Zoning In

Here in the US, we all jumped our clocks ahead (for perhaps maybe one of the final times) and that event surfaced this interesting deep dive onto my radar: the Time Zone Database. In a fascinating 14-minute read, Daniel Rosehill goes into two key details that are, no joke, keeping an essential part of the internet running.

The first is the actual database itself. This is one that has been in existence for decades and computers running macOS and Linux use to retrieve their time zone information. This is baked into the operating system itself. That's how important it is. Even if you personally don't use a computer running Linux, a vast majority of the internet's servers do. Any Android phone or device running Android (an Amazon Fire Stick or Fire Tablet) all run on Linux.

Unlike most databases, it’s been deemed interesting enough to have a wikipedia entry maintained about it. Just as curiously, the database has also been the subject of litigation. In fact, it’s been deemed so essential to the operation of computers worldwide that ICANN — which approves top level domains (TLDs) among many vital internet-relation functions — has brought it under its auspices. This generally only happens when something is really fricking essential to the internet.

Daniel Rosehill

The second key part of the Time Zone Database is that it is now administered by a single person. Yes, a vital part of basically the entire information infrastructure we've created falls to one person: Paul Eggert, a computer scientist based out of UCLA. Eggert is the person who handles any changes countries make to DST, such as the bill the US is floating right now.

Eggert’s students speak of him in awed tones. With reverence.

He is said to be an almost impossibly hard grader.

A-grades from the Time Zone King are not to be taken lightly. This is a man, after all, whose codebase helps hundreds of millions of users know what time zone they’re in and who — for the past ten years — has gone to bed knowing that hundreds of millions of computers are using his code to know what time zone they’re in. He’s lived under that pressure for over a decade. And by all accounts thrived.

Daniel Rosehill

It's almost impossible to think of one person being responsible for such vital information, but here we are. Rosehill's analysis of the database and Eggert's work is a fascinating look into how the early days of computing and the internet are still very much in play today. Technology marches on, but the pillars on which everything now sits are still deeply rooted in how problems were solved nearly fifty years ago.