Posted by Stuart on January 18th, 2009
Apart from the usual celebrations and revelry the end of December brought with the addition of another Leap Second to UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time).
UTC is the global timescale used by computer networks across the world ensuring that everybody is keeping the same time. Leap Seconds are added to UTC by the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS) in response to the slowing of the Earth’s rotation due to tidal forces and other anomalies. Failure to insert a leap second would mean that UTC would drift away from GMT (Greenwich Meantime) – often referred to as UT1. GMT is based on the position of the celestial bodies so at midday the sun is at its highest above the Greenwich Meridian.
If UTC and GMT were to drift apart it would make life difficult for people like astronomers and farmers and eventually night and day would drift (albeit in a thousand years or so).
Normally leap seconds are added to the very last minute of December 31 but occasionally if more than one is required in a year then is added in the summer.
Leap seconds, however, are controversial and can also cause problems if equipment isn’t designed with leap seconds in mind. For instance, the most recent leap second was added on 31 December and it caused database giant Oracle’s Cluster Ready Service to fail. It resulted in the system automatically rebooting itself on New Year.
Leap Seconds can also cause problems if networks are synchronised using Internet time sources or devices that require manual intervention. Fortunately most dedicated NTP servers are designed with Leap Seconds in mind. These devices require no intervention and will automatically adjust the entire network to the correct time when there is a Leap Second.
A dedicated NTP server is not only self-adjusting requiring no manual intervention but also they are highly accurate being stratum 1 servers (most Internet time sources are stratum 2 devices in other words devices that receive time signals from stratum 1 devices then reissue it) but they are also highly secure being external devices not required to be behind the firewall.