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Lebanon's IT folks face double trouble as leaders delayed Daylight Savings Time

Planes are taking off before check in time, healthcare and finance sectors also in a mess

On Thursday, March 23rd, 2023, the government of Lebanon postponed the start of Daylight Savings Time (DST) just two days before the time change was scheduled to occur.

Instead of setting clocks forward an hour at the end of March 25th, DST was delayed until midnight April 20th.

According to Timour Azhari, Reuters' person on the ground for Lebanon, Syria & Jordan, the change was enacted by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to keep days short for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

And fair enough given that during Ramadan Muslims are required to fast until sunset.

But not everyone went along with the decision. Christian leaders in the country objected to the creation of what Azhari refers to as the Berri-Mikati Time Zone (BMT) and set their clocks forward as planned, creating a sectarian time schism.

Consequently, on Sunday March 26, the people of Lebanon awoke in one of two possible time zones, causing considerable confusion and headaches for those operating IT systems and those trying to maintain schedules.

To illustrate the situation, Azhari recounted passing through passport control at Beirut International Airport at 1200 GMT and, by virtue of inconsistent time keeping, boarding his flight 30 minutes prior to his security check, at 1130 BMT.

The divide could be seen in internet search engines at the time this article was filed on Monday afternoon Pacific Time. Searching Google with the query "time in Beirut" returned Monday, March 27 2023 (GMT+2) while Bing responded, "Current time in Beirut, Lebanon ‎(UTC+3)."

The issue required IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, to publish revised data on Friday for the Time Zone Database (known as tz, tzdb, or zoneinfo), which makes time zone data available to various operating systems. Changes on short notice are discouraged, but they happen often enough that IANA acknowledges the problem.

"Time zone and daylight-saving rules are controlled by individual governments," IANA's time zone website explains. "They are sometimes changed with little notice, and their histories and planned futures are often recorded only fitfully."

IT systems affected by the change, however, may not see the revised data immediately, meaning that clock adjustments must be made manually in the interim. And this sort of discontinuity does not play well in healthcare settings.

In a statement [PDF], American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC) said its technical risk assessment of the DST delay recommends adopting the government's mandate but pushed back against the way it was handled.

"The key constraint was that the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) updated its database to show that the time-zone date for Lebanon to adopt daylight savings would be April 21," AUBMC said.

"This database is the reference used by service providers across the world to synchronize systems across different time zones. Accordingly, our IT teams have been working around the clock since Thursday to implement this change across all our medical center, finance, and educational systems."

Starting Monday, the university hospital said, classes would run on summer time while clinic appointments would occur on winter time until the end of the week, which is how long the IT staff is expected to require to reconfigure healthcare systems like EPIC.

"There is no plausible defense for the cavalier manner in which this decision to change the daylight savings date has been made," AUBMC said.

Saint Joseph University of Beirut said in a statement that the university, along with Hotel-Dieu de France and its hospital network, has shifted to summer time due to the disruption the government's DST postponement would cause to its servers and platforms.

UCLA computer science professor Paul Eggert, editor and coordinator of the Time Zone Database, said in a mailing list message, "Unfortunately, many GNU/Linux and other downstream suppliers take some time (a week or more) to test changes before they release data to their users. So unless you're using one of the smaller, faster-moving distros like Alpine Linux you'll likely be out of luck."

Lebanon's central bank adopted the DST postponement as it pertains to working hours, but has moved to DST for transactions, citing the risk of trying to implement the change at the last minute. Schools went ahead and set their clocks forward as planned.

And Middle East Airlines on March 23, rescheduled all of its flights so they would depart one hour earlier.

But the schism it seems will be short-lived. On Monday, the air carrier said it would push its flight departure times forward again on Wednesday in accordance with a decision on Monday by the Lebanese Council of Ministers to reinstate daylight saving time as of midnight March 29th.

"Initially, the impact of the time zone change was going to be significant, but people ended up ignoring it due to various reasons such as Christians opposing DST change because it accommodated Muslims fasting (sectarian nonsense), the government not recognizing the change as is the case with the Education ministry, or their workplace ignoring it outright," said Rany Hany, a software developer participating in the IANA discussion, told The Register in an email.

"This reduced the damage slightly. Organizations that did not update their servers to postpone DST no longer had to scramble to do that! However, a new issue emerged when systems that decided to abide by the government's request to postpone the DST change were deemed inaccurate by most users," Hany added.

"This is because while initially, it seemed like everyone was going to respect the change, most users no longer did, and that meant that admins had to scramble to rollback their changes."

Hany said Lebanon's mobile operators, Alfa and Touch, handled the situation poorly by broadcasting an SMS message to their customers directing them to disable NTP and set their mobile clocks manually to recognize government-declared time.

"This had the result of the clock being off by one hour relative to UTC, breaking calendars among other things," Hany explained. "The proper advice is to modify the GMT offset either by setting it to a different region or using Etc/GMT-2."

In all, Hany said, the abrupt time change caused a lot of confusion, which was made worse by interfaces that do not display the server's GMT/UTC offset.

Around midday on Monday – GMT-7 – Eggert proposed addressing "the time zone chaos in Lebanon," either by reverting the 2023b patch or by creating a new 2023c patch with more detail to undo 2023b. The situation, he admitted, is confusing. "In the meantime I again suggest to downstream distributors to stick with 2023a and avoid 2023b," he said. ®

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