[ntp:questions] Re: NTP, Unix and the 34-year itch (better read this)

David L. Mills mills at udel.edu
Thu Jan 22 20:47:30 UTC 2004


I have retooled ntpd in the development version here as per my
suggestions below and tested it in both Solaris and FreeBSD. The daemon
sets the clock correctly  if within +-68 years of UTC. I tested it by
setting the Unix clock to 1970 and then to 2036 and verified it works in
both broadcast and unicast modes and with and without public key

I do not do the distribution chores; others more knowledgeable carve the
archives and repositories, so it may be a little while before this stuff
hits the public places.


"David L. Mills" wrote:
> Folks,
> Some of you have seen the NTP Timestamp Calculations page at the NTP
> project site. That page contains serious errors, as the algorithms and
> system clock interface has changed over the years. A corrected
> plain-text version is below; the web page will be updated within three
> days. Most Unix folks will not be affected, but makers of embedded
> systems should take note.
> Dave
> ...
> The NTP timestamp format represents seconds and fraction as a 64-bit
> unsigned fixed-point integer with decimal point to the left of bit 32
> numbered from the left. The 32-bit seconds field spans about 136 years,
> while the 32-bit fraction field precision is about 0.232 nanoseconds.
> The various arithmetic operations on timestamps are carefully
> constructed to avoid overflow while preserving precision. This page
> considers important issues in these operations.
> First, the only operations permitted on raw timestamps is subtraction.
> This produces signed 64-bit timestamp differences from 68 years in the
> past to 68 years in the future. As in the protocol specification, let T1
> be the client timestamp on the request message, T2 the server timestamp
> upon arrival, T3 the server timestamp upon departure of the reply
> message and T4 the client timestamp upon arrival. NTP calculates the
> clock offset
>         [(T2 - T1) + (T3 - T4)] / 2
> and roundtrip delay
>         (T4 - T1) - (T3 - T2).
> These calculations involve addition and subtraction of timestamp
> differences. To avoid overflow in these calculations, timestamp
> differences must not exceed from 34 years in the past to 34 years in the
> future. This is a fundamental limit in these calculations.
> It might be possible to avoid overflow by prepending right shifts to
> timestamp differences before calculating offset and delay, since this
> would extend the allowable differences by a factor of two. However, this
> would degrade the resulting precision by a corresponding degree. This
> might not be a good idea, as computers are reaching speeds that may soon
> challenge the precision of the NTP timestamp itself.
> The fundamental formal correctness principles on which NTP is based
> requre all system clock operations to be additive; that is, the clock is
> never set, only advanced and retarded from the given time. This leads to
> the requirement that the system clock must always be set within 34 years
> of valid UTC time. This is now and always has been a fundamental
> property of the protocol design.
> Almost all computers of today have some means, such as a time-of-year
> (TOY) chip, to set the system clock at power up or reboot surely within
> within 34 years, but some embedded systems do not. For embedded systems
> without a TOY chip and running an embedded Unix kernel, the initial time
> is usually the Unix base epoch 1 January 1970. Readers will quickly
> realize the time since then now in 2004 exceeds the 34-year limit. These
> systems have a problem unless something is done.
> The obvious thing to do is initialize the system clock to some epoch
> closer to the present. For embedded Unix systems, this is simple and can
> be done in the startup script. It is conceivable that a NTP command
> could be added to do the same thing, but this seems duplicative and
> further complicates an already complicated program.
> There is another thing we can do to "fix" the problem or at least to
> increase the window from 34 years to 68 years. The first differences in
> the offset and delay calculations have to be done on the raw timestamps
> for the reasons above. However, the resulting differences are generally
> very much smaller than the timestamps themselves and could well be done
> in floating doubles like almost all the other operations on time values.
> While this change may be benefit present and future versions, it will
> not of course benefit previous versions that may be etched in hardware
> or firmware.

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