Several months ago we announced that we were providing a new public time service. Part of what we were providing was the first major deployment of the new Network Time Security (NTS) protocol, with a newly written implementation of NTS in Rust. In the process, we received helpful advice from the NTP community, especially from the NTPSec and Chrony projects. We’ve also participated in several interoperability events. Now we are returning something to the community: Our implementation, cfnts, is now open source and we welcome your pull requests and issues.

The journey from a blank source file to a working, deployed service was a lengthy one, and it involved many people across multiple teams.


"Correct time is a necessity for most security protocols in use on the Internet. Despite this, secure time transfer over the Internet has previously required complicated configuration on a case by case basis. With the introduction of NTS, secure time synchronization will finally be available for everyone. It is a small, but important, step towards increasing security in all systems that depend on accurate time. I am happy that Cloudflare are sharing their NTS implementation. A diversity of software with NTS support is important for quick adoption of the new protocol."

Marcus Dansarie, coauthor of the NTS specification


How NTS works

NTS is structured as a suite of two sub-protocols as shown in the figure below. The first is the Network Time Security Key Exchange (NTS-KE), which is always conducted over Transport Layer Security (TLS) and handles the creation of key material and parameter negotiation for the second protocol. The second is NTPv4, the current version of the NTP protocol, which allows the client to synchronize their time from the remote server.

In order to maintain the scalability of NTPv4, it was important that the server not maintain per-client state. A very small server can serve millions of NTP clients. Maintaining this property while providing security is achieved with cookies that the server provides to the client that contain the server state.

In the first stage, the client sends a request to the NTS-KE server and gets a response via TLS. This exchange carries out a number of functions:

  • Negotiates the AEAD algorithm to be used in the second stage.
  • Negotiates the second protocol. Currently, the standard only defines how NTS works with NTPv4.
  • Negotiates the NTP server IP address and port.
  • Creates cookies for use in the second stage.
  • Creates two symmetric keys (C2S and S2C) from the TLS session via exporters.

In the second stage, the client securely synchronizes the clock with the negotiated NTP server. To synchronize securely, the client sends NTPv4 packets with four special extensions:

  • Unique Identifier Extension contains a random nonce used to prevent replay attacks.
  • NTS Cookie Extension contains one of the cookies that the client stores. Since currently only the client remembers the two AEAD keys (C2S and S2C), the server needs to use the cookie from this extension to extract the keys. Each cookie contains the keys encrypted under a secret key the server has.
  • NTS Cookie Placeholder Extension is a signal from the client to request additional cookies from the server. This extension is needed to make sure that the response is not much longer than the request to prevent amplification attacks.
  • NTS Authenticator and Encrypted Extension Fields Extension contains a ciphertext from the AEAD algorithm with C2S as a key and with the NTP header, timestamps, and all the previously mentioned extensions as associated data. Other possible extensions can be included as encrypted data within this field. Without this extension, the timestamp can be spoofed.

After getting a request, the server sends a response back to the client echoing the Unique Identifier Extension to prevent replay attacks, the NTS Cookie Extension to provide the client with more cookies, and the NTS Authenticator and Encrypted Extension Fields Extension with an AEAD ciphertext with S2C as a key. But in the server response, instead of sending the NTS Cookie Extension in plaintext, it needs to be encrypted with the AEAD to provide unlinkability of the NTP requests.

The second handshake can be repeated many times without going back to the first stage since each request and response gives the client a new cookie. The expensive public key operations in TLS are thus amortized over a large number of requests. Furthermore, specialized timekeeping devices like FPGA implementations only need to implement a few symmetric cryptographic functions and can delegate the complex TLS stack to a different device.

Why Rust?

While many of our services are written in Go, and we have considerable experience on the Crypto team with Go, a garbage collection pause in the middle of responding to an NTP packet would negatively impact accuracy. We picked Rust because of its zero-overhead and useful features.

