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IT ISN’T ‘Just a Sec’: Why the Leap Second Must Go

Google, Microsoft, Meta and Amazon launched a public effort in July to scrap the leap second, an intermittent extra tick that keeps clocks in sync with the Earth’s actual rotation. US and French timekeeping authorities concur.

Since 1972, the world’s timekeeping authorities have added a leap second 27 times to the global clock referred to as theInternational Atomic Time (TAI). Rather than 23: 59: 59 changing to 0:0:0 at nighttime, a supplementary 23: 59: 60 is tucked in. That triggers lots of indigestion for computers, which depend on a network of precise timekeeping servers to schedule events also to record the precise sequence of pursuits like adding data to a database.

The temporal tweak causes more problems — like internet outages — than benefits, they state. And coping with leap seconds ultimately is futile, the group argues, because the Earth’s rotational speed hasn’t actually changed much historically.

“We have been predicting that when we just adhere to the TAI without leap second observation, we have to be best for at the very least 2,000 years,” research scientist Ahmad Byagowiof Facebook parent company Meta said via email. “Perhaps at that time we might have to look at a correction.*

The tech giants and two key agencies concur that it is time to ditch the leap second. Those will be the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and its own French equivalent, the Bureau International de Poids et Mesures (BIPM).

This governmental support is crucial, considering that ultimately it really is governments and scientists — not technology companies — which are responsible for the world’s global clock system.

The leap second change triggered a massive Reddit outage in 2012, in addition torelated problems at Mozilla, LinkedIn, Yelp and airline booking service Amadeus. In 2017, a leap second glitch at Cloudflare knocked a fraction of the network infrastructure company’s customers’ servers offline. Cloudflare’s software, comparing two clocks, calculated that point had opted backward but couldn’t properly handle that result.

Computers are actually proficient at counting. But humans introduce irregularities like leap seconds that may throw a wrench in the works. Probably the most infamous was the Y2K bug, when human-authored databases recorded only the final two digits of the entire year and smudged math when 1999 became 2000. A related problem is to arrive 2038 whenever a 32-bit number that some computers use to count the seconds from Jan. 1, 1970, is not any longer large enough.

And earlier this season, some websites choked when browsers hit version 100 since they were programmed to cope with only two-digit version numbers.

To help ease the issues with computer clocks that can’t stand 61-second minutes, Google pioneered the thought of the “leap smear” which makes the leap second’s changes in lots of tiny steps during the period of each day.

Adding a leap second causes issues with computers. And sooner or later, we’d need to subtract one, too — something that’s never happened — and that could likely uncover new problems.

“It might have a devastating influence on the software counting on timers or schedulers,” Byagowi and Meta engineer Oleg Obleukhov said in a post.

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