Brussels / 31 January & 1 February 2015


Interview with Harlan Stenn
NTF's General Timestamp API and Library. Current timestamps suck. We can do much better.

Harlan Stenn will give a talk about NTF's General Timestamp API and Library. Current timestamps suck. We can do much better. at FOSDEM 2015.
Q: Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I remember V7 Unix, and PDP-11s. I started writing really portable C code, and using Perl’s metaconfig package for this (before GNU Autoconf). I sent enough patches in to Larry Wall that I ended up being responsible for the 2.0 release of metaconfig. Did a lot of development and sysadmin work with heterogeneous Unix boxes, which led to using NFS a lot, which led to the need for accurate time on those machines. So I started submitting portability and bugfix patches to NTP. By the middle of 1996 I was doing a lot of work on the NTP Project.

Q: What will your talk be about, exactly? Why is this topic important?

Timestamps haven’t changed all that much in a very long time, but we use them, more and more. Having worked with manufacturing inventory and accounting systems, medical records and clinical laboratory systems, radiology systems, and various SCADA and other logging systems, I’ve kept notice of what has worked and what hasn’t.

Increasingly more often, timestamps acquired in one area must be referenced or sequenced with timestamps in other areas. With the sort of timestamps we currently use, this simply cannot be done well.

Q: So what information is missing in current timestamps and what problems does this cause?

A partial list includes:

Not knowing these things makes it very difficult to sequence events. It can be expensive and inefficient for all involved. In a medical care setting, think of what could “go wrong” or how much time and money is wasted if the timestamps for different events are inaccurate, and attorneys (in the US, at least!) start getting involved.

Look at what happened in the North American Northeast power blackout of 2003 - it was basically impossible to properly sequence the failure order at other than coarse-grained levels, as there were thousands of devices logging events with inconsistent time.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk? What do you expect?

Increased awareness, interest, participation, and support for the effort.

Q: What’s the history of the General Timestamp API Project? Why did you start it? How did it evolve? Has it become what you planned it to be?

I started thinking about it several years ago, when I realized that so many of the problems I was seeing trying to accomplish various event reconciliations were because the timestamps sucked.

I remembered the days when a 32- or 64-bit timestamp was considered fairly “big”. Unix timestamps haven’t changed all that much since the 1970s, when megabytes of data was a lot.

And what about the timestamps in SQL databases? How long have they looked like that?

I started looking at what would be needed in a timestamp to provide useful information at the application layer, and very quickly decided that for these timestamps to be useful we’d need to have kernel timekeeping support as well. I made some notes. Then Google Summer of Code 2013 came around, and the project selected by one very interesting student fell through - we needed to find another project for him to work on. I mentioned some, including the GTSAPI project, and he was very interested in that. So I wrote up more and we started working on the effort, a user-level library API and some effort into implementing this type of timestamp as a core timekeeping structure in a Linux kernel.

Since then, not much has happened - we just don’t have the people or funds to actively develop the project. I’d love to work on this full-time, but I’ve got both NTP and NTF work that takes precedence.

If we can get sufficient folks to volunteer and raise some dollars, we can make good progress with the project.

Q: Is the GTSAPI already usable for application developers? What functionality does it currently have?

We have a basic proof-of-concept library. The actual GTSAPI “structure” still needs some updating. There are some new ideas about how to handle UTC leap seconds that will be better than what we’ve currently done. Similarly, we need to take a stronger look at optional elements of the structure, including digital signatures.

Q: How can interested time nuts help the GTSAPI project?

We need some funding and/or bodies. If we only get funding, I can hire people to work on this. If we get enough people, we can do this with less funding. Note that “people” includes project participants as well as sysadmin help (mailing list, website, etc.)

Q: Have you enjoyed previous FOSDEM editions?

I’ll look and let you know :)

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.