2038 The Next Computer Time Bug

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Remember the turn of the millennium. Whilst many of us were counting down the seconds until midnight, there were network administrators across the globe with their fingers crossed hoping their computer systems will still be working after the new millennium kicked in.

The millennium bug was the result of early computer pioneers designing systems with only two digits to represent the time as computer memory was very scarce at the time. The problem didn’t arise because of the turn of the millennium, it arose because it was the end of the century and two digit year flicked around to 00 (which the machines assume was 1900)

Fortunately by the turn of the millennium most computers were updated and enough precautions were taken that meant that the Y2K bug, as it became known, didn’t cause the widespread havoc it was first feared.

However, the Y2K bug is not the only time related problem that computer systems can be expected to face, another problem with the way computers tell the time has been realised and many more machines will be affected in 2038.

The Unix Millennium Bug (or Y2K38) is similar to the original bug in that it is a problem connected with the way computers tell the time. The 2038 problem will occur because most machines use a 32 bit integer to calculate the time. This 32 bit number is set from the number of seconds from 1 January 1970, but because the number is limited to 32 digits by 2038 there will be no more digits left to deal with the advance of time.

To solve this problem, many systems and languages have switched to a 64-bit version, or supplied alternatives which are 64-bit and as the problem will not occur for nearly three decades there is plenty of time to ensure all computer systems can be protected.

However, these problems with timestamps are not the only time related errors that can occur on a computer network. One of the most common causes of computer network errors is lack of time synchronization. Failing to ensure each machine is running at an identical time using a NTP time server can result in data being lost, the network being vulnerable to attack from malicious users and can cause all sorts of errors such as emails arriving before they have been sent.

To ensure your computer network is adequately synchronized an external NTP time server is recommended.


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