client listens for broadcast messages sent by an NTP broadcast server at a designated IPv4 address. The client synchronizes the local clock using the first received broadcast message.
An NTP multicast server periodically sends a message to a designated IPv4 or IPv6 local multicast group address. An NTP multicast client listens on this address for NTP messages.
The time kept on a machine is a critical resource, so we strongly recommend that you use the security features of NTP to avoid the accidental or malicious setting of incorrect time. Two mechanisms are available: an access list-based restriction scheme and an encrypted authentication mechanism.
When multiple sources of time (VINES, hardware clock, manual configuration) are available, NTP is always considered to be more authoritative. NTP time overrides the time set by any other method.