Table of Contents


This page describes the automatic server discovery schemes provided in NTPv4. There are three automatic server discovery schemes: broadcast, manycast, and server pool; which are described on this page. The broadcast scheme utilizes the ubiquitous broadcast or one-to-many paradigm native to IPv4 and IPv6. The manycast scheme is similar to specifying to broadcast, but the servers listen on a specific address known to the client. The server pool scheme uses DNS to resolve addresses of multiple volunteer servers scattered throughout the world.

All three schemes work in much the same way and might be described as grab-n'-prune. Through one means or another they grab a number of associations either directly or indirectly from the configuration file, order them from best to worst according to the NTP mitigation algorithms, and prune the surplus associations.

Association Management

All schemes use an iterated process to discover new preemptable client associations as long as the total number of client associations is less than the maxclock option of the tos command. The maxclock default is 10, but it should be changed in typical configuration to some lower number, usually two greater than the minclock option of the same command.

All schemes use a stratum filter to select just those servers with stratum considered useful. This can avoid large numbers of clients ganging up on a small number of low-stratum servers and avoid servers below or above specified stratum levels. By default, servers of all strata are acceptable; however, the tos command can be used to restrict the acceptable range from the floor option, inclusive, to the ceiling option, exclusive. Potential servers operating at the same stratum as the client will be avoided. Additional filters can be supplied using the methods described on the Authentication Support page.

The pruning process uses a set of unreach counters, one for each association created by the configuration or discovery processes. At each poll interval, the counter is increased by one. If an acceptable packet arrives for a persistent (configured) or ephemeral (broadcast) association, the counter is set to zero. If an acceptable packet arrives for a preemptable (manycast, pool) association and survives the selection and clustering algorithms, the counter is set to zero. If the the counter reaches an arbitrary threshold of 10, the association becomes a candidate for pruning.

The pruning algorithm is very simple. If an ephemeral or preemptable association becomes a candidate for pruning, it is immediately demobilized. If a persistent association becomes a candidate for pruning, it is not demobilized, but its poll interval is set at the maximum. The pruning algorithm design avoids needless discovery/prune cycles for associations that wander in and out of the survivor list, but otherwise have similar characteristics.

Following is a summary of each scheme. Note that reference to option applies to the commands described on the Configuration Options page. See that page for applicability and defaults.

Broadcast/Multicast Scheme

The broadcast/multicast scheme is deprecated in NTPsec due to irreparable security flaws. Client-side support has been removed. Server-side support for broadcast only remains present but may be removed in a future version, and its use is strongly discouraged.

A broadcast server generates messages continuously at intervals by default 64 s and time-to-live by default 127. These defaults can be overridden by the minpoll and ttl options, respectively. Not all kernels support the ttl option. A broadcast client responds to the first message received by waiting a randomized interval to avoid implosion at the server. It then polls the server in client/server mode using the iburst option in order to quickly authenticate the server, calibrate the propagation delay and set the client clock. This normally results in a volley of six client/server exchanges at 2-s intervals during which both the synchronization and cryptographic protocols run concurrently.

If for some reason the broadcast server does not respond to these messages, the client will cease transmission and continue in listen-only mode with a default propagation delay. The volley can be avoided by using the broadcastdelay command with nonzero argument.

Following the volley, the server continues in listen-only mode and sends no further messages for this association.

A server is configured in broadcast mode using the broadcast command and specifying the broadcast address of a local interface. If two or more local interfaces are installed with different broadcast addresses, a broadcast command is needed for each address. This provides a way to limit exposure in a firewall, for example.

NTPsec permits the use of symmetric authentication with broadcast mode the same way as any other mode; however, it is not effective at providing security because the sessionless, one-way nature of the protocol makes detection of replayed or delayed packets impossible. Regardless of whether authentication is employed, broadcast mode must be used only on physically-secure networks where all systems on the subnet are fully trusted.

Manycast Scheme

Note: This mode of operation is deprecated, because manycast associations cannot be effectively secured. Accordingly, manycast client support has been removed from NTPsec; manycast server mode is retained for backwards compatibility but may be removed in a future release.

Manycast is an automatic server discovery and configuration paradigm. It is intended as a means for a client to troll the nearby network neighborhood (not necessarily on the same link, where broadcast would work), to find cooperating servers, validate them using cryptographic means and evaluate their time values with respect to other servers that might be lurking in the vicinity. It uses the grab-n'-drop paradigm with the additional feature that active means are used to grab additional servers should the number of associations fall below the maxclock option of the tos command. The intended result is that each manycast client mobilizes client associations with some number of the "best" of the nearby manycast servers, yet automatically reconfigures to sustain this number of servers should one or another fail.

The manycast paradigm is not the anycast paradigm described in RFC 1546, which is designed to find a single server from a clique of servers providing the same service. The manycast paradigm is designed to find a plurality of redundant servers satisfying defined optimality criteria.

Manycasting can be used with symmetric-key cryptography.

A manycast server is configured using the manycastserver command, which listens on the specified address for manycast client messages. If a manycast server is in scope of the current TTL and is itself synchronized to a valid source and operating at a stratum level equal to or lower than the manycast client, it replies with an ordinary unicast server message.

Server Pool Scheme

The idea of targeting servers on a random basis to distribute and balance the load is not a new one; however, the NTP Pool Project puts this on steroids. At present, several thousand operators around the globe have volunteered their servers for public access. In general, NTP is a lightweight service and servers used for other purposes don’t mind an additional small load. The trick is to randomize over the population and minimize the load on any one server while retaining the advantages of multiple servers using the NTP mitigation algorithms.

To support this service, custom DNS software is used by and its subdomains to discover a random selection of participating (in-country) servers in response to a DNS query. The client receiving this list mobilizes some or all of them, similar to the manycast discovery scheme, and prunes the excess. Cryptographic authentication is not required.

The pool scheme is configured using one or more pool commands with DNS names indicating the pool from which to draw. The pool command can be used more than once; duplicate servers are detected and discarded. In principle, it is possible to use a configuration file containing a single line pool The NTP Pool Project offers instructions on using the pool with the server command, which is suboptimal but works with older versions of ntpd predating the pool command. Use of the server command does a one-time DNS lookup, and uses the IP address returned thereafter. If the server becomes unavailable, the DNS will not be re-resolved. The pool command will use multiple servers that the DNS resolves to, refreshing as required.

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