How do you fund time?
That's the unique challenge faced by Harlan Stenn, chief maintainer of the Network Time Protocol (NTP) by which all things digital are synchronized.
NTP is the reliable, but aging, open source code that guides distributed computer systems in their use of synchronized time. Its healthy operation is essential to coordinating servers on the Internet.
The Linux Foundation publicized the dilemma of NTP and several other projects, solicited support through its Core Infrastructure Initiative, and provided funding to Stenn. During the March 2015 Hadoop Summit in San Jose, Calif., Cloud Foundry CEO Sam Ramji cited Stenn's NTP; the OpenSSL encryption project, which was receiving $2,000 a year when the Heartbleed bug was discovered in its code; and Werner Koch, who was living on $25,000 a year in Germany while maintaining the Gnu Privacy Guard.
In a series of articles last year, InformationWeek highlighted the financial vise that committed project leaders were in once they gave up their private work and dedicated their time to open source infrastructure projects dependent on donations.
Research-minded venture capitalist Nadia Eghbal reported in "How I Stumbled on the Internet's Biggest Blind Spot" that open source projects that were highly infrastructure-oriented had no clear basis of support: No one financed them as a business and few people donated to them. Linux was one exception, with major companies funding the Linux Foundation, as was the Open Compute Project, funded by Facebook and other large companies. She concluded that NTP was one of the funding-worthy projects.
What a difference a year makes.
The nonprofit Network Time Foundation, which Stenn launched in 2011, saw its funding increase by $90,282 in 2015 for a total of $192,282 to support the NTP project. In February 2016, the foundation reported its 2015 funding and results in its 2015 Accomplishments report to the community.
Stenn set up the Network Time Foundation to support the broader purposes of the NTP.org open source project and several related projects. These include the Precision Time Protocol, a project that seeks to reduce the allowed degree of error for time synchronization from a few thousandths to a few millionths of a second.
The foundation's 2015 earnings are separate from the $84,000 contributed each year by the Core Infrastructure Initiative of the Linux Foundation to Harlan Stenn. The Linux Foundation money goes directly to support Stenn's work on the protocol.
The additional funding for the Network Time Foundation enabled the group to hire Rich Garling as program manager in July 2015. He's consulted with NTP.org developers and several other projects to map out the next steps in key areas -- a task that no one had quite had time for in the past.
"We're very grateful to all of the companies and individuals who are supporting us, both financially and their time/resource gifts," said Stenn. "We could not do this work without them."
Last year was a good one for raising the foundation's profile. On June 30, NTP.org took responsibility for adding a leap second to the time represented by a solar year on Earth, an addition that has to be made by some authority every three or four years. Thirty-six leap seconds have been added to our time reckoning since the process started in 1972.
However, if you're responsible for several projects synchronizing time among computers on the Internet and private networks, even a big financial improvement leaves many needs unmet. For example, Stenn said, few if any of the funds can be used for the upcoming relocation of half the NTP infrastructure, which must happen later this spring.
Who Funds the Network Time Foundation?
The Foundation's $192,282 income in 2015 came from a combination of donations and members paying annual membership fees -- currently $6,000 for associates, $13,000 for contributors, $24,000 for partners, and $50,000 for premier members.
In early 2015, the Network Time Foundation listed Meinberg, VMware, Microsemi, ixSystems, Deer Run Associates, and Sol.net Network Services as members. Little has been disclosed so far about how much each company contributes.
In 2015, Stenn said VMware donated $60,000, and became the foundation's biggest contributor by a long shot. But there are also at least one or two donors at the $25,000 level. VMware relies on NTP for its virtual machine management systems, including live migration of virtual machines from one server to another.
Meinberg, a supplier of NTP protocol servers in Germany, was an early member, "and the first company to send me reference clock gear that they did not expect me to return," said Stenn. Like VMware, Meinberg has increased its annual fee each year, and is one of those members at or near the $25,000 mark, with some equipment donation included.
Google, another notable new donor (but not signed up as a member), joined in early 2016, and therefore wasn't mentioned in the Network Time Foundation's 2015 Accomplishments report.
Other new "institutional" or corporate members include: Infoblox, Bitkeeper, NetBSD, Packet, PTB, Internet Society, FreeBSD, LinuxFund.org (different from the Linux Foundation), Yahoo, and SUSE Linux. The open source organizations don't necessarily have cash to throw in, but often contribute code, testing, and feedback, or help in other ways, said Sue Graves, director of client services at the Network Time Foundation.
As the issue of financing arose a year ago Meinberg's Heiko Gerstung commented in an email message to InformationWeek: The Network Time Foundation "needs more companies to make a contribution. The companies currently supporting NTP on behalf of the rest of the planet are not enough."
Where the Money Goes, and Where It Needs to Go
In addition to hiring Garling, here's what else the foundation has done with its money:
- Engaged the Network Time Foundation in trying educate developers and the general public on the need to continue research and development work on the protocol that synchronizes computer systems on networks.
- Aimed to give NTP a presence at IETF meetings and other conferences where the issue of time synchronization is frequently part of the standards discussions. Stenn did not have funding to attend IETF conferences in person in 2015, but attended three IETF NTP working groups through remote hookup. "It costs $4,000 for me to physically attend an IETF conference. What I really want are people to attend in my place," and advocate for the inclusion of NTP in standards and continued research on how it must do its job, Stenn said in an interview with InformationWeek in February.
- Supported the development of the Precision Time Protocol and its reference implementation, currently on PTPd 2.3.1, made available in June 2015. It supports Precision Time Protocol for Linux, with release 1.6 issued in September 2015. NTP coordinates two systems to within a few thousandths of a second. PTP seeks to coordinate systems to within a few millionths of a second.
- Supported the Ntimed project, a high-security and high-performance version of the NTP.
- Hired CPA Richard Brewster, and completed its first financial audit in October.
In addition, Garling has developed specific plans for the following projects: NTP, NTS, Privilege Separation, General Timestamp API, Linux PTP, Certification and Compliance, and Stratum O.
Stenn said he hopes the Network Time Foundation can continue to increase its income, along with the amount of work that it can undertake. He would like to see more funds for the NTP-related projects, more funds for additional development staff, and more staff members to represent NTP at meetings of standards bodies and conferences. He'd like to see more research on how best to synchronize network time in the future.
If members or donors wish to specify a particular project, they may do so. If they wish to support Stenn and the core NTP.org development and maintenance work, they can make a donation to the foundation accompanied by a statement that the funds go for NTP general support purposes.
Stenn and Graves urge members and donors to avoid earmarking funds donated to the foundation for a single purpose. As a 501(c)3 corporation, the foundation is obligated to follow "only use for …" statements, and then generate an audit proving that it did so. A statement that a donation "is intended to support NTP maintenance of code and equipment," would leave some discretion in the hands of the maintainers over whether a portion of it could be used to help with the upcoming move.
Donations may be may be made via the Network Time Foundation website, or sent to [email protected] through PayPal. Membership forms are available on the website. Member contributions and individual donations may also be sent to: Network Time Foundation, P.O. Box 918, Talent, OR 97540.