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banner Monday, 30 April, 2001, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Party like it's 999,999,999
Big Ben interior
It's harder to tell the time when you are inside Big Ben
Remember the millennium? Forget it. Why celebrate 1,000 when you can celebrate a billion, asks BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Humans don't have much reason to celebrate reaching the age of 31 years, nine months, nine days and a few hours.

But Unix does. It's about to celebrate its one billionth second.

Unix is a computer operating system, like Windows, but one which, unlike Windows, is more celebrated than cursed.

And, if you are a keen net user, is probably one that you come into contact with far more often than you realise.

Operating history

Unix was developed at the Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. It was here that the first modern multi-user computer systems were developed - the forerunners of the net we know, love and use today.

It was created by programmers Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, and won its place in technology history for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it can run on many different types of computer with only a little tweaking.

By contrast operating systems such as Windows are very closely tied to PCs running the set of instructions used, in the main, by Intel chips.

Unix was "born" on 1 January 1970 and this is the moment that all the clocks inside Unix systems count from. They count the time from that date in seconds and represent this as a 32-bit number. No millennium bug for the system created by the forward-thinking Ritchie and Thompson.

There is reason to celebrate in September because at 0146 GMT on 9 September Unix clocks will clock up exactly one billion seconds. Some 31.709791983764586504312531709792 years after the day of its birth.

Party penguin

Although Unix has reason to celebrate, so far few Unix programmers seem inclined to join in.

The website Electromagnetic.net has put up a countdown clock showing how long there is to go. But that is as far as its celebrations go.

Something more ambitious is being planned by the Skåne Sjælland Linux User Group in Denmark.

Hans Schou, one of the members of the Sjælland group, said it is planning to combine the billion-second commemoration with a party celebrating 10 years of Linux - an operating system built around the heart of Unix.

Linux was officially born on 15 September 1991, but the group thinks it is worth stretching a point if it means a better party.

Linux penguin
The Linux penguin costume gets an airing
The arrangements for the party have yet to be finalised, but Mr Schou thinks it will probably involve a trip to the zoo on 8 September to see the penguins. The Linux mascot is a penguin called Tux. A penguin costume is being borrowed from a Danish Unix User Group to help the festivities along.

"We have Humbolt penguins at our local zoo." said Mr Schou, "but it will do although Tux looks more like an Emperor penguin."

After eating marinated herrings when the penguins are fed with raw the herrings, the group are planning to restart the party in the evening and will eat and drink all night until 0346 Danish time when they will watch the Unix clock tick past the one billion mark.

"The evening party is more a Unix party so I don't think we will eat herrings then," said Mr Schou.

Fireworks will be let off by a Linux computer, and the whole party will be webcast so others can join in the fun.

Counting clocks

A more important date for Unix happens in 2038 when Unix clocks Unix pass 2 billion seconds. This will exhaust the range of numbers it is possible to represent with 32 bits so any Unix computer that has not been updated could roll over to 1970 again.

Many people running Unix systems are gradually changing to 64-bit systems which can run for more than 290 billion years before they run out of numbers. As the Universe is thought to be only 15 billion or so years old then this should be enough.

Unix, and its offspring Linux, are used by the majority of the computers running the websites that make up the net. Having the right time on the net is becoming more important as it becomes more of a tool for business than a playground for the electronically literate.

As more deals are done via the net rather than face-to-face, knowing when they happened (and when ownership of goods changed hands) becomes crucial. In the UK an organisation called Greenwich Electronic Time has been formed to make it easier for web firms to get and use the right time.

Atomic clocks lose less than a second in a million years, and are dotted around the web and computers use these as reference points to co-ordinate their time-keeping. And, by the by, ensure that some people can celebrate at the right time.

It is good to know that someone is counting.

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