[ntp:questions] ntpdate removal is coming

Dave Hart hart at ntp.org
Sun Jul 17 05:22:55 UTC 2011

After many years of deprecation while still shipping, ntpdate's days
as a separate C program are numbered.  I want to review alternatives
and suggest next steps.

First, though, a quick review of why ntpdate is deprecated and will be
removed.  ntpdate serves two primary purposes today:

1)  A diagnostic tool, particularly to help troubleshoot connectivity
problems such as those introduced by firewalls.  In this role, 4.2.7's
sntp provides equivalent capability, including the ability to send
queries from the reserved NTP UDP port 123.

2)  One-shot clock synchronization, such as before starting
step-phobic daemons.  In this role, there are a plethora of
alternatives, which I will cover below.

ntpdate started decades ago as a stripped-down clone of the full NTP
protocol from ntpd tailored for one-shot operation.  In the
intervening years, the protocol specification and the reference
implementation in ntpd have improved in countless ways, yet ntpdate
hasn't been maintained and so reflects a very old snapshot of the NTP
protocol.  Given the lack of attention and the duplication of code
with ntpd, ntpdate has been deprecated for years.  Its removal has not
happened yet largely because it is still so widely used by init
scripts, and there is no direct replacement as yet.  In my eye, the
biggest obstacle to its removal from the distribution is the creation
of a shell script called ntpdate which emulates its functionality
using one or more alternatives.

Alternatives in the reference implementation distribution are:

A)  ntpd's ntpdate mode, invoked with the -q/--quit command-line
option.  In this mode of operation, ntpd does not detach from the
terminal and daemonize, but runs interactively, and terminates after
the clock is first synchronized.  For example, a simplistic ntpdate
shell script that would cover many init script uses is:

ntpd -gqc /dev/null $@

-c /dev/null causes the default ntp.conf file to be ignored in favor
of the empty /dev/null "file".  $@ passes any server DNS names/IP
addresses on to ntpd, which treats them as if specified in ntp.conf
with iburst.

B)  ntp-wait is a shell script installed alongside ntpd which uses
ntpq repeatedly to wait for the first clock sync by the ntpd in normal
daemon operation.  The init scripts can thus start ntpd, then start
any step-tolerant daemons, then use ntp-wait to block awaiting first
clock sync, and finally start any step-sensitive daemons.

C)  ntpd's --wait-sync command-line option provides nearly identical
capability to ntp-wait, with a slightly different approach.  With
--wait-sync specified, ntpd daemonizes a child process, but the parent
procoess does not immediately return.  Rather, it waits until either
the daemon first synchronizes the clock, or a timeout expires.  The
exit code indicates which termination condition occurred.  The init
scripts can thus start any step-tolerant daemons, then start "ntpd
--wait-sync 60", and finally start any step-sensitive daemons, which
will not be started until the clock is synced or 60 seconds have

D)  sntp provides a RFC-compliant, simple and quick one-shot SNTP
client.  This is a small, straightforward program implementing the
Simple Network Time Protocol.  As Harlan Stenn points out, this is
appropriate for those who care more about setting the time quickly
than setting it well.  Any of the three prior alternatives (providing
full NTP) are better in terms of minimizing the probability of
post-startup clock steps by ntpd.  On the other hand, for situations
where code size or complexity must be minimized, sntp may be more

Some bugs have been fixed in ntpdate in the 4.2.7 timeframe, and its
query rate has been moderated to avoid triggering rate-limiting by
ntpd where enabled using "restrict ... limited".  I'm tempted to wait
to remove ntpdate until after 4.2.8 is released as the next
ntp-stable, so the last -stable version of the old ntpdate code is the
best available.  Meanwhile, if you have time and shell-script-fu,
please feel free to take a shot at authoring a "newntpdate" script to
replace it once the C code is excised.

Dave Hart

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