The late ’90s were a unique time for IT as an event loomed over them in the form of Y2K. Developers had previously used the date format of 01-01-00 for debug purposes, but it now needed to be updated to account for a whole new incoming millennium. Otherwise, software might just stop working on January 1, 2000. That issue was of course resolved successfully, but now a major problem with even greater ramifications is on the horizon for IT due to open-source code. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Joshua Gans explains why open-source code could cause major issues moving forward.
Y2K For the Modern Day
Open-source code is pretty much used by everyone nowadays. A prime example that Gans uses throughout the article is the Network Time Protocol (NTP). The NTP has been responsible for keeping time consistent across the board for the past 30 years, becoming an integral part of the stock market (among other things) in the process.
Now what if I told you the only thing keeping time from falling apart on the Internet was a 60-something volunteer in Oregon? Gans sheds some light on Harlan Stenn, a man whose work has kept the NTP running, but is still somehow so unknown that even Wikipedia doesn’t know who he is:
For a number of years Stenn has worked on a shoestring budget. He is putting in 100 hours a week to put patches on code, including requests from big corporations like Apple. A look at the NTP homepage will give you a sense of the struggle. It looks like it comes from another era. And this has led to delays in fixing security issues and complaints. And not surprisingly, Stenn has become crankier…
People like Stenn are often called “bus factors” in computer security. Basically, if they are randomly hit by a bus, the Internet could take a serious hit. These changes may not be immediate though and may take years to culminate in disaster. To combat this problem, pioneers like Open Collective are providing resources to help with groups that are in need, and libraries.io are indexing projects as well. Either way, the time for more diligence and accountability is now. We cannot rely on the Harlan Stenns of the world forever.
You can view the original article here: https://hbr.org/2017/07/could-open-source-code-make-our-y2k-fears-finally-come-true