  • Memory safety After Heartbleed, Cloudbleed, and the steady drip of vulnerabilities caused by C’s lack of memory safety, it’s clear that C is not a good choice for new software dealing with untrusted inputs. The obvious solution for memory safety is to use garbage collection, but garbage collection has a substantial runtime overhead, while Rust has less runtime overhead.
  • Non-nullability Null pointers are an edge case that is frequently not handled properly. Rust explicitly marks optionality, so all references in Rust can be safely dereferenced. The type system ensures that option types are properly handled.
  • Thread safety  Data-race prevention is another key feature of Rust. Rust’s ownership model ensures that all cross-thread accesses are synchronized by default. While not a panacea, this eliminates a major class of bugs.
  • Immutability Separating types into mutable and immutable is very important for reducing bugs. For example, in Java, when you pass an object into a function as a parameter, after the function is finished, you will never know whether the object has been mutated or not. Rust allows you to pass the object reference into the function and still be assured that the object is not mutated.
  • Error handling  Rust result types help with ensuring that operations that can produce errors are identified and a choice made about the error, even if that choice is passing it on.

While Rust provides safety with zero overhead, coding in Rust involves understanding linear types and for us a new language. In this case the importance of security and performance meant we chose Rust over a potentially easier task in Go.

Dependencies we use

Because of our scale and for DDoS protection we needed a highly scalable server. For UDP protocols without the concept of a connection, the server can respond to one packet at a time easily, but for TCP this is more complex. Originally we thought about using Tokio. However, at the time Tokio suffered from scheduler problems that had caused other teams some issues. As a result we decided to use Mio directly, basing our work on the examples in Rustls.

We decided to use Rustls over OpenSSL or BoringSSL because of the crate's consistent error codes and default support for authentication that is difficult to disable accidentally. While there are some features that are not yet supported, it got the job done for our service.

Other engineering choices

More important than our choice of programming language was our implementation strategy. A working, fully featured NTP implementation is a complicated program involving a phase-locked loop. These have a difficult reputation due to their nonlinear nature, beyond the usual complexities of closed loop control. The response of a phase lock loop to a disturbance can be estimated if the loop is locked and the disturbance small. However, lock acquisition, large disturbances, and the necessary filtering in NTP are all hard to analyze mathematically since they are not captured in the linear models applied for small scale analysis. While NTP works with the total phase, unlike the phase-locked loops of electrical engineering, there are still nonlinear elements. For NTP testing, changes to this loop requires weeks of operation to determine the performance as the loop responds very slowly.

Computer clocks are generally accurate over short periods, while networks are plagued with inconsistent delays. This demands a slow response. Changes we make to our service have taken hours to have an effect, as the clients slowly adapt to the new conditions. While RFC 5905 provides lots of details on an algorithm to adjust the clock, later implementations such as chrony have improved upon the algorithm through much more sophisticated nonlinear filters.

Rather than implement these more sophisticated algorithms, we let chrony adjust the clock of our servers, and copy the state variables in the header from chrony and adjust the dispersion and root delay according to the formulas given in the RFC. This strategy let us focus on the new protocols.

Prague

Part of what the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) does is organize events like hackathons where implementers of a new standard can get together and try to make their stuff work with one another. This exposes bugs and infelicities of language in the standard and the implementations. We attended the IETF 104 hackathon to develop our server and make it work with other implementations. The NTP working group members were extremely generous with their time, and during the process we uncovered a few issues relating to the exact way one has to handle ALPN with older OpenSSL versions.

At the IETF 104 in Prague we had a working client and server for NTS-KE by the end of the hackathon. This was a good amount of progress considering we started with nothing. However, without implementing NTP we didn’t actually know that our server and client were computing the right thing. That would have to wait for later rounds of testing.

Wireshark during some NTS debugging

Crypto Week

As Crypto Week 2019 approached we were busily writing code. All of the NTP protocol had to be implemented, together with the connection between the NTP and NTS-KE parts of the server. We also had to deploy processes to synchronize the ticket encrypting keys around the world and work on reconfiguring our own timing infrastructure to support this new service.

With a few weeks to go we had a working implementation, but we needed servers and clients out there to test with. But because we only support TLS 1.3 on the server, which had only just entered into OpenSSL, there were some compatibility problems.

