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NTP Debugging Techniques


Once the NTP software distribution has been compiled and installed and the configuration file constructed, the next step is to verify correct operation and fix any bugs that may result. Usually, the command line that starts the daemon is included in the system startup file, so it is executed only at system boot time; however, the daemon can be stopped and restarted from root at any time. Usually, no command-line arguments are required, unless special actions described in the xntpd.8 man page are required. Once started, the daemon will begin sending messages, as specified in the configuration file, and interpreting received messages.

The best way to verify correct operation is using the ntpq and xntpdc utility programs, either on the server itself or from another machine elsewhere in the network. The ntpq program implements the management functions specified in Appendix A of the NTP specification RFC-1305, Appendix A . The xntpdc program implements additional functions not provided in the standard. Both programs can be used to inspect the state variables defined in the specification and, in the case of xntpdc, additional ones of interest. In addition, the xntpdc program can be used to selectively enable and disable some functions of the daemon while the daemon is running.

In extreme cases with elusive bugs, the daemon can operate in two modes, depending on the presence of the -d command-line debug switch. If not present, the daemon detaches from the controlling terminal and proceeds autonomously. If one or more -d switches are present, the daemon does not detach and generates special output useful for debugging. In general, interpretation of this output requires reference to the sources.

Some problems are immediately apparent when the daemon first starts running. The most common of these are the lack of a ntp (UDP port 123) in the host /etc/services file. Note that NTP does not use TCP in any form. Other problems are apparent in the system log file. The log file should show the startup banner, some cryptic initialization data, and the computed precision value. The next most common problem is incorrect DNS names. Check that each DNS name used in the configuration file responds to the Unix ping command.

When first started, the daemon normally polls the servers listed in the configuration file at 64-second intervals. In order to allow a sufficient number of samples for the NTP algorithms to reliably discriminate between correctly operating servers and possible intruders, at least four valid messages from at least one server is required before the daemon can not set the local clock. However, if the current local time is greater than 1000 seconds in error from the server time, the daemon will not set the local clock; instead, it will plant a message in the system log and shut down. It is necessary to set the local clock to within 1000 seconds first, either by a time-of-year hardware clock, by first using the ntpdate program or manually be eyeball and wristwatch.

After starting the daemon, run the ntpq program using the -n switch, which will avoid possible distractions due to name resolution problems. Use the pe command to display a billboard showing the status of configured peers and possibly other clients poking the daemon. After operating for a few minutes, the display should be something like:

ntpq>pe
  remote           refid      st when poll reach   delay  offset    disp
========================================================================
+128.4.2.6    132.249.16.1     2  131  256  373     9.89   16.28   23.25
*128.4.1.20   .WWVB.           1  137  256  377   280.62   21.74   20.23
-128.8.2.88   128.8.10.1       2   49  128  376   294.14    5.94   17.47
+128.4.2.17   .WWVB.           1  173  256  377   279.95   20.56   16.40

The host addresses shown in the remote column should agree with the DNS entries in the configuration file, plus any peers not mentioned in the file at the same or lower than your stratum that happen to be configured to peer with you. Be prepared for surprises in cases where the peer has multiple addresses or multiple names. The refid entry shows the current source of synchronization for each peer, while the st reveals its stratum and the poll entry the polling interval, in seconds. The when entry shows the time since the peer was last heard, normally in seconds, while the reach entry shows the status of the reachability register (see RFC-1305), which is in octal format. The remaining entries show the latest delay, offset and dispersion computed for the peer, in milliseconds.

The tattletale character at the left margin displays the synchronization status of each peer. The currently selected peer is marked *, while additional peers designated acceptable for synchronization, but not currently selected, are marked +. Peers marked * and + are included in a weighted average computation to set the local clock; the data produced by peers marked with other symbols are discarded. See the ntpq documentation for the meaning of these symbols.

Additional details for each peer separately can be determined by the following procedure. First, use the as command to display an index of association identifiers, such as

ntpq>as
ind assID status  conf reach auth condition  last_event cnt
===========================================================
  1 11670  7414    no   yes   ok    synchr.   reachable  1
  2 11673  7614    no   yes   ok   sys.peer   reachable  1
  3 11833  7314    no   yes   ok    outlyer   reachable  1
  4 11868  7414    no   yes   ok    synchr.   reachable  1

Each line in this billboard is associated with the corresponding line the pe billboard above. Next, use the rv command and the respective identifier to display a detailed synopsis of the selected peer, such as

ntpq>rv 11670
status=7414 reach, auth, sel_sync, 1 event, event_reach
srcadr=128.4.2.6, srcport=123, dstadr=128.4.2.7, dstport=123, keyid=1,
stratum=2, precision=-10, rootdelay=362.00, rootdispersion=21.99,
refid=132.249.16.1,
reftime=af00bb44.849b0000  Fri, Jan 15 1993  4:25:40.517,
delay=    9.89, offset=   16.28, dispersion=23.25, reach=373, valid=8,
hmode=2, pmode=1, hpoll=8, ppoll=10, leap=00, flash=0x0,
org=af00bb48.31a90000  Fri, Jan 15 1993  4:25:44.193,
rec=af00bb48.305e3000  Fri, Jan 15 1993  4:25:44.188,
xmt=af00bb1e.16689000  Fri, Jan 15 1993  4:25:02.087,
filtdelay=  16.40   9.89 140.08   9.63   9.72   9.22  10.79 122.99,
filtoffset= 13.24  16.28 -49.19  16.04  16.83  16.49  16.95 -39.43,
filterror=  16.27  20.17  27.98  31.89  35.80  39.70  43.61  47.52

A detailed explanation of the fields in this billboard are beyond the scope of this discussion; however, most variables defined in the specification RFC-1305 can be found. The most useful portion for debugging is the last three lines, which give the roundtrip delay, clock offset and dispersion for each of the last eight measurement rounds, all in milliseconds. Note that the dispersion, which is an estimate of the error, increases as the age of the sample increases. From these data, it is usually possible to determine the incidence of severe packet loss, network congestion, and unstable local clock oscillators. There are no hard and fast rules here, since every case is unique; however, if one or more of the rounds show zeros, or if the clock offset changes dramatically in the same direction for each round, cause for alarm exists.

