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: Pixelman via Pixabay)

(Image: Pixelman via Pixabay)

Shaky Finances

Stenn called the Linux Foundation's $7,000-a-month contribution to NTP "wonderful and awesome." But he said that he hasn't been told by the Linux Foundation yet whether the payments will continue after the end of April, their current end date. Even if they do, that amount doesn't come close to sustaining the effort needed for NTP, he said.

Asked to describe a proper NTP support organization, Stenn listed a project research scientist, project manager, several full-time developers, two technical writers, a system and network administrator, and two standards "wranglers" to represent NTP to the IETF, IEEE, and ITU. As he toted it up in his head, he came out at a minimum of $3 million a year.

If he gets more support, he'd prefer to obtain it from a broad base of NTP users. "I need everyone to help a little bit, not one or two bigs," Stenn said. Here's his reasoning: Suppose one big technical company comes in and doubles the financing behind his effort with $100,000 a year. When they call with a suggested change to NTP, what's he supposed to say?

For companies looking to make a big donation, therefore, the best approach might be to fund the Linux Foundation, which can support efforts such as NTP through the recommendations of its industry advisory board. That foundation includes security expert Bruce Schneier, and Columbia law professor Eben Moglen, chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center, among other industry experts.

With the Linux Foundation's $7,000 in monthly cash flow, Stenn finances his movement between his home lab, in Talent, Ore., and the NTP servers located in San Jose, Calif. In Oregon, Stenn lives with his wife and does most of his patch inspection, code writing, and release building three weeks a month. The fourth week, he stays in San Jose, close to two colocation data center providers that host NTP computers. He rents a room there to work on server and network administration, maintain the email list, and check on server backups.

Much of the travel, room, replacement hardware such as disk drives, or needed commercial software such as the Intuit QuickBooks for NTP and NTF accounting, must come out of the $7,000 monthly stipend or be charged to his consulting business.

Most of his 17 to 20 servers came out of a one-time, $10,000 grant in 2010 from the Internet Society, a policy and technology infrastructure advisory body for the Internet founded in 1991. Those servers are running at ISC.org in Redwood City, Calif., which hosts BIND and several other open source pieces of Internet infrastructure. For 15 years, it has provided space, electricity and some management "smart hands" to host NTP operations, without charging, said Stenn. "They would love for us to pay them," he said, and he once totaled the monthly bill at $1,400. But ISC.org also knows the NTP project can't pay and continues to host it, Stenn added.

Stenn also uses five to six servers at a Hurricane Electric colocation in Fremont, Calif., as a disaster recovery site. The cost of those servers is charged to his consulting business. According to Stenn, those charges against what little consulting he still does has made his business a barely break-even proposition for three of the last four years.

In addition to his consulting business, Stenn founded the non-profit Network Time Foundation in 2010 in hopes of having an umbrella organization that could support multiple network time projects and accept donations.

For most of that period, he said he has collected membership fees from only two companies, Meinberg and VMware, the marketshare leader in virtualization software. The latter also contributes code. More recently, four other firms signed up: Microsemi, ixSystems, Deer Run Associates, and Sol.net Network Services. According to Stenn, their fees support the foundation's part-time business development consultant, Sue Graves, and continued efforts to build membership.

VMware became a first-year contributor at $12,000 and has upped its donation since then. Accurate network time is crucial to VMware's products as it tries to coordinate virtual machine activity in data centers and to live-migrate running virtual machines between hosts. "NTP synchronizes the time of a physical or virtual host … in a unique and mathematically elegant way," said Mike Adams, director of vSphere product marketing.

NTF's nonprofit model is good, "but it needs more companies to make a contribution," said Heiko Gerstung from Meinberg. "The companies currently supporting NTP on behalf of the rest of the planet are not enough."

Next Page: The nightmare before Christmas

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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50%
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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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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