Leap seconds cause chaos for computers – so Meta wants to get rid of it

Since 1972, 27 leap seconds have been added: extra seconds to the world’s common clock — Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC — to account for changes in the Earth’s rotational speed. Historically, our concept of time has been defined as a fraction of the length of the solar day, but since the Earth’s rotational speed is somewhat erratic (slowing down and accelerating based on various factors), it means that solar time and universal time tend to to drive each other. So, to compensate, we add leap seconds. And this For real messes up computers.

I mean, imagine you’re a computer. You have a very clear sense of time. You know there are 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, and 60 seconds in a minute: all neat and tidy. Then, on any given day, as you wait for the dawn to come, you watch in horror as your internal clock ticks from 23:59:59 to the previously unprecedented time of 23:59:60. You are naturally scared. You might crash a little, just to calm your nerves. As a result, you take down some of the biggest websites in the world. Everyone gets mad at you.

This is not a joke scenario. When a leap second was added in 2012, it caused significant outages for sites like Foursquare, Reddit, LinkedIn, and Yelp. By 2015, when the next leap second had arrived, most of the engineers had learned their lessons, but there were still some problems. Ditto 2016. As Linux creator Linus Torvalds put it: “Almost every time we have a leap second, we find something. It’s really annoying, because it’s a classic case of code that basically never executes, so not tested by users under their normal circumstances.”

That is why social media conglomerate Meta wants to get rid of the leap second. In a blog post published yesterday, the company’s engineering team outlined their argument against adding leap seconds, saying it’s an adaptation that “mainly benefits scientists and astronomers” (because it allows them to make observations of celestial bodies). using UTC). This advantage is less important than it once was, Meta says, and does not outweigh the confusion caused in the tech world.

“Introducing new leap seconds is a risky practice that does more harm than good, and we believe it’s time to introduce new technologies to replace them,” the company says.

According to a report by CNETMeta is not alone in this, and this campaign has received support from other tech giants such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon, as well as heavyweights in the international measurement community such as the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and France’s Bureau International de Poids. et Mesures (BIPM).

But what happens to the coordinated universal time without leap seconds? Let’s just get it out of sync with solar time? Well, there are options, as Meta points out. An alternative to the leap second is the smear second, meaning that digital clocks must be delayed over a longer period of time to account for the extra time to be added — effectively spreading out the necessary leap second over a period of hours in a single day.

However, there are also problems with this method. There are many ways you can calculate smear seconds (particularly with regard to the period you use to divide the extra “time”). And since there is no single, centralized method of keeping time in the world’s many digital systems, this means that alternative methods can also cause confusion and malfunction.

In any case, Meta does not suggest any solution to the leap second problem. It just says there must be one. Indeed, this is a problem that many other organizations are now investigating. The next major milestone will be a 2015 report commissioned by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union or ITU. It should be published in 2023. Because you really can’t rush something like that.

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