NTP Rules of the Road

There’s nothing more infuriating than watching organizations screw up foundational protocols and NTP seems to be one of the most commonly misconfigured. For some reason, people seem to think the goal is to have “perfect” time, when what is really needed is consistent organizational time. You need everything within a network to be synchronized for troubleshooting and incident management purposes. Otherwise, you’re going to waste a lot of energy identifying root causes and attacks.

It’s recommended to use a public stratum one server to synchronize with a few external systems or devices at your network perimeter, but this should only be configured if you don’t have your own stratum zero GPS with a stratum one server attached. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a network team go to the trouble to set this up and the systems people still point everything to ntp.org.

Everything inside a network should cascade from those perimeter devices, which is usually a router, Active Directory system or stratum one server.  This design reduces the possibility of internal time drift, the load on public NTP servers and your firewalls, and the organizational risk of opening up unnecessary ports to allow outgoing traffic to the Internet. Over the last few years, some serious vulnerabilities have been identified in the protocol and it can also be used as a data exfiltration port by attackers.

In addition to the IETF’s draft on NTP “best practices,” the SEI also has an excellent guidance document.

While it’s not realistic to have your own stratum zero device in the cloud, within AWS, it is recommended to use the designated NTP pool specified in their documentation.

Oh, and for the love of all that is holy, please use UTC. I cannot understand why I’m still having this argument with people.

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