Usage of TimeWithZone - An Under-Appreciated Notion

2008-02-07 19:00:00 -0500

Over at Ryan’s Scraps, in a post about the new TimeWithZone functionality in edge Rails, there are a pair of comments that I want to highlight. A fella named Ben asks “Couldn’t this be pushed deeper so that current_user.registered_at is a TimeWithZone?”

Then there’s a response from the main guy who developed the TimeWithZone functionality, Geoff Buesig, in regards to how they intend it to be used (and with a bunch of other neat and helpful notes that you should check out):

1.TimeWithZone is similar to the Duration class, in that, you should never need to create an instance directly—in the TWZ case, you’ve got the #in_time_zone, #in_current_time_zone, #change_time_zone and #change_time_zone_to_current methods on Time and DateTime instances that will handle that for you.

So, for example, you can do this:


… and the result will automatically be wrapped in a TimeWithZone

What Ben is asking for, and what Geoff seems to be distancing himself from, is exactly what we here at Zetetic would find incredibly useful: the ability to harness our database backend’s time zone support, PostgreSQL’s ‘timestamp with time zone’.

Here’s the deal. PingMe was designed for users around the globe so it supports time zones. We set it up so that all timestamps (:datetime) were stored in UTC in the database, and converted to the user’s local time on display. We also convert from the user’s local time on datetime input. Nothing fancy or unexpected there, really. And hey, the tzinfo gem supports DST, so we’re good, right?

Well, PingMe is a scheduling system. It has a scheduler daemon that’s constantly checking to see which pings need to be sent out, then it creates outbound events for the dispatcher daemons to deliver. Never mind the terminology, the important thing here is that it’s working in UTC. And that Rails is storing the timestamps in Postgres’ default TIMESTAMP WITHOUT TIME ZONE data type. Here’s an illustrative query:

def lock_a_block(type_name)
before = (

UPDATE events SET dispatcher = '#{@name}'
(( events e INNER JOIN targets t ON e.target_id = )
INNER JOIN pings p ON e.ping_id =
INNER JOIN target_types tt ON t.target_type_id =
tt.const = '#{type_name}'
(e.dt_when < '#{before}' AND e.status = '#{Event::STATUS_PENDING}')
(e.retry_at < '#{before}' AND e.status = '#{Event::STATUS_RETRY}')
AND e.dispatcher IS NULL
AND t.activated_at IS NOT NULL
AND (p.is_done = 'f' OR p.is_done IS NULL)
AND (p.deleted_at IS NULL)
e.dt_when ASC
LIMIT #{@block_size}

So the app is providing a UTC timestamp for the before variable, and the timestamps are in UTC in the database. What happens when DST begins or ends? Nothing changes. Everything is sent at the set time, for UTC. So a ping set for 5pm EST was stored at 12:00 UTC, and when 5pm shifts an hour for EDT, that ping is still stored at 12:00 UTC and will be sent either an hour early or an hour late, depending on the circumstance.

The only way we could break this up to work off the time zone setting on the user model is to execute separate queries for all of our users all the time joining against their timezone. Ridiculous! And following Geoff’s notion of things above, it’s just not a clean solution — storing the ping’s time without the time zone is decidedly inaccurate. I hate to say it.

I think the best solution is not to store in UTC here, but to store as a timestamp with time zone. I realize that sounds like an impure solution, but it’s not: PostgreSQL actually stores the data in UTC and can do all sorts of magical conversions for us. We could still use the code above and work in proper UTC, but any DST on the timezone would be respected:

WHERE ... e.dt_when AT TIME ZONE 'UTC' < '#{before}'

And that is why I hope Geoff changes his mind, because we do need TimeWithZone as a data type in Rails, or perhaps a col definition that will provide a TimeWithZone instead of Time objects:

col.datetime :col_name, :with_time_zone => true

As an aside, we don’t leave PingMe users to hang when DST rolls around, we update the relevant time stamps via SQL. But I would like to get us to a better solution. Being able to store TimeWithZone would do just the thing.

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