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Published at 30 / septiembre / 2020

The 2038 Effect: is a new computer blackout haunting us?

The 2038 Effect: is a new computer blackout haunting us?

In 2014, the Korean artist PSY broke the YouTube view count by surpassing 2,147,483,647 views with his video for the hit music Gangnam Style. Once that barrier was crossed, as recalled by CNN, YouTube froze and stopped recording the real figures. It’s engineering specialists had to upgrade the architecture of the platform to evolve from a 32-bit system to a 64-bit system, ready to count to beyond 9.2 trillion.

This anecdote without much practical significance is considered, however, as the aperitif of the 2038 effect, a computer phenomenon that could compromise the functioning of some operating systems, devices and programs from that - still distant - year. Is a new 2000 effect looming?

What is the 2038 effect?

Effect 2038 or Y2K38 is a computer blackout that will take place on January 19, 2038 at 3:14:07 UTC; one hour later in CET, the time zone that corresponds to Spain in the autumn and winter months. Devices, applications and systems based on a 32-bit architecture do not tolerate subsequent time references, so from that moment they will fail or stop working permanently.

But why do 32-bit systems have this expiration date? The reason for this tare is that the maximum number of combinations that admit 32 binary digits is 4,294,967,296 (2,147,483,647 positive over zero and other 2,147,483,648 negative). Since most processors count time from January 1, 1970, their chronologies can only go back to December 13, 1901, with negative value combinations; and projected until January 19, 2038 with positive value combinations.

So what Will happen on January 19, 2038?

Any 32-bit development that has not been updated on January 19, 2038, one of three things will happen:

  1. It will start to give errors that will generate chain failures in the system.
  2. It will shut down and stop working forever.
  3. You will reset your time count and believe you are back to 1901.


Solutions for the cyber threat of the 2038 effect

The scenario we just described looks catastrophic, right? However, when the time comes, the 2038 effect will most likely remain marginal. We still have many years ahead of us to renew the technology park with hardware and software based on 64-bit systems, or to patch the few 32-bit installations that will remain operational in 18 years.

In fact, the concern for this incidence is, today, remote among the general public. Just ask Google. If we make a query about the number "2038", the search engine returns a large number of results related to the IBAN of a popular bank, but very little information about this computer prophecy.

In any case, the solutions to this planetary bug should not be delayed too long. These are the areas where it could cause the greatest damage and where, therefore, we must act quickly:

  • Unix and consequently, the operating systems based on it (Linux, Android and iOS). The challenge is that all current versions reach 2038 adapted to 64 bits. Good news: according to engineer Arnd Bergmann, one of the experts working on this question, Linux 5.6 will already work with this standard.
  • Administration and finance programs whose calculations imply dates after January 19, 2038. Today it could already be problematic to enter the details of a 20-year mortgage in them.
  • The Internet of Things, whose progress is promoting the technicalities and interconnection of objects of which, until recently, only analog models were sold. The problem is that some of these elements (a watch, a car, a kitchen robot…) tend to have longer lives than computers and mobile phones. Thus, they could reach the year 2038 with 32-bit computing architectures that would suddenly become obsolete.

How is effect 2038 similar to the effect 2000?

Both bugs, the year 2038 and the year 2000, have their origin in the way computers count the time. In the case of the 2000 or Y2K effect, the problem was summarized in that, in order to save storage space, many devices and programs did not include thousands and hundreds in the register of years. Thus, going from 1999 to 2000, it was to be expected that they would not recognize the change in the first two digits and would go back to 1900.

At that time, the world took the threat of a computer apocalypse very seriously, and governments and individuals spent about 215,000 million euros to prevent it (900 of them in Spain, according to El País). Thus, when push comes to shove, the consequences were minimal and harmless.

Looking to 2038, IT engineering specialists are already deploying their strategies to upgrade systems, while addressing other industry challenges such as cybersecurity, data storage, or sandboxing. Exciting, right? Well, we need more people like you to carry out these types of projects. Take charge of your professional career and join BETWEEN!

Tags: computing

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