The Thorny Problem of Keeping the Internet’s Time

Working out what time it is on the internet turns out to be remarkably tricky. But it is also incredibly important that there is a reliable, synchronized clock for guiding all actions on the internet. The story of how this has been managed, and the man behind how it works – David Mills – is fascinating.

Today, we take global time synchronization for granted. It is critical to the Internet, and therefore to civilization. Vital systems—power grids, financial markets, telecommunications networks—rely on it to keep records and sort cause from effect. N.T.P. works in partnership with satellite systems, such as the Global Positioning System (G.P.S.), and other technologies to synchronize time on our many online devices.

As he retires, there is a major clash about who takes over this important role.

Should Internet time synchronization run on rigorously tested and battle-worn but whimsical and arguably bloated code that someone may still struggle to fully understand, even after devoting decades to it? Or should it be based on a nimbler, less pedantic standard designed by people who can’t agree on what’s best?