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2038: The Year the Internet Will End?

2038: The Year the Internet Will End
We're sure most of you remember the Y2K bug. Because most computers only stored the date with a two digit year, the clocks struck midnight on December 31, 1999 and all hell was supposed to break loose as computers around the world suddenly thought the year was 1900. The power goes out, records destroyed, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

Alas, when the date became January 1, 2000, the world didn't end. In fact almost no computers were affected at all. This was partially because of expensive and hurried fixes to millions of computers, and partially because the threat was vastly overstated by the media.

Now another date looms on the horizon -- 3:14:07 AM on January 19, 2038. The "2038 bug" will affect any Unix or Posix based systems such as the Linux servers that power the web and Macs running the Unix-based OSX. Posix based operating systems store date and time as a four byte integer (technically only 31 bits) counting seconds from January 1 1970. When the number of seconds reaches 2,147,483,647 seconds, the clock will reset to -2,147,483,648, or 8:45:52 PM Dec 13 1901.

What could happen? Well we've actually already seen some of the effects of this bug. In May of 2006 the bug brought an AOL (our parent company) web server to its knees. The server was designed to never timeout, but rather than set a the timeout to simply never occur the timeout was set for a billion seconds in the future. When the one billion seconds, or just over 31 years 251 days and 12 hours, past the January 19, 2038 threshold the scheduled timeout was scheduled to happen in the past, 1901, and the server crashed. A similar problem took out the Mars Rover Spirit temporarily in 2004 when it started sending nonsense messages back to Houston from the year 2038. If our current systems were left as is we could expect them to start crumbling one by one, and on the morning of January 19, 2038 would suddenly go offline as our server crashed.

Despite our sensationalist headline, neither the world nor the Internet will end in 2038. In fact with just under 30 years to spare we're pretty confident that any issues will be resolved before the doomsday scenario has a chance to play out. Besides, in 30 years shouldn't we have fancy new-voice controlled holographic computers like those promised to us by 'Minority Report?' We're pretty sure the pre-cogs weren't using Leopard.

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Tags: 2038, bug, internet, linux, os x, OsX, posix, unix



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