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First published: 23rd June 1997

The Year 2000 Problem

The year 2000 is predicted to bring chaos to software which is unable to handle dates beyond 1999. The question is what effect the change of century will have on the Internet, Web and Apache in particular. This feature shows what the risks are.

First published in Apache Week issue 56 (23 June 1997).

The theory of the year 2000 problem is that many older programs use only two digits for the date, such as "97" or "06". This might be part of the internal storage, input fields, output display, or network communcation protocol. If a program does use a two digit date, it might either not accept year 2000 dates such as "02", or it might make incorrect comparisons (thinking that 02 is earlier than 97, because it assumes that 02 is 1902). There are some areas where two digit years are widely used - for example, on credit card expiry dates - and the software which handles these dates will have to be capable of knowing that smaller values for the date are really in the 21st century.

Years in Apache

There are three things which can affect how Apache treats year 2000 issues:

  • Apache code itself
  • The HTTP and other protocols that Apache implements
  • The underlying operating system

The Apache code internally never stores years as two digits - it processes dates and times as standard Unix time epochs (the number of seconds since 1st January 1970). When it outputs the year (e.g. to the log file) it writes years as four digits.

The HTTP protocol may be more troublesome. It allow for three different date formats in requests and responses, one of which uses a two-digit year. Dates are used on every response, in fields such as "Date", "Last-Modified" and "Expires", and requests can contain dates in the "If-Modified-Since" and similar fields. The date formats listed in HTTP/1.1 and HTTP/1.0 are:

  • Sun, 06 Nov 1994 08:49:37 GMT (defined in RFC 822 as updated by RFC 1123)
  • Sunday, 06-Nov-94 08:49:37 GMT (defined in RFC 850 and RFC 1036)
  • Sun Nov 6 08:49:37 1994 (as defined in ANSI C's asctime() format)

The first format is the only one that HTTP/1.1 servers are allowed to generate, and Apache uses it. This format includes a four-digit date. However to be compatible with older browsers and servers, Apache recognizes the other formats. The main problem will be older applications which generate RFC850 format dates - these only have a two digit date field. RFC850 format was used in early web servers and browsers, and the replacement with RFC1132 format in in early 1990's was not fully documented until HTTP/1.0 was published in 1996. However if Apache sees this format and the year is before 1970, it assumes that the first two digits of the four digit year are "20" rather than "19".

The final area which affects Apache's ability to handle dates is the underlying operating system. If the OS has problems with dates past year 2000, Apache will as well. Most Unix systems store dates internally as 32 bit integers which contain the number of seconds since 1st January 1970. This allows dates up to the year 2038 to be stored. For dates past 2038, the OS will have to be updated to store dates in larger fields (for example, as a 64 bit value).

There may also be problems before 2038 with OS calls which accept or return year numbers. For example, many date functions use a structure called tm which contains a field tm_year. This field holds the number of years since 1900, so for example the year 2002 will be stored as 102. This should not be a problem, provided that the OS and applications do not assume that the tm_year value is always a two-digit year between 1900 and 1999. All modern operating systems should be ok.


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