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3/18/2015
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NTP, Harlan Stenn & An Uncertain Future: Readers React

InformationWeek's story about the work of Harlan Stenn on NTP sparked dozens of reader reactions on the website, as well as Tweets, Slashdot comments, and Facebook postings.



7 Linux Facts That Will Surprise You
7 Linux Facts That Will Surprise You
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Information's Week's story on the Network Transport Protocol and Harlan Stenn, alias "Father Time," has drawn extensive comment from its readers, including 30 on the InformationWeek homepage and another 286 on Slashdot.

In addition, the story was the subject of 674 Facebook posts and at least 290 Tweets -- and those are just the ones that the websites' monitoring system could capture. FSM Labs, Meinberg, and Pluribus Networks, all firms with a direct interest in the protocol, took pains to circulate the link and tweet the story.

"NTP -- probably keeps your network time synced. Why does its future depend on Harlan Stenn?" tweeted @Pluribusnet with a link to the story.

The tweets and comments represent a more dramatic response than what's awarded the typical technology update story, which isn't too surprising. The article highlighted how a piece of Internet infrastructure and its chief maintainer, Stenn, depended on a slender revenue stream, with Stenn saying he was ready to return to paid consulting work. The vast majority of servers and end-user Macs, PCs, and Linux computers depend on NTP for time synchronization with other systems.

It also wasn't clear what happens next if Stenn steps back from the project.

(Image: Margaret Clark)

(Image: Margaret Clark)

That's why Brian McNett (@b_mcnett), who describes himself as an anti-spam developer, tweeted shortly after it was posted late in the afternoon March 11: "Folks, this story needs amplification. NTP is one of the core protocols of the 'net. Harlan Stenn maintains it alone."

[Lend your voice to the NTP discussion.]

Sam Ramji, CEO of Cloud Foundry and one of the sources cited in the story, retweeted the story.

"This is the most unsettling thing I've read since a report many years ago that said all international Internet traffic was being routed through a garage in Virginia," wrote Tony A, one of the first commenters in the comment section of the InformationWeek's story. "Truly amazing how vulnerable the entire infrastructure is …"

That sort of reaction has lead to 72 donors, many of them individuals, sending $4,104 to Stenn and the Network Time Foundation as of 6 p.m. PT on March 19. Several companies had contacted him to say they would be getting back in touch shortly.

The story also gained readership by being cited on TechMeme.com, the technology news hosting site. Both TechMeme and Slashdot tend to attract an opinionated following. Slashdot typically has a young and outspoken developer audience with 3.7 million visitors a month. It has a strong predilection for the transparency and choice of open source code and NTP, as open-source code, became the focus of a stream of 286 comments -- not all of them positive.

"What the hell is there to fix in a protocol that returns a string of numbers?" asked an anonymous commenter on Slashdot.org.

Asked to comment, Stenn replied cryptically in an email message to InformationWeek: "The premise is incorrect."

[Next page: Companies using NTP take a hit.]



Another Slashdot reader chimed in:

Re: Fewer bug fixes? (Score: 5, Interesting) by BitZtream (692029) on Thursday March 12, 2015 @11:26PM (#49247327)

"NTP doesn't just 'return a string of numbers.'"

Another anonymous commenter wrote: "If it is not broke, fix it until it is. Is this what keeps projects alive?"

Stenn's response to IW: "I have an idea of the incredible arrogance I had when I was in my 20s, when I thought I knew it all."

But not every comment was negative.

Terje Mathisen, a maintainer of the NTPd daemon or code that implements NTP on a server, weighed in from Denmark to say that he's been working on the project for 15 years. (The NTPd daemon is considered part of the overall NTP open-source code.)

"By far the biggest cause of required effort when trying to modify or optimize the NTPD distribution is the need to support a big number of OSs and even larger number of OS versions, some of them more than 20 years old …" he wrote on Slashdot. Also, "The second problem is the need to support 30+ reference clocks, with all sorts of OS/version-specific interfaces needed in order to timestamp events as accurately as possible."

The protocol also returns encrypted results, which helps keep its operations secure. But the encryption package harbors bugs that have needed recent attention, Mathisen said.

"Terje is a Wizard. I've worked with him for years … Seriously good at what he does, and he has a great understanding of network time …" Stenn wrote in his email message.

Large companies that rely upon, but don't support the Network Time Protocol also seemed to come in for a lot of criticism on InformationWeek and Slashdot.

While the story mentioned that Stenn is supported by the Linux Foundation's Core Infrastructure Project, it was mainly the commenters that pointed out that Microsoft, IBM, Google, Amazon, and other companies are contributors to that initiative.

Stenn had related an incident in the story in which he delayed release of a bug fix until Apple could finish related work on Mac OS X, then asked the Apple engineers if their company could send a donation to the foundation.

That approach drew criticism of both Stenn and Apple.

Gnasher719 responded: "The way he did this, it is probably difficult for the responsible person at Apple to actually pay him. He seems to be asking for a donation to an open source project. How can someone at a commercial company put that in a budget? The financial guys say 'Is there any legal reason why we have to pay this money[?]' The answer is no, so it won't get paid."

Gnasher suggested next time he refuse to do the work except as a contractor and send Apple a bill, which it would probably be willing to pay.

But there also appears from the overall comments to be a growing awareness that critical parts of the Internet are being left to a few dedicated maintainers who should get more public support.

"Help Harlan Stenn continue his excellent work on NTPd," tweeted The Woj (@Wojthewoj).

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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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