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 NTP.org 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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CharlesB21101
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CharlesB21101,
User Rank: Strategist
8/17/2015 | 8:00:41 PM
Is NTP too dependent on one man?
I think the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative is worred that the future of the NTP protocol rests too much in the hands of one man, Harlan Stenn. Hence it's willingness to fund an alternative project oriented toward security, NTPSec. Nor should those going along for the free ride assume that Stenn, who will be 60 in January, will be willing to continue to devote 12-plus hour days to NTP for another decade with minimal financial support. It's not that he's irreplaceable. He is. But his level of attention to technical detail and willingness to stick with whatever happens to be the task at hand won't be easy to replace with a few random volunteers. Time synchronization is more complicated than those who haven't done it are willing to concede. We may yet have to learn how so the hard way.   
GAProgrammer
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GAProgrammer,
User Rank: Ninja
8/18/2015 | 12:23:26 PM
Re: Is NTP too dependent on one man?
He certainly is more generous with his time and energy than I would ever be. The major financial systems of the world run off this protocol and they can't send him some money for his 80+hr work week? Pssh... I would have left long ago.
ThomasV466
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ThomasV466,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/18/2015 | 12:35:44 PM
Re: Is NTP too dependent on one man?
NTP is to critical of a piece of infrastructure to rest in the hands of one man. He should be recognized and rewarded for his hard work. But a the same time a committee involving large infrastructure providers from various industrieis, governement entties, and open source foundations should be formed to ensure that the NTP infrastructure is maintained and advanced. 

 

I am suprised Google or Yahoo haven't stepped up and given this guy a paid position with benefits. 
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