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Maintaining Consistent Time: Time Servers

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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

A time server allows you to keep your computers' clocks synchronized with each other and with an external time server that is ultimately tied to an ideal time source. Look at the popular Network Time Protocol (NTP) protocol, stratum servers, and other time server options.

Every time you set up a computer, you must set its clock. What's worse, computer clocks are imperfect, so they drift from the true time—and they drift at different rates. The result is that, on a network of any size, a few weeks (or possibly just a few hours) after you've set all the computers' clocks to the same time, they'll show annoying differences. Daylight Savings Time can also cause problems, because you'll have to set the computers' clocks again or allow the computers to adjust their own times—a process that can itself cause problems if a computer has more than one OS installed on it. All told, keeping all your systems' clocks synchronized can be an administrative headache. Fortunately, a class of programs exists to help work around this problem: time servers. These programs deliver accurate time measurements to their clients, so setting up a central time server and configuring clients to use it can keep all your computers set to the same time. You can even have your central time server synchronize itself to an outside time server that sets its time using an atomic clock, thus allowing for very accurate time settings across your entire network.

When to Run a Time Server

One of the primary reasons for running a time server is to deliver accurate time settings to clients on your network. By having clients set their clocks to a time maintained by one of your systems, you can keep your computers' clocks set to reasonably consistent values. (Depending on the protocol in use, "reasonably consistent" can mean variations of just a few milliseconds.) This can avoid problems caused by time mismatches. For instance, with mismatched clocks, a client might save a file to a server, but become confused when reading the file back one minute later because the save date might appear to be two minutes in the future. Mismatched times can also be a real headache when tracking down information in log files. It can also be annoying to see different times on different computers' displays. Some tools, such as Kerberos, rely on clients and servers having consistent times, so running a time server with such tools is a practical necessity.

The time server program that's discussed at greatest length in this chapter is a bit unusual in that it functions as both a server and a client. Therefore, another reason to run this particular time server is to set the clock of the computer on which the server runs. In a network that contains several Linux or UNIX computers, you'll set one machine to obtain its time from an outside server, then configure the rest of the systems in exactly the same way, except that you'll point these systems to the first one to obtain their time locally. This multi-tiered configuration reduces the load on the ultimate sources of time signals, such as computers that are linked to atomic clocks or radios that can receive broadcast time signals from official time sources. If you don't want to run the complete server package on clients, you may be able to make do with a simpler program that functions only as a client, but you'll need to call it explicitly every now and then to keep the system's time set correctly.

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