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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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
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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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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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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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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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