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Summary of the 2038 BoF at DC17

Hi folks,

As promised, here's a quick summary of what was discussed at the 2038
BoF session I ran in Montréal.

Thanks to the awesome efforts of our video team, the session is
already online [1]. I've taken a copy of the Gobby notes too,
alongside my small set of slides for the session. [2]

We had a conversation about the coming End of The World, the 2038 problem.

What's the problem?

UNIX time_t is 31 bits (signed), counting seconds since Jan 1,
1970. It's going to wrap.. It's used *everywhere* in UNIX-based
systems. Imagine the effects of Y2K, but worse.

What could go wrong?

All kinds if disasters! We're not trying to exaggerate this *too*
much, but it's likely to be a significat problem. For most of the
things that needed fixing for Y2K, they were on big obvious computers,
typically mainframes. Y2K was solved by people doing a lot of work; to
many outside of the direct work, it almost came to be an anti-climax.

In 20 years' time, the systems that we will be trying to fix for the
2038 problem are likely to be much harder to track. They're typically
not even going to look like computers - look at the IoT devices
available today, and extrapolate. Imagine all kinds of devices with
embedded computers that we won't know how to talk to, let alone verify
their software.

When does it happen?

Pick the example from the date(1) man page:

$ date --date=@$((2**31-1))
Tue 19 Jan 03:14:07 GMT 2038

At that point, lots of software will believe it's suddenly 1902...

What needs doing?

Lots of fixes are going to be needed all the way up the stack. 

Data formats are often not 2038-safe. The filesystems in use today are
typically not ready. Modern ext4 *is*, using 34 bits for seconds and
30 bits for nanoseconds. btrfs uses a 64-bit second counter. But data
on older filesystems will need to be migrated.

There are many places in the Linux kernel where 32-bit time_t is
used. This is being worked on, and so are the interfaces that expose
32-bit time_t.

Lots of libraries use 32-bit time_t, even in places where it might not
be obvious. Finally, applications will need fixing.

Linux kernel

There's project underway to fix Linux time-handling, led by Deepa
Dinamani and Arnd Bergmann. There's a web site describing the efforts
at https://kernelnewbies.org/y2038 and a mailing list at
y2038@lists.linaro.org. They are using the y2038 project as a good way
to get new developers involved in the Linux kernel, and those people
are working on fixing things in a number of areas: adding core 64-bit
time support, fixing drivers, and adding new versions of interfaces
(syscalls, ioctls).

We can't just replace all the existing interfaces with 64-bit
versions, of course - we need to continue suporting the existing
interfaces for existing code.

There are lots of tasks here where people can join in and help.


Glibc is the next obvious piece of the puzzle - almost everything
depends on it. Planning is ongoing at


to provide 64-bit time_t support without breaking the existing 32-bit
code. There's more coverage in LWN at


The glibc developers are obviously going to need the kernel to provide
64-bit interfaces to make much progress. Again, there's lot of work to
be done here and help will be welcome.


If you're working further up the stack, it's hard to make many fixes
when the lower levels are not yet done.

Kernels other than Linux are also going to have the same problems to
solve - not really looked at them in much detail. As the old time_t
interfaces are POSIX-specified, hopefully we'll get equivalent new
64-bit interfaces that will be standard across systems.

Massive numbers of libraries are going to need updates, possibly more
than people realise. Anything embedding a time_t will obviously need
changing. However, many more structures will embed a timeval or
timespec and they're also broken. Almost anything that embeds
libc-exposed timing functions will need updating.

We're going to need mass rebuilds to find things that break with new
interfaces, and to ensure that old interfaces still work. An obvious
thing to do here also is automated scanning for ABI compliance as
things change.

Things to do now

Firstly: developers trying to be *too* clever are likely to only make
things worse - don't do it! Whatever you do in your code, don't bodge
around the 32-bit time_t problem. *Don't* store time values in weird
formats, and don't assume things about it to "avoid" porting
problems. These are all going to cause pain in the future as we try to
fix problems.

For the time being in your code, *use* time_t and expect an ABI break
down the road. This is the best plan *for now*.

In terms of things like on-disk data structures, don't try to
second-guess future interfaces by simply adding padding space for a
64-bit time_t or equivalent. The final solution for time handling may
not be what you expect and you might just make things worse.

Dive in and help the kernel and glibc folks if you can!

Next, check your code and the dependencies of your code to see if
there are any bodges or breakages that you *can* fix now.


It's a shame to spoil the future pensions of people by trying to fix
this problem early! :-)

There are various license checkers already in use today - could the
same technology help finding time junk? Similarly, are any of the
static analysis tools likely to help. It's believed that Coverity (for
example) may be looking into the static analysis component of
this. There's plenty of scope for developers to help work in these
areas too.

Do we need to worry about *unsigned* time_t usage too (good to 2106)?
As an example, OpenPGP packets use that. This gives us a little bit
longer, but will still need to be considered. The main point to
consider is fixing things *properly*, don't just hack around things by
moving the epoch or something similarly short-term.

It's important that we work on fixing issues *now* to stop people
building broken things that will bite us. We all expect that our own
computer systems will be fine by 2038; Debian systems will be fixed
and working! We'll have rebuilt the world with new interfaces and
found the issues. The issues are going to be in the IoT, with systems
that we won't be able to simply rebuild/verify/test - they'll fail. We
need to get the underlying systems right ASAP for those systems.

2038 is the problem we're looking at now, but we're going to start
seeing issues well before then - think repeating calendar entries.

Libraries often don't need to expose any time_t style information, but
it's something to be careful about. If people have worked things out
well, changing the internal implementation of a delay function should
not pollute up the stack. But it's easy to pick up changes without
realising - think about select() in the event loop, for example.

Statically linked things (e.g. the Go ecosystem) are likely to bite -
we need to make sure that the libraries that they embed are fixed
early, before we can rebuild that stack upwards.

How can we enforec the ability to upgrade and get support for IoT
products so that they don't just brick themselves in future? GPL
violations play into this because the sources are unavailable - i.e.,
no way to rebuild and upgrade. Ancient vendor kernels are a major
PITA, and only make things more urgent.

If you're designing your own data format without reference to current
or upcoming standards, then of course consider the need for better
time handling. Conversions will be needed anyway.

Main takeaways:

 * This is a real problem
 * We need to fix the problem *early*
 * People are working on this already, and there's plenty of tasks to
   help with

[1] http://meetings-archive.debian.net/pub/debian-meetings/2017/debconf17/it-s-the-end-of-the-world-in-21-years.vp8.webm
[2] https://www.einval.com/~steve/talks/Debconf17-eotw-2038/

Steve McIntyre, Cambridge, UK.                                steve@einval.com
"...In the UNIX world, people tend to interpret `non-technical user'
 as meaning someone who's only ever written one device driver." -- Daniel Pead

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