NTP - an essential service

Mon, 06 Jul 2009

NTP is network time protocol. This protocol is used to keep network connected computers synchronized to each other and to atomic clocks around the world. It is my humble opinion that all computers should run NTP. Why? A large number of reasons. To start with, I like to know when someone sent me an e-mail. Doesn't mean much when an e-mail that just arrived is dated 1 April 1970. This e-mail may be two minutes, two hours, or two days old. Now I have no idea what "meet me today at 3:30" means in this e-mail. Another good reason to use timekeeping of some flavor is that all network connected systems should keep logs of important or anomolous activity. But again, it does little good if you don't know when this important or anomolous event occurred. If the system is heavily loaded, I want to know why. But if this load only occurs between 2 and 3 a.m., I'm not as concerned. It also clues me to why the load occurred -- if the system performs a backup between 2 and 3 a.m., I can check to see if this is the reason and fix it if I feel it is required (or just ignore it as unimportant or normal for this particular activity).

These reasons and more are why I feel NTP is really an essential service. You don't want to be without accurate time for any system connected to the Internet. And implementation is easy and readily available.

Even M$ Windows systems should run timekeeping, although most timekeeping implementations for Windows is based on SNTP vice NTP. This simpler timekeeper doesn't share, only gets time from other sources. This is fine with me as the things the Windows virus shares I don't usually want anyway . So if you're reading this and think timekeeping doesn't apply to you, I suggest you rethink that.

Timekeeping for a machine is a simple, non-resource consuming process. Think of what it takes for you to check your wristwatch, and you'll realize that little if any resources are consumed in doing so. For a computer it's even less, as computers have a built-in clock. Once set, they just check about once every 10 minutes or so to see if they've "drifted". A few checks and they can self-correct the drift, even if no longer connected to the network. The protocol they use is UDP over either IP or IPv6 and takes so little network resources you won't ever notice.

When you install some form of timekeeping service, you'll need to configure that service. Mostly, you just need to tell the timekeeper where to look for network time. My suggestion is the ntp.org pool of ntp time servers. You should configure three or more just in case one gets crazy and starts giving improper time (although the poolkeeper checks pool computers against each other so this is unlikely to occur for any length of time before that source is removed from the pool). I have a few systems that are part of the pool. Even with hundreds or thousands of computers using me as one of their sources, the traffic generated is almost too small to measure.

If you go to http://www.ntp.org/ and follow the "Server Pool Project" link they tell you how to use the pool, but more importantly how to join the pool. This project, and network timekeeping all over the world, is affected by the number of users versus number of providers of this service. Before this project began, finding a public timekeeper (someone willing to donate the minute amount of bandwidth and computer resources required) was becoming more and more difficult. Many "public" timekeepers were blocking traffic or requiring permission. Just too many users and not enough providers.

Looking at the pool, Panama is considered part of the North America zone. The four NTP servers in Panama were implemented by me (or there'd be none). At one point, one other provider in Panama had one public timekeeper, but that has apparently disappeared. Latin America desperately needs more public timekeepers. Why other providers have not stepped forward and joined is not known. If you know of anyone who can convince providers or universities in Panama or neighboring countries to join the pool, please do so. It's a shame the Universidad Tecnologica de Panama, Cable & Wireless Panama, and other ISPs in Panama haven't joined the pool. As I mentioned earlier, the resource usage is so low that it makes no sense not to have one or two. The closer the NTP servers are to you, the more accurate the timekeeping.

So if you can use the pool (only non-Internet connected systems can't), do so. And if you have a static IP, consider joining the pool. Let's try to rid the world of new e-mails dated 1970.


NTP - an essential service

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