NTP's Fate Hinges On 'Father Time' - InformationWeek

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NTP's Fate Hinges On 'Father Time'

The Network Time Protocol provides a foundation to modern computing. So why does NTP's support hinge so much on the shaky finances of one 59-year-old developer?

(Image: Geralt via Pixabay)

(Image: Geralt via Pixabay)

In April, one of the open source code movement's first and biggest success stories, the Network Time Protocol, will reach a decision point. At 30 years old, will NTP continue as the preeminent time synchronization system for Macs, Windows, and Linux computers and most servers on networks?

Or will this protocol go into a decline marked by drastically slowed development, fewer bug fixes, and greater security risks for the computers that use it? The question hinges to a surprising degree on the personal finances of a 59-year-old technologist in Talent, Ore., named Harlan Stenn.

The Network Time Protocol is important enough that the likes of Google and Apple speak up if they find a bug in the protocol that needs fixing, or a modification they think is needed. But NTP has worked so well for so long that few people think there's any problem.

Not all is well within the NTP open source project. The number of volunteer contributors -- those who submit code for periodic updates, examine bug reports, and write fixes -- has shrunk over its long lifespan, even as its importance has increased. Its ongoing development and maintenance now rest mostly on the shoulders of Stenn, and that's why NTP faces a turning point. Stenn, who also works sporadically on his own consulting business, has given himself a deadline: Garner more financial support by April, "or look for regular work.”

(Image: Margaret Clark)

(Image: Margaret Clark)

Stenn's shaky personal finances illustrate one very real risk to the future of the Internet. A number of widely used foundations of the Internet -- such as OpenSSL, the Domain Name System, and NTP -- are based on open source code. Open source means no one owns the software, anyone can use it, and it's maintained through a collaborative process of people submitting changes to a central governing group. Some open source projects, such as the Android mobile OS, have a rich uncle like Google that pays people who maintain the code as a side job. Or, the project is trendy enough that working on it helps to spur consulting work. But a project like NTP, which is buried deep in the infrastructure, doesn't have a clear-cut financial backer. That leaves support up to people like Stenn.

For the last three-and-a-half years, Stenn said he's worked 100-plus hours a week answering emails, accepting patches, rewriting patches to work across multiple operating systems, piecing together new releases, and administering the NTP mailing list. If NTP should get hacked or for some reason stop functioning, hundreds of thousands of systems would feel the consequences. "If that happened, all the critics would say, 'See, you can't trust open source code,'" said Stenn.

Sam Ramji, CEO of the Cloud Foundry Foundation, cited Stenn’s work in an address at the Open Compute Summit 2015 in San Jose Mar. 11. He dubbed him "Father Time," and said he was "scraping by" as he continued to work on NTP.

Stenn is hardly the only open source coder living in such straits. Ramji also mentioned Werner Koch in Germany, the author and maintainer of Gnu Privacy Guard, which is used in three popular email encryption programs. In a Feb. 5 article, Koch told ProPublica that he was "going broke" on $25,000 a year since 2001. Chet Ramey, part of the networking infrastructure team at Case Western Reserve, has been the primary maintainer of the Bash shell for Unix since 1990 with minimal support.

Ramji noted that OpenSSL developers had been receiving less than $2,000 a year in donations when the Heartbleed exploit of OpenSSL broke out last April. "Secure code is hard to write and maintain," Ramji noted. Users have to decide whether they want to leave these projects to survive as best they can.

Next Page: Watching the timekeeper

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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Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
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3/11/2015 | 11:02:50 PM
Are you ready to roll back the next Leap Second?
Harlan Stenn is the only person I know who has already laid plans to cope with the Leap Second that will need to be subtracted from the solar day on June 30, when the discrepancy  between UTC and TAI will reach 36 seconds. For that, I'm afraid we must call him Father Time, even though he doesn't much like the moniker. (Leap Seconds occur irregularly, averaging one every 18 months.)
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/12/2015 | 5:56:51 PM
Yes, some contribute, some don't
Good comment from EJW, an IT manager in the Calif. State University system, and Tony J, thanks. I would like to note that Google is a contributor to the Linux Foundation's Core Infrastructure Initiative, now supporting Stenn. The CII includes Amazon, IBM, others and supports Werner Koch's Gnu PG in Germany & other projects as well. But there aren't enough $$ to go around. Stenn's non-profit is at www.nwtime.org. Checks can be sent to Network Time Foundation, PO Box 918, Talent, OR. 97540.
Jamescon
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Jamescon,
User Rank: Author
3/13/2015 | 10:17:07 AM
A look behind the scenes
Charlie. Great idea to look into the inner workings of technology (the code and the people) that most of us never see. Well done.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/13/2015 | 7:25:01 PM
Oops, Coverity is a hidden contributor
I've learned there are a few hidden contributors to NTP. For example, Stenn uses almost 100% open source code but I knew he liked to check his code against the Coverity's security and bug detecting software, a commercial service. So the first version of this story listed Coverity as a service he had to pay for from his slender resources. It turns out that Coverity contributes its service to NTP. Stenn has also used BitMover's BitKeeper, commercial software for source code management, which he likes better than open source git. "Because (CEO) Larry McVoy appreciates the NTP Project, they've freely given my entire team licenses to bk, and they've given us free enterprise-class service as well, for nearly '14 years' time,'" Stenn wrote in a follow-up message.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/15/2015 | 5:11:27 PM
If UTC stands for Coordinated Universal Time, then why TAI?
I have always wondered why Coordinated Universal Time is abbreviated UTC. There's a gem of an explanation below by Jeff_Logullo, who happens to be a pre-sales engineer for the Oracle's Public Sector Systems division. Can anyone confirm what he's saying? Jeff doesn't remember where he first heard the story.

Then, 2), can someone explain to me why TAI is used as the acronym for International Atomic Time? (Don't tell me it's the French, again--temps atomique international?)
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
3/16/2015 | 7:48:06 AM
Re: Is there really a problem?
@Gigabob: Your comment caught my eye, especially this: creating a better vehicle to support critical open source protocols like NTP.

Having been thru a similar experience yourself, what would you say is required to create such a vehicle for NTP (and other critical open source projects).

 

 
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/17/2015 | 2:07:46 PM
You're right, Cesium-133 is stable, not decomposing
mbperezpinilla, A second as measured by an atomic clock is "9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation" reflecting the transition in energy levels of the Caesium-133 atom, according to the International System of Units. I didn't realize radiation in this case doesn't mean (ouch) radioactive. I've always thought atomic cloicks were using a measure of radioactive decomposition as a precise time-keeper. Instead, it's vibrations of the stable Cesium-133 atom that's keeping the beat. It's Cesium-137, used in medical imaging, that's radioactive. Oh boy, time to brush up on my physics.

 

 
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/18/2015 | 1:46:40 PM
Just a minute, Mr. Gigabob
Your answer is straightforward, Mr. Gigabob, except for the part about how we've had for years many companies with a vested interest in sychronizing time and they haven't done what you say should happen.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/23/2015 | 11:51:33 PM
Has this issue kept you up late at night?
This may not be something you've worried about lately, but the 32-bit counter in the Network Time Protocol's time stamp is able to designate any second that's occurred since Jan.1, 1900. The only thing bad about covering such an expanse of time is that the counter runs out of numbers sometime in 2036. Like I said, maybe you haven't worried about it -- yet. Harlan Stenn is up late at night thinking about the solution... Better keep him on the case.
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