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Dec 12, 2017

Industry insights,

The year 2038 problem

Remember the panic that circulated ahead of the Year 2K crisis? With the expectation that computer systems as we knew it would literally stop working because the date 2000 could only be displayed as 00 that would effective take the machine back to 1900. Back then, it was expected that the Millennium bug would prevent modern day life and all technology would cease.

Now though, there is an even bigger global software problem looming, and if ever you needed a reason to upgrade your older PCs and laptops this would be it.

On the 19th January in 2038, anything that’s still running on a 32-bit computer is expected to experience significant disruption, as the way the 32-bit counts time is on binary code that will effectively run out and reset. Our 32-bit computers count time in seconds from the date January 1st 1970, once the computers reach 2,147,483,647, which will happen on the 19th January 2038, they will all reset to 13th December 1901.

This number of seconds is called the UNIX Timestamp and there the 2038 problem is also being referred to as the 2038 UNIX Millennium bug.

18 years ago we were all expecting the Millennium bug to materialise, and cause disruption in the same way, the main reason that it didn’t take a significant hold was because of the huge expenditure of time and resource with the tech industry to ensure the infrastructure could withstand this date change.

This event could pose a real threat and so the same level of investment and resource is going to be a requirement to make sure any machine that still runs on 32-bits is upgraded. It’s a massive task, but one that businesses and the technology industry as a whole need to take seriously or else it could affect the stock markets, any movement of money electronically, and could bring businesses to a halt.

Sounds like impending doom, doesn’t it? Well it’s not all bad news.

Nowadays 99% of computers are built using a 64-bit, which introduces a new reset date that is estimated as 20 times greater than the estimated age of the universe, and will last for approximately 292 billion years, long after our sun has super-nova’d.

For the majority of commercial and domestic computers this won’t pose as much of a problem, as these are generally 64-bit. However, as our reliance on computers is now so widespread, any technology or legacy infrastructure that is older than 10 years, such as ATMs, many of which are still operating with WindowsXP, could be running on 32-bits and therefore at risk of experiencing the 2038 crash.

The message is clear, this is not widespread panic (not yet) and we do have the best part of 20 years to fix the problem, although tech businesses will need to be considering how they manage the mammoth task of all the upgrades sooner rather than later.