We ended up compiling a chrony branch with NTS support and NTPsec ourselves and testing against time.cloudflare.com. We also tested our client against test servers set up by the chrony and NTPsec projects, in the hopes that this would expose bugs and have our implementations work nicely together. After a few lengthy days of debugging, we found out that our nonce length wasn’t exactly in accordance with the spec, which was quickly fixed. The NTPsec project was extremely helpful in this effort. Of course, this was the day that our office had a blackout, so the testing happened outside in Yerba Buena Gardens.

Yerba Buena commons. Taken by Wikipedia user Beyond My Ken. CC-BY-SA

During the deployment of time.cloudflare.com, we had to open up our firewall to incoming NTP packets. Since the start of Cloudflare’s network existence and because of NTP reflection attacks we had previously closed UDP port 123 on the router. Since source port 123 is also used by clients sometimes to send NTP packets, it’s impossible for NTP servers to filter reflection attacks without parsing the contents of NTP packet, which routers have difficulty doing.  In order to protect Cloudflare infrastructure we got an entire subnet just for the time service, so it could be aggressively throttled and rerouted in case of massive DDoS attacks. This is an exceptional case: most edge services at Cloudflare run on every available IP.

Bug fixes

Shortly after the public launch, we discovered that older Windows versions shipped with NTP version 3, and our server only spoke version 4. This was easy to fix since the timestamps have not moved in NTP versions: we echo the version back and most still existing NTP version 3 clients will understand what we meant.

Also tricky was the failure of Network Time Foundation ntpd clients to expand the polling interval. It turns out that one has to echo back the client’s polling interval to have the polling interval expand. Chrony does not use the polling interval from the server, and so was not affected by this incompatibility.

Both of these issues were fixed in ways suggested by other NTP implementers who had run into these problems themselves. We thank Miroslav Lichter tremendously for telling us exactly what the problem was, and the members of the Cloudflare community who posted packet captures demonstrating these issues.

Continued improvement

The original production version of cfnts was not particularly object oriented and several contributors were just learning Rust. As a result there was quite a bit of unwrap and unnecessary mutability flying around. Much of the code was in functions even when it could profitably be attached to structures. All of this had to be restructured. Keep in mind that some of the best code running in the real-world have been written, rewritten, and sometimes rewritten again! This is actually a good thing.

As an internal project we relied on Cloudflare’s internal tooling for building, testing, and deploying code. These were replaced with tools available to everyone like Docker to ensure anyone can contribute. Our repository is integrated with Circle CI, ensuring that all contributions are automatically tested. In addition to unit tests we test the entire end to end functionality of getting a measurement of the time from a server.

The Future

NTPsec has already released support for NTS but we see very little usage. Please try turning on NTS if you use NTPsec and see how it works with time.cloudflare.com.  As the draft advances through the standards process the protocol will undergo an incompatible change when the identifiers are updated and assigned out of the IANA registry instead of being experimental ones, so this is very much an experiment. Note that your daemon will need TLS 1.3 support and so could require manually compiling OpenSSL and then linking against it.

We’ve also added our time service to the public NTP pool. The NTP pool is a widely used volunteer-maintained service that provides NTP servers geographically spread across the world. Unfortunately, NTS doesn’t currently work well with the pool model, so for the best security, we recommend enabling NTS and using time.cloudflare.com and other NTS supporting servers.

In the future, we’re hoping that more clients support NTS, and have licensed our code liberally to enable this. We would love to hear if you incorporate it into a product and welcome contributions to make it more useful.

We’re also encouraged to see that Netnod has a production NTS service at nts.ntp.se. The more time services and clients that adopt NTS, the more secure the Internet will be.

Acknowledgements

Tanya Verma and Gabbi Fisher were major contributors to the code, especially the configuration system and the client code. We’d also like to thank Gary Miller, Miroslav Lichter, and all the people at Cloudflare who set up their laptops and home machines to point to time.cloudflare.com for early feedback.