The prehistory of the NTPsec project goes back to 2013, when one of the team members offered to help migrate the NTP Classic history out of BitKeeper to git or hg - anything that might increase community access and participation. Said member (ESR) was then, and still is, the open-source community’s go-to guy for large, messy repository conversions. Harlan Stenn, the lead of NTP Classic, was determined to hold on to BitKeeper and refused the offer.
In late 2014 another founding member - Susan Sons - became aware that NTP Classic instances were routinely being used as amplifiers for DDoS attacks. Investigating, she became concerned with what she learned about the state of NTP Classic. When she communicated the results of her research to her superiors at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, they contacted the National Science Foundation - which became so alarmed that it approved funding for a rescue intervention (something it had never done before) in two days.
Grant approval in hand, Susan needed a technical team. She recruited ESR, who recruited Gary Miller and Hal Murray. Some technical plans and the broad direction of the project began to take shape. Amar Takhar, who had been a system administrator for the NTP Classic project, joined the conversation in mid-February.
In Hal and Amar, Susan’s team included two prominent members of NTP Classic’s user and developer community. Gary and ESR, though not directly members themselves, had ties to that community through their time-service work on the GPSD project. The ideal outcome for all of us and the NSF would have been to re-invigorate the NTP Classic codebase within the organizational framework of Harlan Stenn’s Network Time Foundation. We negotiated with Harlan Stenn towards this end.
A meeting of minds should have been possible. Stenn had been complaining for years that NTP development was held up by lack of skilled developer time and a support budget. The NSF’s rescue intervention offered both.
It was not to be. Stenn insisted that development must remain on BitKeeper, a choice which the rescue team felt would continue to wall off the NTP Classic codebase from the wider open-source community and thus perpetuate its dangerously stagnant state.
Following the collapse of negotiations, Amar Takhar made the decision to initiate a project fork, and invited the rescue team members to help it happen. ESR and Gary signed on immediately, Hal a few weeks later. After considering other candidates to be the new project’s security officer, Amar asked Susan to join up in that role and she accepted. Subsequently Amar recruited Chris Johns from the RTEMS project. Gary Miller assisted with the repository migration and some early cleanup work, but resigned from the team before launch.
Forking a project, especially a mature and well-established project like NTP, is never a decision to be made lightly. The team regrets the necessity, but we felt that NTP is far too important a part of the Internet infrastructure to be allowed to fall further into decay.
The team began work to fulfill the NSF’s grant terms, migrating the history to git and showing measurable progress towards security-hardening the code. We also began to quietly prepare for a public project launch. In June 2015 we gained funding from the Linux Foundation’s Core Infrastructure Initiative. Around the same time Dr. Joel Sherrill, learning of our effort and its goals, resigned from the Network Time Foundation board and joined our team.
Through the late summer and fall of 2015 the team worked on the massive cleanup required to remove obsolete code, fix documentation, and live-test the results. We removed over half the bulk of the NTP Classic codebase and significantly security-hardened what was left. We changed build systems from autoconf to waf for a dramatic improvement in build times and repeatability.
In late September Mark Atwood stepped up to manage the project, freeing Amar to concentrate on his technical work. Shortly after that we began active cooperation with three different security-research groups to find and fix NTP vulnerabilities, and Daniel Franke joined the team as our crypto expert.
In early October we began planning for an 0.90 beta release, which shipped on November 21st 2015.
Over the next two years, we released 9 more tagged versions. Over that time, we had successes and failures, we drained many swamps of bad code, and we discovered many more. Some team members dropped out for other pursuits, or were awarded emeritus status, and new talented team members have joined us.
Working with the Internet Civil Engineering Institute, we were able to keep working due generous grant support from the Thiel Foundation, for which we are very grateful.
We wrote a step by step HOWTO on how to run NTPsec on a Raspberry Pi single board computer with a GPS receiver, allowing hackers and hobbyists to easily build and run their very own Stratum 1 NTP server. Talented volunteers have stepped up to maintain that document as the Raspberry Pi platform has evolved.
We had two annual face to face meetings hosted at the Penguicon conference near the city of Detroit, Michigan, where the core team was able to meet, socialize, exchange GPG keys, and plan for more work. We plan on having the next face to face meeting in June 2018 at the South East Linux Fest conference in Charlotte North Carolina.
Finally, on October 10th 2017, as the team gathered and watched on IRC, we finally released version 1.0.0.
The rest of the story has yet to be written.