17.3. Understanding NTP

This implementation of NTP enables sub-second accuracy to be achieved. Over the Internet, accuracy to 10s of milliseconds is normal. On a Local Area Network (LAN), 1 ms accuracy is possible under ideal conditions. This is because clock drift is now accounted and corrected for, which was not done in earlier, simpler, time protocol systems. A resolution of 233 picoseconds is provided by using 64-bit time stamps. The first 32-bits of the time stamp is used for seconds, the last 32-bits are used for fractions of seconds.
NTP represents the time as a count of the number of seconds since 00:00 (midnight) 1 January, 1900 GMT. As 32-bits is used to count the seconds, this means the time will roll over in 2036. However NTP works on the difference between time stamps so this does not present the same level of problem as other implementations of time protocols have done. If a hardware clock that is within 68 years of the correct time is available at boot time then NTP will correctly interpret the current date. The NTP4 specification provides for an Era Number and an Era Offset which can be used to make software more robust when dealing with time lengths of more than 68 years. Note, please do not confuse this with the Unix Year 2038 problem.
The NTP protocol provides additional information to improve accuracy. Four time stamps are used to allow the calculation of round-trip time and server response time. In order for a system in its role as NTP client to synchronize with a reference time server, a packet is sent with an originate time stamp. When the packet arrives, the time server adds a receive time stamp. After processing the request for time and date information and just before returning the packet, it adds a transmit time stamp. When the returning packet arrives at the NTP client, a receive time stamp is generated. The client can now calculate the total round trip time and by subtracting the processing time derive the actual traveling time. By assuming the outgoing and return trips take equal time, the single-trip delay in receiving the NTP data is calculated. The full NTP algorithm is much more complex than presented here.
When a packet containing time information is received it is not immediately responded to, but is first subject to validation checks and then processed together with several other time samples to arrive at an estimate of the time. This is then compared to the system clock to determine the time offset, the difference between the system clock's time and what ntpd has determined the time should be. The system clock is adjusted slowly, at most at a rate of 0.5 ms per second, to reduce this offset by changing the frequency of the counter being used. It will take at least 2000 seconds to adjust the clock by 1 second using this method. This slow change is referred to as slewing and cannot go backwards. If the time offset of the clock is more than 128 ms (the default setting), ntpd can step the clock forwards or backwards. If the time offset at system start is greater than 1000 seconds then the user, or an installation script, should make a manual adjustment. See Chapter 2, Configuring the Date and Time. With the -g option to the ntpd command (used by default), any offset at system start will be corrected, but during normal operation only offsets of up to 1000 seconds will be corrected.
Some software may fail or produce an error if the time is changed backwards. For systems that are sensitive to step changes in the time, the threshold can be changed to 600 s instead of 128 ms using the -x option (unrelated to the -g option). Using the -x option to increase the stepping limit from 0.128 s to 600 s has a drawback because a different method of controlling the clock has to be used. It disables the kernel clock discipline and may have a negative impact on the clock accuracy. The -x option can be added to the /etc/sysconfig/ntpd configuration file.