All mathematical operations expressed or implied herein are in two's-complement, fixed-point arithmetic. Data are specified as integer or fixed-point quantities, with bits numbered in big-endian fashion from zero starting at the left, or high-order, position. Since various implementations may scale externally derived quantities for internal use, neither the precision nor decimal-point placement for fixed-point quantities is specified. Unless specified otherwise, all quantities are unsigned and may occupy the full field width with an implied zero preceding bit zero. Hardware and software packages designed to work with signed quantities will thus yield surprising results when the most significant (sign) bit is set. It is suggested that externally derived, unsigned fixed-point quantities such as timestamps be shifted right one bit for internal use, since the precision represented by the full field width is seldom justified.
Since NTP timestamps are cherished data and, in fact, represent the main product of the protocol, a special timestamp format has been established. NTP timestamps are represented as a 64-bit unsigned fixed-point number, in seconds relative to 0h on 1 January 1900. The integer part is in the first 32 bits and the fraction part in the last 32 bits. This format allows convenient multiple-precision arithmetic and conversion to Time Protocol representation (seconds), but does complicate the conversion to ICMP Timestamp message representation (milliseconds). The precision of this representation is about 200 picoseconds, which should be adequate for even the most exotic requirements.
Timestamps are determined by copying the current value of the local clock to a timestamp when some significant event, such as the arrival of a message, occurs. In order to maintain the highest accuracy, it is important that this be done as close to the hardware or software driver associated with the event as possible. In particular, departure timestamps should be redetermined for each link-level retransmission. In some cases a particular timestamp may not be available, such as when the host is rebooted or the protocol first starts up. In these cases the 64-bit field is set to zero, indicating the value is invalid or undefined.
Note that since some time in 1968 the most significant bit (bit 0 of the integer part) has been set and that the 64-bit field will overflow some time in 2036. Should NTP be in use in 2036, some external means will be necessary to qualify time relative to 1900 and time relative to 2036 (and other multiples of 136 years). Timestamped data requiring such qualification will be so precious that appropriate means should be readily available. There will exist an 200-picosecond interval, henceforth ignored, every 136 years when the 64-bit field will be zero and thus considered invalid.