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: 237607 via Pixabay)

(Image: 237607 via Pixabay)

Why Synchronizing Time Matters

Every computer has a clock, but in general computers "are known to have bad clocks," said John Engates, CTO of Rackspace, in talking about NTP. Getting two computers to agree on the time can be difficult. The NTP protocol has, for 30 years, consulted the best clocks available and derived a consensus time, which it then imposes across a mapped hierarchy of servers and their client PCs.

Greenwich Mean Time is a known source of reliable time, as is the US Naval Observatory. Their time is based on the solar day -- the time it takes for the earth to complete one 24-hour, 360-degree rotation while in orbit around the sun. NTP consults UTC or Universal Coordinated Time, which is Greenwich Mean Time expressed in the military's 24:00:00 hours terms.

On a daily basis, NTP also consults atomic clocks, which tick off precise seconds based on radioactive Cesium-133 decomposition. A GPS receiver can be tied into an NTP server, and use the transmission of a GPS satellite to get the correct atomic time. A GPS satellite has three atomic clocks, so if one falls out of synch, the other two can overrule it and keep the system on track. For GPS time to be off by a billionth of a second means its answer to a location query will be off by a foot. So GPS relies on precisely counted time, not the solar day.

NTP's job is, in some ways, simple: Consult UTC and atomic clocks and come up with the correct time. But, as Engates said, "Time gets complicated fast."

The solar day varies slightly from year to year. The earth wobbles. Tidal friction slows the earth's rotation by a tiny fraction of a second each year. Geophysical events, like the huge earthquake in 2004 in the Indian Ocean, cost the earth's rotation another fraction of a second. GMT and UTC account for these changes with leap seconds; atomic clocks do not. Currently, there's a 35-second gap between the two.

NTP can referee those differences, allowing it to synchronize operations as computer systems grow larger and more distributed. The Internet wouldn't function as well without it. Network Time Protocol doesn't just determine the correct time, but implements synchronized time between two systems. NTP software on a client or remote server asks an NTP reference server for a time check. The NTP software on the requestor captures how long it took for the query to reach its destination, and adds that amount of time to the time stamp that comes back.

Despite variances in traversing a network due to congestion and other causes, this NTP process will usually leave two systems coordinated to within 10 milliseconds (10 thousandths of a second) of each other. If the two are on the same campus network, the adjustment is likely to be within one thousandth of a second or less.

That's not as precise as what can be achieved with Precision Time Protocol, an IEEE standard released in 2002. But NTP is already in place, with proven reliability, and it's easy to use. "Basic configurations [of an NTP server] involve no more than a few statements," wrote Peter Rybaczyk in his book, Expert Network Time Protocol. Even PTP starts with NTP, then tries to make it more precise.

NTP has another point in its favor: A strong record on security (so far). It's a protocol whose misuse could corrupt and cause the failure of manufacturing systems, chemical processing, financial markets, and satellite communications. Its reliability is tied to billions of dollars of transactions a day; the NTP time stamp is one of the few ways equities firms have of proving to regulators they were in compliance of making a trade when they said they did. So far, it has withstood the danger of being hacked.

The Heartbleed vulnerability in OpenSSL opened the open source community's eyes to the threat from benign neglect of these foundational elements of the computing world and the Internet. As with Secure Sockets Layer, the Linux Foundation views NTP as critical to the continued reliability of both Linux and the Internet.

Next Page: NTP on shaky financial ground

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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ThomasW840
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ThomasW840,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/16/2015 | 1:44:10 AM
Re: Yes, some contribute, some don't
So why don't all the FOSS distro vednros band together and start a FOSS foundation, and allow the distro installer to donate to suport critical base apps & systems (and optionally along with other groups and efforts)?  Even give them 501 tax status and writeoffs! You KNOW their donations would get a bump every April. :)

 

Tweeks
ThomasW840
50%
50%
ThomasW840,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/16/2015 | 1:41:34 AM
Why not centrlize critical app/protocol financial support at the distros?
Each GNU/Linux distro should have a post install "donate to FOSS" option that allows users of FOSS or Linux distros to donate to these critical, base apps and sysyems.  Very simple issue to solve here folks..

Tweeks
hstenn
IW Pick
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hstenn,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/15/2015 | 11:12:08 PM
Re: Yes, some contribute, some don't
Thanks a bunch, Charlie!

Slight clarification: Network Time Foundation is not "my" non-profit, I'm just the founder and president. it's there for public benefit.

There are "donate" and "join" links at www.nwtime.org and we do also accept PayPal.  We're looking at some other "ways to send money".

The feedback and support we've already seen is heartwarming, and it will currently cover about 2 more weeks of my time.  We've also heard from a few companies that have said "we saw the article and we're looking to help, we'll be in touch soon."

Network Time Foundation has no anonymous institutional or governmental supporters.  If you don't see their name on our site, they're not supporting us directly.  The reason Linux Foundation is not there is they insisted on sending their money directly to me and PHK, instead of to NTF.  I can appreciate their reasons.  Having said that, if you are using software or equipment that uses network time and you don't see that company listed, please contact them and ask them to support us!  They will listen to you more than they'll listen to us...
hstenn
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hstenn,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/15/2015 | 10:39:30 PM
Re: If UTC stands for Coordinated Universal Time, then why TAI?
In English, TAI is "International Atomic Time".  In French it's "Temps Atomique International".

 

In English, UTC is "Coordinated Universal Time", while in French it's "Temps Universel Coordonné".  This way the French and English speakers are equally unhappy with the acronym.
Charlie Babcock
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50%
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?)
curts88
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curts88,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/15/2015 | 11:59:20 AM
Free PTP implementation for Windows?
Last time I checked (sometime in 2014) there were no free implementations of PTP for Windows. This situation probably needs to change if we expect PTP to gradually replace NTP. Maybe Microsoft should include PTP support in Windows 10?
Li Tan
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50%
Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
3/14/2015 | 7:04:49 AM
Re: Is there really a problem?
Such kind of important open source protocol deserves more attention - it's so important that everybody took it for granted. Then it's a real trouble if one day it stops working.
Charlie Babcock
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50%
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.
jeff_logullo
IW Pick
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jeff_logullo,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/13/2015 | 6:53:30 PM
UTC = Coordinated Universal Time
Great article - thanks for shedding light on the issue, especially that of the unsung heroes of the internet and the open source community!

One small comment: the abbreviation "UTC" stands for "Coordinated Universal Time". You might wonder how that acronym makes sense... seems it should be "CUT" instead.

We English speakers call it Coordinated Universal Time -- which would make the acronym CUT.

French speakers, however, call it Temps Universel Cordonné -- which would result in TUC.

What to do? Compromise! Instead of CUT or TUC, the alternative UTC was chosen. It plays no favorites! Strange but true.

The wikipedia entry for Coordinated Universal Time has more details, including a reference to the IAU resolution in 1976 when this decision was made.
GIGABOB
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50%
GIGABOB,
User Rank: Strategist
3/13/2015 | 2:12:21 PM
Is there really a problem?
As a prior Oregon developer who needed a real job I appreciate Stenn's dilemma.  I am less concerned about shipping Stenn a few bucks than creating a better vehicle to support critical open source protocols like NTP. 

Stenn really needs help i nunderstanding how to monetize his efforts.  I suggest a microcent per millisecond.

At the end of the day do you see a lack of industry support for this activity or a vicious fight for gatekeeper rights?
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