Linux Foundation Funds NTP's 'Father Time' - InformationWeek

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Linux Foundation Funds NTP's 'Father Time'

The Network Time Protocol will keep Harlan Stenn, its chief maintainer, working for another year. But the 12-month commitment, as well as other funding decisions, raises the question of whether the Linux Foundation is hedging its bets on NTP.

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Harlan Stenn, the Network Time Protocol (NTP) maintainer whose precarious finances were brought to light in an InformationWeek article in March, has been approved for 12 more months of funding by the Linux Foundation.

NTP is the chief synchronizer of time between different computer systems on the Internet and on most private networks. It relies on several time references -- including one supplied by the US Naval Observatory, another by the National Institute of Standards & Technology, and at least three GPS satellite-based atomic clocks -- to create reference time servers that nearly all Linux, Windows, and Unix systems use to determine the correct time.

The grant momentarily sets aside the possibility that Stenn, who is also known as "Father Time" and serves as NTP's chief maintainer and release manager, will be forced to minimize his protocol work and return to private consulting.

Stenn's circumstances came to represent the vulnerability of key parts of the public Internet. He cited his difficulties in working long days and traveling to keep up the NTP physical infrastructure at two Internet service providers while pulling in $84,000 a year in funding.

In March, Stenn was considering whether to quit his daily stints of NTP maintenance to return to income-producing consulting work. As chief maintainer, one of his regular goals is to keep NTP in step with several versions of Ubuntu, Debian, SUSE, CentOS, Red Hat, HP/UX, AIX, and Solarism, and to prepare backward-compatible upates to the protocol.

Harlan Stenn
(Image: Margaret Clark)

Harlan Stenn

(Image: Margaret Clark)

The renewal of his Linux Foundation funding is accompanied by an additional increase of $75,000 in corporate and private donor funding to his Network Time Foundation, which he established in 2011. The foundation pulled in $105,000 in 2014. It appears on track to garner $180,000 this year. A small percentage of the total, about $15,000, supports Stenn's NTP Lab, office, and technology expenses. The remainder is spent on the broader purposes of the foundation, which hosts four network time projects and conducts education and outreach.

[ Want to learn more about Harlan Stenn? Read NTP's Fate Hinges On 'Father Time'. ]

Stenn has had difficulty convincing many corporate donors to contribute to the NTP Foundation, or to the project, since they have always received its benefits for free. Among the companies that contribute are: Yahoo, NetBSD, VMware, Meinberg, Infoblox, Debian, PTB, and FreeBSD.

The Linux Foundation's Core Infrastructure Initiative has 18 donors, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and IBM. Major banks, insurance companies, Wall Street trading firms, and telecommunications companies -- all of which rely on the timestamp of the Network Time Protocol on transactions -- are missing from donor lists.

The legal liabilities that revolve around poor or failed time-keeping should justify further investment from major enterprises, according to Stenn, though he acknowledged he has to work to convince those holding corporate purse strings why such concerns are valid. If he doesn't, he warned, they may learn it another way one day, in a manner he doesn't wish to contemplate.

NTP: A Top Priority?

Even as the Linux Foundation decision appears to clear the way for the organization's Core Infrastructure Initiative to continue to support Stenn and the NTP Project on an ongoing basis, foundation officials offered few long-term guarantees. The current grant runs through May 1, 2016, when it will once again come up for renewal. According to Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, there was no question that reliable NTP operation was a top priority of the Core Infrastructure Initiative.

But it was also clear that the foundation was hedging its bets in relying on Stenn, who is 59, as its sole, future, full-time NTP maintainer.

In addition, the steering committee of the Core Infrastructure Initiative could be seen hedging its bets, as it funded Poul-Henning Kamp, a skilled developer in Denmark focused on modernizing the monolithic NTP code stack. The committee also decided to fund Amar Takhar, an NTP contributor and independent software testing contractor, who is founding an NTP security project, NTPSec.

"NTP is something that I am very passionate about and have contributed to for four years," Takhar said

(Continued on next page)

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive ... View Full Bio

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