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NTP Drift File

Many things about NTP are elusive. At the casual user, there are a lot of things to understand: broacast, unicast, multicast, tally codes, servers, peers, stratum, delay, offset, jitter and so much more. Unless you setup your own NTP server, with the intent of providing accurate time keeping for clients, many of those terms can be discarded. However, one term you may want to be familiar with is "drift".

Clock drift is when clocks are either too fast or too slow compared to a reference clock. NTP version 4 has the ability to keep clocks accurate within 233 picoseconds (called "resolution"). Of course, to have this sort of accuracy, you need exceptionally low latency networks with specialized hardware. High volume stock exchanges might keep time accuracy at this level. Generally speaking, for the average NTP server and client on the Internet, comparing time in milliseconds is usually sufficient.

So, where does NTP keep track of the clock drift? For Debian/Ubuntu, you will find this in the /var/lib/ntp/ntp.drift file. In the file, you'll find either a positive or negative number. If it's positive, your clock is fast; if it's negative, your clock is slow. This number however, is not measured in seconds, milliseconds, nanoseconds or picoseconds. Instead, the number is measuring "parts per million", or PPM. It's still related to time, and you can convert this number to seconds, which I'll show you here.

There are 86,400 seconds in one day. If I were to divide that number into one million pieces, then there would be .0864 seconds per piece, or 86.4 milliseconds per piece.

My laptop connects to the standard NTP pool (, etc). I have a number of "3.322" in my drift file. This means that my laptop is fast by 3.322 PPM compared to the time source I am synchronizing my clock with (called the "sys_peer"). If I wanted to convert that to seconds, then:

My laptop is fast by roughly 287 milliseconds compared to my "sys_peer".

I just recently announced an open access NTP server. It was critical for me that this server be as accurate as possible with time keeping. So, all of the stratum 1 time servers that it connected to, had to have a ping latency of less than 10 milliseconds. Thankfully, I was able to find 3 servers with latencies less than 6 milliseconds, one of which is only 500 nanoseconds away. This became the preferred "sys_peer". The contents of its drift file currently is "-0.059". Again, converting this to seconds:

My NTP server is slow by roughly 5 milliseconds compared to the "sys_peer" time source at that specific moment.

Hopefully this clears up the NTP drift file, which I'm sure many of you have noticed. If you connect to NTP servers with very low latencies, then you'll notice that your drift file number approach zero. It's probably best to find 3 or 5 NTP servers that are physically close to you to keep those latencies low. If you travel a lot with your laptop, then connecting to the NTP pool would probably be best, so you don't need to constantly change the servers you're connecting to.

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