There are some hard truths to swallow about the current state of OSS contained within this article published by Harvard Business Review. While the article discusses in-depth Network Time Protocol (NTP) and Harlan Stenn’s long hours spent coding, it doesn’t reference Network Time Foundation by name even once. This has been an ongoing problem. Articles are written about Network Time Foundation’s various projects, but no mention is made of the foundation or its support of said projects.
Take this snippet from the aforementioned Harvard Business Review article, for example:
Open-source code resides everywhere. If you’ve hired a software developer, their work most likely contained code from the open-source community. The same goes for software programs. Let me take my favorite example, the Network Time Protocol, or NTP. Invented by David Mills of the University of Delaware, it is the protocol that has been keeping time on the internet for over 30 years. This is important because all computer systems require reliable time — even more so if they communicate with one another. This is how stock exchanges timestamp trade. In a world of high-frequency trading, imagine if there was no agreement as to what that time was. Chaos would reign.
You might think that time is a pretty stable thing. But it’s not. What we call “time” changes over time. Different countries set their clocks back or move them ahead, and every so often we have a leap second event that requires everyone to recognize an extra second at the same time. To add to that, time must be kept down to the millisecond, which means the server that houses time has to operate very precisely.
Though it doesn’t mention Network Time Foundation by name, this perfectly describes the need for the foundation and what it does. Although the Average Joe and Jane rely on accurate time, they are not the people ensuring it is so. Someone has to keep the time. It’s a lot of work. Far too much work for one man, yes? But…
Now for the scary part. What if I told you that the entire NTP relies on the sole effort of a 61-year-old who has pretty much volunteered his own time for the last 30 years? His name is Harlan Stenn, he lives in Oregon, in the United States, and he is so unknown that he does not even appear on the NTP Wikipedia page.
While this isn’t completely accurate (other volunteers also contribute to the code and the project’s online infrastructure), it drives home the point. Network Time Foundation is funding NTP, but the President of the foundation – the main programmer of NTP – doesn’t even appear on the Wikipedia page! How are we supposed to bring in the level of funding necessary to support these vital projects if no one knows we exist?
Once upon a time, Network Time Foundation had a Wikipedia entry, but it was removed by Wikipedia moderators. We knew the importance of a Wikipedia entry, but we didn’t know it is a no-no to write the entry ourselves. Someone not affiliated with Network Time Foundation would need to write the Wikipedia entry on our behalf. Maybe that person is you?
“Pleading for Help”
NTP has had some donations, but its constant pleading for help is worrisome.
This is just one example. And in many ways, it is the easiest to understand and potentially fix. The fact that it hasn’t been is the bigger mystery.
The tech community knows NTP is vitally important, so the linked article is, in fact, one of many similar articles. We agree that the lack of funding is worrisome, but, as a nonprofit organization, asking for donations is something we have to do. NTP is free to the masses. The only way to fund the maintenance and development of NTP (and our other time projects) is to ask for individual and institutional contributions and memberships.
The mystery behind the lack of funding isn’t much of a mystery at all.
Identification of the problem is simple: lack of funding.
The solution to the problem seems simple: ample funding.
Unfortunately, getting more money isn’t so simple.
Institutions consider ROI when deciding how to spend their money. Since they built their businesses on the backs of our software for free already, many don’t feel there is a return on investment by contributing to OSS. This is shortsighted and will lead to problems that negatively impact their bottom line eventually if not addressed. Is it a wise risk to assume someone else will step up to fund the base infrastructure their businesses rely on.
Most people simply don’t know Network Time Foundation exists, or that what we do matters to their daily lives to such a large degree. This creates the problem of institutions knowing they need OSS, but hoping and expecting someone else will make the contributions to keep the software alive.
So, here we are. Everyone is saying, “Someone should do something about this,” all the while refusing to acknowledge that they are someone.
How do you help solve this problem?
If you are reading this blog post right now, you know Network Time Foundation exists. It’s highly likely that most people you know do not. Do you understand why what we do matters? Tell people! That is the most impactful thing you can do for the future of NTP and other open source network time software. Just talk about what we are doing for the world we all live in.