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Category: NTP

MUST READ: The NTP Bible

A few months ago Johannes Weber sent me a short email saying “hey, I plan to write a few NTP posts” and I replied “well, ping me when you have something ready”.

In the meantime he wrote a veritable NTP bible - a series of NTP-related blog posts covering everything from Why Should I Run My Own NTP Servers to authentication, security and monitoring - definitely a MUST READ if you care about knowing what time it is.

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Secure Time Management

The April IP Corner article It’s good to be on time described how you can use Network Time Protocol (NTP) to synchronize the real-time clock of your network devices with external time references. As soon as you start relying on your routers having pretty exact time, NTP becomes part of your mission-critical network infrastructure and has to be protected protected against intruders or impostors.

Default NTP settings on Cisco IOS allow intruders to change the router’s time or even current year as soon as the router is not synchronized directly with a primary (stratum 1) NTP server. In the Secure Time Management article, I'm describing a very simple NTP attack on an unprotected network and the safeguards you can put in place to prevent similar attacks.
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Technology is supposed to be simple, right?

In his comment to the announcement of my NTP article, Joe said:
This is part of the problem with NTP. It's way more complicated then it needs to be. You shouldn't have to understand so much of it to use it on your routers. Take a look at openntpd. It's free and runs on bsd or linux.

I have to disagree with him on several counts:

  • NTP is supposed to solve a pretty hard problem of synchronizing multiple independent time sources over communication paths with unpredictable delay and jitter. Considering the limitations it's faced with, it does an amazingly good job.
  • NTP configuration on IOS is no more complex than the openntpd configuration if the only thing you want is to do is to configure an upstream NTP server. The only commands you need are ntp server and ntp master.

However, the most important point, in my opinion, is the difference between "aiming for a short recipe" and "understanding the technology". If the only task you ever need to perform is to configure upstream NTP servers, don't even bother to read the IOS documentation or my article, you don't need more than a single configuration command … but then, when things really break, you'll be in trouble.

Likewise, the only thing some people want to know about OSPF are the following two commands:

router ospf 1
 network 0.0.0.0 0.0.0.0 255.255.255.255 area 0

There are others, however, that might need a slightly more in-depth understanding of OSPF design, configuration and troubleshooting (that's why we developed an OSPF course and corresponding set of remote lab exercises and Tom Thomas wrote a whole book about it).

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Cisco IOS NTP Essentials

A while ago I've been involved in an interesting discussion focusing on NTP authentication and whether you can actually implement it reliably on Cisco IOS. What I got out of it (apart from a working example :) was the feeling that NTP and it's implementation in Cisco IOS was under-understood and under-documented, so I planned to write an article about it.

However, as I did my research, I figured out there's so much I didn't know about NTP (do you know what's the essential difference between a peer and a server?)that I decided to start with an introductory article explaining the basics of NTP, SNTP and their IOS implementation. It's been published under the name “It’s Good to be on Time” in the IP corner section of our company's web site.

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SNTP will not work if you've configured NTP

If you're running NTP and SNTP on the same router, SNTP will never synchronize with a configured SNTP server, as the NTP process captures the reply packet before SNTP has the chance to react.

SNTP multicast/broadcast client mode works in combination with NTP

NTP process could be running even if your running configuration has no NTP-related commands. It starts automatically whenever you enter NTP-related configuration (ntp logging configuration command is enough) and is not stopped when the last NTP-related configuration command is removed. You have to reload the router to kill it.

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Inspect router-generated traffic

A while ago a reader has asked me whether you could modify an IP access-list when the interface IP address changes. While that's definitely doable with Tcl and Embedded Event Manager, it's not a trivial task, so I've tried to understand why he would need such a functionality.

The answer was quite interesting: he's running NTP on his firewall router and thus needs to accept incoming NTP responses from an external NTP server. While that could be easily achieved with the following configuration (only the relevant bits-and-pieces are shown), he didn't want to make the access-list too generic (allowing NTP from the external server to any IP address).
ip inspect name DEFAULT100 tcp
ip inspect name DEFAULT100 udp
!
interface Dialer0
description $FW_OUTSIDE$
ip access-group 102 in
ip inspect DEFAULT100 out
!
access-list 102 remark #### Dialer0 incoming ####
access-list 102 remark #### non-relevant lines deleted
access-list 102 permit udp host 1.2.3.4 eq ntp any eq ntp
This problem nicely illustrates a broader issues: the router does not inspect it's own traffic and thus does not prepare conduits for the return packets; you have to specify all the return traffic you're expecting in the incoming access list. This drawback has been fixed in IOS release 12.3(14)T with the introduction of the Inspection of Router-Generated Traffic feature. In our scenario you only need to change the inspect rules:
ip inspect name DEFAULT100 tcp router-traffic
ip inspect name DEFAULT100 udp router-traffic
... and the router synchronizes to an external NTP server:
sp#show ip inspect sessions
Established Sessions
Session 474032B4 (192.168.1.3:123)=>(10.0.0.1:123) udp SIS_OPEN
sp#
01:04:34: %NTP-5-PEERSYNC: NTP synced to peer 10.0.0.1
01:04:34: %NTP-6-PEERREACH: Peer 10.0.0.1 is reachable
Note: This article is part of You've asked for it series.
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