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Network Time Protocol

The Network Time Protocol (NTP) is a networking protocol for clock synchronization between computer systems over packet-switched, variable-latency data networks. In operation since before 1985, NTP is one of the oldest Internet protocols in current use. NTP was designed by David L. Mills of the University of Delaware.

NTP is intended to synchronize all participating computers to within a few milliseconds of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). It uses the intersection algorithm, a modified version of Marzullo’s algorithm, to select accurate time servers and is designed to mitigate the effects of variable network latency. NTP can usually maintain time to within tens of milliseconds over the public Internet, and can achieve better than one millisecond accuracy in local area networks under ideal conditions. Asymmetric routes and network congestion can cause errors of 100 ms or more.

The protocol is usually described in terms of a client–server model, but can as easily be used in peer-to-peer relationships where both peers consider the other to be a potential time source. Implementations send and receive timestamps using the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) on port number 123. They can also use broadcasting or multicasting, where clients passively listen to time updates after an initial round-trip calibrating exchange. NTP supplies a warning of any impending leap second adjustment, but no information about local time zones or daylight saving time is transmitted.

The current protocol is version 4 (NTPv4), which is a proposed standard as documented in RFC 5905. It is backward compatible with version 3, specified in RFC 1305

Clock strata

NTP uses a hierarchical, semi-layered system of time sources. Each level of this hierarchy is termed a stratum and is

assigned a number starting with zero for the reference clock at the top. A server synchronized to a stratum n server

runs at stratum n + 1. The number represents the distance from the reference clock and is used to prevent cyclical dependencies in the hierarchy. Stratum is not always an indication of quality or reliability; it is common to find stratum 3 time sources that are higher quality than other stratum 2 time sources. A brief description of strata 0, 1, 2 and 3 is provided below.

Stratum 0
These are high-precision timekeeping devices such as atomic clocks, GPS or other radio clocks. They generate a very accurate pulse per second signal that triggers an interrupt and timestamp on a connected computer. Stratum 0 devices are also known as reference clocks. NTP servers cannot advertise themselves as stratum 0. A stratum field set to 0 in NTP packet indicates an unspecified stratum.
Stratum 1
These are computers whose system time is synchronized to within a few microseconds of their attached stratum 0 devices. Stratum 1 servers may peer with other stratum 1 servers for sanity check and backup. They are also referred to as primary time servers.
Stratum 2
These are computers that are synchronized over a network to stratum 1 servers. Often a stratum 2 computer queries several stratum 1 servers. Stratum 2 computers may also peer with other stratum 2 computers to provide more stable and robust time for all devices in the peer group.
Stratum 3
These are computers that are synchronized to stratum 2 servers. They employ the same algorithms for peering and data sampling as stratum 2, and can themselves act as servers for stratum 4 computers, and so on.

The upper limit for stratum is 15; stratum 16 is used to indicate that a device is unsynchronized. The NTP algorithms on each computer interact to construct a Bellman-Ford shortest-path spanning tree, to minimize the accumulated round-trip delay to the stratum 1 servers for all the clients.

In addition to stratum, the protocol is able to identify the synchronization source for each server in terms of reference identifier.


The 64-bit timestamps used by NTP consist of a 32-bit part for seconds and a 32-bit part for fractional second, giving a time scale that rolls over every 232 seconds (136 years) and a theoretical resolution of 2−32 seconds (233 picoseconds). NTP uses an epoch of January 1, 1900. Therefore, the first rollover occurs on February 7, 2036.

NTPv4 introduces a 128-bit date format: 64 bits for the second and 64 bits for the fractional-second. The most-significant 32-bits of this format is the Era Number which resolves rollover ambiguity in most cases. According to Mills, “The 64-bit value for the fraction is enough to resolve the amount of time it takes a photon to pass an electron at the speed of light. The 64-bit second value is enough to provide unambiguous time representation until the universe goes dim”.

Precision Time Protocol

The Precision Time Protocol (PTP) is a protocol used to synchronize clocks throughout a computer network. On a local area network, it achieves clock accuracy in the sub-microsecond range, making it suitable for measurement and control systems. PTP is currently employed to synchronize financial transactionsmobile phone tower transmissions, sub-sea acoustic arrays, and networks that require precise timing but lack access to satellite navigation signals.

The original version of PTP, IEEE 1588-2002, was published in 2002. IEEE 1588-2008, also known as PTP Version 2 is not backward compatible with the original 2002 version. IEEE 1588-2019 was published in November 2019 and includes backward-compatible improvements to the 2008 publication. IEEE 1588-2008 includes a profile concept defining PTP operating parameters and options. Several profiles have been defined for applications including telecommunicationselectric power distribution and audiovisualIEEE 802.1AS is an adaptation of PTP for use with Audio Video Bridging and Time-Sensitive Networking.