Network Time Protocol (NTP) is a protocol designed to time-synchronize a network of machines. NTP runs on User Datagram Protocol (UDP), which in turn runs on IP. NTP Version 3 is documented in RFC 1305.
An NTP network usually gets its time from an authoritative time source such as a radio clock or an atomic clock attached to a time server. NTP then distributes this time across the network. NTP is extremely efficient; no more than one packet per minute is necessary to synchronize two machines to the accuracy of within a millisecond of one another.
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 Global Positioning System (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 has two ways to avoid synchronizing to a machine whose time may not be accurate. NTP will never synchronize to a machine that is not in turn synchronized. NTP will compare the time reported by several machines, and will not synchronize to a machine whose time is significantly different from 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; that is, you cannot connect to a radio or atomic clock (for some specific platforms, however, you can connect to a GPS time-source device). Cisco recommends that the 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.
A number of manufacturers include NTP software for their host systems and a publicly available version for systems running UNIX. 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 through exchange of NTP messages between each pair of machines with an association.
However, in a LAN environment, NTP can be configured to use IP broadcast messages instead. This alternative reduces configuration complexity because each machine can be configured to send or receive broadcast messages. However, the accuracy of timekeeping is marginally reduced because the information flow is one-way only.
The time kept on a machine is a critical resource, so Cisco strongly recommends 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 (Virtual Integrated Network System (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.
NTP services are disabled on all interfaces by default.
For more information about NTP, see the following sections:
Poll-Based NTP Associations
Networking devices running NTP can be configured to operate in variety of association modes when synchronizing time with reference time sources. A networking device can obtain time information on a network in two ways—by polling host servers and by listening to NTP broadcasts. This section focuses on the poll-based association modes. Broadcast-based NTP associations are discussed in the
Broadcast-Based NTP Associations section.
The following are the two most commonly used poll-based association modes:
Symmetric active mode
The client and the symmetric active modes should be used when NTP is required to provide a high level of time accuracy and reliability.
When a networking device is operating in the client mode, it polls its assigned time-serving hosts for the current time. The networking device will then pick a host from among all the polled time servers to synchronize with. Because the relationship that is established in this case is a client-host relationship, the host will not capture or use any time information sent by the local client device. This mode is most suited for file-server and workstation clients that are not required to provide any form of time synchronization to other local clients. Use the
command to individually specify the time server that you want your networking device to consider synchronizing with and to set your networking device to operate in the client mode.
When a networking device is operating in the symmetric active mode, it polls its assigned time-serving hosts for the current time and it responds to polls by its hosts. Because this is a peer-to-peer relationship, the host will also retain time-related information of the local networking device that it is communicating with. This mode should be used when a number of mutually redundant servers are interconnected via diverse network paths. Most stratum 1 and stratum 2 servers on the Internet adopt this form of network setup. Use the
peer command to individually specify the time serving hosts that you want your networking device to consider synchronizing with and to set your networking device to operate in the symmetric active mode.
The specific mode that you should set for each of your networking devices depends primarily on the role that you want them to assume as a timekeeping device (server or client) and the device’s proximity to a stratum 1 timekeeping server.
A networking device engages in polling when it is operating as a client or a host in the client mode or when it is acting as a peer in the symmetric active mode. Although polling does not usually place a burden on memory and CPU resources such as bandwidth, an exceedingly large number of ongoing and simultaneous polls on a system can seriously impact the performance of a system or slow the performance of a given network. To avoid having an excessive number of ongoing polls on a network, you should limit the number of direct, peer-to-peer or client-to-server associations. Instead, you should consider using NTP broadcasts to propagate time information within a localized network.
NTP Access Group
The access list-based restriction scheme allows you to grant or deny certain access privileges to an entire network, a subnet within a network, or a host within a subnet. To define an NTP access group, use the
access-group command in global configuration mode.
The access group options are scanned in the following order, from least restrictive to the most restrictive:
ipv4—Configures IPv4 access lists.
ipv6—Configures IPv6 access lists.
peer—Allows time requests and NTP control queries, and allows the system to synchronize itself to a system whose address passes the access list criteria.
serve—Allows time requests and NTP control queries, but does not allow the system to synchronize itself to a system whose address passes the access list criteria.
serve-only—Allows only time requests from a system whose address passes the access list criteria.
query-only—Allows only NTP control queries from a system whose address passes the access list criteria.
If the source IP address matches the access lists for more than one access type, the first type is granted access. If no access groups are specified, all access types are granted access to all systems. If any access groups are specified, only the specified access types will be granted access.
For details on NTP control queries, see RFC 1305 (NTP Version 3).
The encrypted NTP authentication scheme should be used when a reliable form of access control is required. Unlike the access list-based restriction scheme that is based on IP addresses, the encrypted authentication scheme uses authentication keys and an authentication process to determine if NTP synchronization packets sent by designated peers or servers on a local network are deemed as trusted before the time information that they carry along with them is accepted.
The authentication process begins from the moment an NTP packet is created. Cryptographic checksum keys are generated using the message digest algorithm 5 (MD5) and are embedded into the NTP synchronization packet that is sent to a receiving client. Once a packet is received by a client, its cryptographic checksum key is decrypted and checked against a list of trusted keys. If the packet contains a matching authentication key, the time-stamp information that is contained within the packet is accepted by the receiving client. NTP synchronization packets that do not contain a matching authenticator key are ignored.
In large networks, where many trusted keys must be configured, the Range of Trusted Key Configuration feature enables configuring multiple keys simultaneously.
It is important to note that the encryption and decryption processes used in NTP authentication can be very CPU-intensive and can seriously degrade the accuracy of the time that is propagated within a network. If your network setup permits a more comprehensive model of access control, you should consider the use of the access list-based form of control.
After NTP authentication is properly configured, your networking device will synchronize with and provide synchronization only to trusted time sources.