Keeping Accurate Time on Linux: Running a Ntp Time Server

Linux operating systems are becoming increasingly popular partly due to the many advantages they have over commercial systems like Windows or OS X. Linux offers increased security (as there are only a handful of viruses that can infect a Linux based system), better stability and in most cases it is free.

It is no wonder more and more home and business users alike are opting to switch to a Linux based operating systems and whether it is Redhat, Mandrake, Ubuntu or the myriad of other UNIX and LINUX based systems, keeping accurate time is relatively straight forward.

Time synchronisation is vital in many time-sensitive applications and most business users find it would be impossible to conduct any online transactions without a synchronized network. Even home-users find an advantage in ensuring their system is running accurate time, emails no longer arrive before they are sent and security is increased.

Most Linux based operating systems contain a version of Network Time Protocol (NTP) an Internet protocol designed to synchronise time on a network. For those that do not contain a pre-packed version, NTP is open source and freely available at ‘ntp.org’.

While NTP is available for most versions of Windows; Linux users have the advantage in that it has traditionally been the primary development platform for NTP. It works by using a timing source either from the Internet or via a dedicated network time server.

These reference clocks run UTC time (coordinated universal time) a global timescale which is relayed to them from atomic clocks that are accurate to a few nanoseconds (a nanosecond is a billionth of a second).

Put simply, the NTP daemon (a service program that runs in the background) compares the time on the computer with the timing source at regular intervals and adjusts it depending on any drift.

The NTP daemon is configured using the ‘ntp.conf’ file. The configuration file is where the location of the NTP timing servers are stored. If attempting to use a public internet timing source it is advised to visit http://www.pool.ntp.org which has a collection of over 200 servers.

However Microsoft and Novell, strongly advise that internet based timing sources are not used as they are unauthenticated and can leave a gateway open for malicious attacks.

Alternatively and most preferably, dedicated NTP time servers are available which provide better accuracy and are far more secure. These time servers receive a timing source from either a national radio broadcast (such as WWVB in the US or MSF in the UK) or via the GPS system.

Once installed these systems continually check the time on all the network computers’ clocks and adjusts them for any drift. A typical GPS receiver can provide timing information to within a few nanoseconds of UTC while national time and frequency transmissions are accurate to 1 – 20 milliseconds (a millisecond is 1/1000 of a second).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *