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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Doug Henschen
Doug Henschen,
User Rank: Moderator
3/12/2015 | 12:50:53 PM
Re: It's fine to send big money directly to NTF!
Keep up the good work, as best as you can as long as you can, but by all means cultivate a backup, particularly if Charlie's article helps spur more funding. This seems like it's too imporant to rest on your shoulders alone. What if you get hit by a truck? Too bad you can't set up a little tarrif for accessing NTP!
User Rank: Strategist
3/12/2015 | 12:33:55 PM
Typical of the way things are going
I think the problems noted here are symptomatic of a larger problem. It seems that everyone these days is focused on getting rich with the next "Yo!" app or shiny new wearable gizmo that nobody is worried about keeping the foundations on which all this new technology depends. If the industry as a whole does not come to grips with this problem soon I fear we are in for a rough time ahead.
User Rank: Ninja
3/12/2015 | 11:41:52 AM
Let it fail?
Companies will pay as little as they have to for any given service. Its not greed, its just their nature. They have been used to getting NTP for free for so long, they aren't likely to start coughing up funds out of the goodness of their hearts.

Harlan's efforts sound like they have been truly heroic, and at that heroic pace for a very long time. But I think he is flat out being taken advantage of, and will continue to be until he puts his foot down. Maybe just flat out refuse to work more than 15 or 20 hours per week on it, putting the rest of his time in to his consulting business or something. I know that $7k per month looks good on paper, but I gaurantee its not nearly as much in practice.

Let it fail. That will bring the needed attention as funding. Its harsh, and in many ways against the open source spirit, but the guy has been taken advantage of long enough. When Google and Apple and others aren't even chipping in a little bit, especially taking in to account the huge consideration he gave Apple, then the whole thing is just wrong.
User Rank: Moderator
3/12/2015 | 9:47:20 AM
Re: Are you ready to roll back the next Leap Second?
Very good article Charlie. One of the best I've read in a long time. Hopefully this stirs up some funds for Harlan and the project. I'm also surprised that academia hasn't jumped right back in on NTP.
Charlie Babcock
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
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.)
User Rank: Apprentice
3/11/2015 | 6:58:32 PM
It's fine to send big money directly to NTF!
Wow, thanks for the great article, sir!

I've always considered myself either the "janitor of time" or maybe NTP's babysitter.

From my point of view, we want lots of companies and individuals to "join" Network Time Foundation.  We are also very happy to receive direct donations.  As long as we get enough donations from enough sources to meet the IRS Public Support Test we're happy, and all is well.

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