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: Christong via Pixabay)

(Image: Christong via Pixabay)

NTP: Google And Apple Are Watching

The original NTP code was pulled together by a small group of academic and commercial developers led by now-retired Professor David Mills at the University of Delaware, who Stenn called "a super-genius," and with whom he still consults on a regular basis. But NTP was conceived "in friendlier times," Stenn observed wryly.

The need to develop NTP further coincides with new devices and new applications coming all the time onto the network, while the stakes behind reliable releases have gone up.

The most recent release of NTP 4.2.8 was "hurried out the door," said Heiko Gerstung, a managing director of Meinberg, a German producer of time servers based on NTP. The company expressed concern to Stenn on that point. But Meinberg executives know the condition of the overall project. "Considering the fact that this guy manages the releases of NTP all by himself, he is doing a heck of a job," Gerstung said in an email interview with InformationWeek. Meinberg is one of the few direct financial backers of the NTP project.

As the NTP project lead, Stenn gets calls from the biggest Internet and industrial companies about problems or suggested additions for NTP. He's happy to help. Occasionally, he pitches them to sign up as supporters of the Network Time Foundation, a nonprofit corporation he set up to receive donations for NTP. According to Stenn, they seldom do. In fact, just six companies support the foundation, with VMware the only household name among them.

The importance of NTP to the daily functioning of businesses can't be overstated. The NTP time stamp is part of how equities firms show that trades took place when they say they did, an element that helps them stay in regulatory compliance. Air traffic control relies on NTP for synchronized clocks. Robotic manufacturing uses it to carry out closely timed operations requiring coordinated time. Google search operations rely on it, which is why the Google security team scrutinizes NTP for bugs.

Apple Macintosh computers and servers running OSX use NTP, and Stenn said Apple developers have called him for help on several NTP issues. In the last such incident, he said he delayed a patch to give Apple more time to prepare OS X for it. When they were ready, he applied the patch and asked "whether Apple could send a donation to the Network Time Foundation," Stenn recalled. "They said they would do their best to see that Apple throws some money our way." But it hasn't happened yet.

"Everybody loves us," Stenn said. "But people with money say, 'We don't give to open source projects.'"

Asked whether running through his personal savings to support NTP was a sustainable position, he acknowledged he gets credit for creating well-crafted NTP releases, "but I never said I was smart."

NTP is nevertheless the protocol that everyone depends on. Other candidates exist, and Stenn himself said there are good ideas included in the young Precision Time Protocol project. But nothing else is in the running to take over synchronizing time on the network.

Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin raised the problem of NTP's continued development in a keynote address at the Linux Collaboration Summit in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Feb. 18. (That's what led InformationWeek to seek out Stenn; he didn't come to us with his story.) Zemlin said poorly supported open source projects pose a risk to all the systems that depend on them. The OpenSSL project, an encryption project widely used to secure websites, had been receiving less than $2,000 a year in donations until the Heartbleed exploit compromised OpenSSL code.

"There are certain projects that have not received support commensurate with their importance," Zemlin said. "Too many critical open source software projects are underfunded and under-resourced."

OpenSSL, the Domain Name System, NTP and a handful of other open source projects on which the Internet depends have a broad following, but few people understand that, for aging projects with little glam, financial backers and code contributors alike have moved on to more stimulating challenges. Companies including IBM, Salesforce.com, HP, Adobe, Amazon, Bloomberg, and Google do support the Linux Foundation's Core Infrastructure Initiative, started after Heartbleed in May 2014. CII has raised $6 million, which Zemlin said is "not nearly enough." Stenn gets $7,000 a month from the fund, or $84,000 a year, to cover all the expenses of maintaining NTP, renting the data center space, and running the infrastructure required for support.

Next Page: Why synchronizing time matters

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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akostadinov
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akostadinov,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/18/2015 | 10:50:33 AM
alternatives
chronyd anybody? (chrony.tuxfamily.org)

works better at least for some use cases...

Competition is good, otherwise things rot anyway.
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
3/25/2015 | 3:52:11 PM
So the people using it aren't wiling to pay?
Can I guess that by the lack of this guy's wallet, that the companies who claim to care, like Google, have not stepped up and given the the guy funding to make sure the clock keeps ticking? If he has not yet, I would suggest he approach each of the companies that uses NTP and tell them it's in danger of being unsupported without financial backing. Wake up the guys who use it and let them know the free ride is about over.
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.
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.
Mr. Gigabob
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Mr. Gigabob,
User Rank: Strategist
3/18/2015 | 12:45:27 PM
Re: Is there really a problem?
The process is straightforward - an industry group with a vested interest steps in and enlists support from an eco-system by starting a "Time Committee" with contributions from those organizations in the form of team members and fiscal backing levels.  DLNA, USB, WiFi all started this way as a prelude to creating and adopting a standard.  The more groups the get behind supporting NTP - the more that will build in NTP into their systems.  

Ideally, increased investment in time synchronization for security, log management and other roles will add many paths to orbiting atomic clocks in GPS satellites to increase accuracy of NTP so it eclipses PTP - Precision Time Protocol (IEEE1588).

NTP and PTP approach the problem from different angles.  PTP uses hardware to provide a precise local clock with accuracy to 100ns and very little software sophistication.  NTP uses software and statistics to get time from local motherboards and other sources then distribute across a network.  Accuracy varies widely from micro-seconds to 10's of milliseconds, as distribution delays across shared network links are impacted by busy workloads.  Until there is a ubiquity of precision time sources available with known latency, we need both.

As an example of industry standard support - suppose members of the "TIME ASSOCIATION" included all the major home network router vendors.  Their support for NTP might include some local intelligence and a dedicated port channel for distributing time information that would have a prioritezed Quality of Service level enabling it to consistently provide microsecond accuracy in the home.  This would be advertised as a selling point and if embraced by users would prolieferate across the Customer Premises landscape.

Ironically we have access to precision time in to 100ns today.  Everyone with a GPS chip in their mobile phone leverages the GPS time in the orbiting satellites.  Perhaps it is time to codify that into a new standard.
pzjones
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pzjones,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/18/2015 | 12:28:30 PM
Demonstrates change in motivation
I think this article clearly demonstrates what attracts people to IT now is not what drove many of us into IT 20+ years ago. It wasn't about the "job" or the "salary." It was about the love of this new technology, about being a pioneer in this industry, about collaboration, about conquering and innovating.

 It was nice that it came with a salary but that wasn't the driving force. I've seen many come because they thought they would make the big bucks but didn't have the heart or the passion and now they have gone...some stick around because "it's a job" and they don't want to go back to school. For those like Stenn, it is much more than that...it's in the blood. We need to figure out how to ignite that fire in the younger generation that has come to rely on technology without a desire to be part of it.
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.

 

 
mbperezpinilla
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mbperezpinilla,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2015 | 7:07:24 AM
Radioactive Cesium-133???
Cesium-133 is the only stable isotope of Cesium!
vorlonken
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vorlonken,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/16/2015 | 1:28:34 PM
Here's the proper solution
Author: "So, Mr Stenn, what will you do if huge companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Cisco, Intel, etc don't start contributing? They could each donate $10 million/year with the change culled from under the driver's seat of the CEO!" Stenn: (shrugs) That's how the article should end. I hope everyone out there got my very unsubtle reference.
Susan_Nunziata
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50%
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).

 

 
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