Google, Microsoft, Meta and Amazon on Monday launched an initiative to eliminate the leap second, a process that adjusts UTC with the Earth’s actual rotation. The American and French timekeeping services agree.
Since 1972, 27 leap seconds have been added to the world clock, known as International Atomic Time (TAI). Instead of 23:59:59 becoming 0:0:0 at midnight, an additional 23:59:60 is inserted.
The problem is that this leap second affects computer systems that depend on an accurate timestamp to schedule events and record the exact sequence of actions, such as adding data to a database. Breaks or inaccuracies in the system time scale can lead to malfunctions.
It’s time to ditch the leap second
According to its critics, this time delay has more disadvantages, including Internet outages, than advantages. Opponents argue that it makes no sense to bother with leap seconds, given that the rate of rotation of the Earth has not changed much throughout history.
“We predict that if we stick to TAI without leap seconds, we’ll be fine for at least 2,000 years,” said Ahmad Byagowi, a researcher at Meta, Facebook’s parent company.
The tech giants, as well as the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and its French equivalent, the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM), agree that it’s time to ditch the leap second.
2012 and 2017 outages
In 2012, the leap second change led to a massive Reddit outage, as well as related issues on Mozilla, LinkedIn, Yelp, and the Amadeus flight booking service. In 2017, a leap second glitch brought down some of Cloudflare’s client servers. The software that was comparing two hours calculated that the time had gone backwards, but could not properly process this result.
Computers are unbeatable at math, but humans introduce bumps, including leap seconds, that can get in the way. One of the most notorious events in this registry is the infamous 2000 bug. Databases recorded only the last two digits of the year and skewed the calculations when 1999 became 2000. A similar problem will occur in 2038, which is what some computers use to count seconds since January 1, 1970, is no longer large enough. Earlier this year, some websites crashed when web browsers hit version 100 because they were programmed to only handle two-digit version numbers.
Other Errors to Expect
To alleviate problems with computer clocks that don’t like 61-second minutes, Google has come up with the idea of changing the leap second in a few small increments throughout the day. Adding a leap second causes problems for computers. And at some point you will have to subtract another one, which never happened, will probably cause new problems. “This could be devastating for software that uses timers or schedulers,” predict Biagovi and Oleg Obleukhov, engineers at Meta.
CNET.com article adapted by CNETFrance
Image: Vacheron Constantin