Finally, the state of the local clock can be determined using the rv command (without the argument), such as

ntpq>rv
status=0664 leap_none, sync_ntp, 6 events, event_peer/strat_chg
system="UNIX", leap=00, stratum=2, rootdelay=280.62,
rootdispersion=45.26, peer=11673, refid=128.4.1.20,
reftime=af00bb42.56111000  Fri, Jan 15 1993  4:25:38.336, poll=8,
clock=af00bbcd.8a5de000  Fri, Jan 15 1993  4:27:57.540, phase=21.147,
freq=13319.46, compliance=2

The most useful data in this billboard show when the clock was last adjusted reftime, together with its status and most recent exception event. An explanation of these data is in the specification RFC-1305.

When nothing seems to happen in the pe billboard after some minutes, there may be a network problem. The most common network problem is an access controlled router on the path to the selected peer. No known public NTP time server selectively restricts access at this time, although this may change in future; however, many private networks do. It also may be the case that the server is down or running in unsynchronized mode due to a local problem. Use the ntpq program to spy on its own variables in the same way you can spy on your own.

Once the daemon has set the local clock, it will continuously track the discrepancy between local time and NTP time and adjust the local clock accordingly. There are two components of this adjustment, time and frequency. These adjustments are automatically determined by the clock discipline algorithm, which functions as a hybrid phase/frequency feedback loop. The behavior of this algorithm is carefully controlled to minimize residual errors due to network jitter and frequency variations of the local clock hardware oscillator that normally occur in practice. However, when started for the first time, the algorithm may take some time to converge on the intrinsic frequency error of the host machine.

It has sometimes been the experience that the local clock oscillator frequency error is too large for the NTP discipline algorithm, which can correct frequency errors as large as 30 seconds per day. There are two possibilities that may result in this problem. First, the hardware time- of-year clock chip must be disabled when using NTP, since this can destabilize the discipline process. This is usually done using the tickadj program and the -s command line argument, but other means may be necessary. For instance, in the Sun Solaris kernel, this must be done using a command in the system startup file.

Normally, the daemon will adjust the local clock in small steps in such a way that system and user programs are unaware of its operation. The adjustment process operates continuously as long as the apparent clock error exceeds 128 milliseconds, which for most Internet paths is a quite rare event. If the event is simply an outlyer due to an occasional network delay spike, the correction is simply discarded; however, if the apparent time error persists for an interval of about 20 minutes, the local clock is stepped to the new value (as an option, the daemon can be compiled to slew at an accelerated rate to the new value, rather than be stepped). This behavior is designed to resist errors due to severely congested network paths, as well as errors due to confused radio clocks upon the epoch of a leap second.

Debugging Checklist

If the ntpq or xntpdc programs do not show that messages are being received by the daemon or that received messages do not result in correct synchronization, verify the following:

  1. Verify the /etc/services file host machine is configured to accept UDP packets on the NTP port 123. NTP is specifically designed to use UDP and does not respond to TCP.

  2. Check the system log for xntpd messages about configuration errors, name-lookup failures or initialization problems.

  3. Using the xntpdc program and iostats command, verify that the received packets and packets sent counters are incrementing. If the packets send counter does not increment and the configuration file includes designated servers, something may be wrong in the network configuration of the xntpd host. If this counter does increment and packets are actually being sent to the network, but the received packets counter does not increment, something may be wrong in the network or the server may not be responding.

  4. If both the packets sent counter and received packets counter do increment, but the rec timestamp in the pe billboard shows a date in 1972, received packets are probably being discarded for some reason. There is a handy, undocumented state variable flash visible in the pebillboard. The value is in hex and normally has the value zero (OK). However, if something is wrong, the bits of this variable, reading from the right, correspond to the sanity checks listed in Section 3.4.3 of the NTP specification RFC-1305. A bit other than zero indicates the associated sanity check failed.

  5. If the org, rec and xmt timestamps in the pe billboard appear current, but the local clock is not set, as indicated by a stratum number less than 16 in the rv command without arguments, verify that valid clock offset, roundtrip delay and dispersion are displayed for at least one peer. The clock offset should be less than 1000 seconds, the roundtrip delay less than one second and the dispersion less than one second.

  6. While the algorithm can tolerate a relatively large frequency error (over 350 parts per million or 30 seconds per day), various configuration errors (and in some cases kernel bugs) can exceed this tolerance, leading to erratic behavior. This can result in frequent loss of synchronization, together with wildly swinging offsets. Use the xntpdc program (or temporary configuration file) and disable pll command to prevent the xntpd daemon from setting the clock. Using the ntpq or xntpdc programs, watch the apparent offset as it varies over time to determine the intrinsic frequency error. If the error increases by more than 22 milliseconds per 64-second poll interval, the intrinsic frequency must be reduced by some means. The easiest way to do this is with the tickadj program and the -t command line argument.

David L. Mills (mills@udel.edu)