I.T. Times
Volume 5, No 8 Information Technology News of the University of California, Davis Summer 1997

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Year 2000 Compliance:

Will Your Computer Survive the New Millennium?

by Kent Kuo and Aviva Luria

There's a buzz in the air about something called the Year 2000 problem, and nearly as many theories and opinions as there are people discussing it. Depending on which Web site you browse or whom you talk to, you may end up with an impression that the Year 2000 problem is anything from an impending disaster to an overblown hoax.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. In July, the National Science Foundation warned NSF grant recipients that an unmitigated Year 2000 problem was a serious issue. "Many computer systems may experience operational difficulties because they are unable to handle the change from the year 1999 to the year 2000," said NSF director Neal F. Lane. NSF grant recipients, he said, are responsible for "taking all steps necessary to mitigate potential problems. The National Science Foundation should be notified if an awardee concludes that the Year 2000 will have a significant impact on its ability to carry out an NSF grant."

Just what is this "Year 2000 problem"? In the early days of computing, computer memory was limited and therefore extremely valuable. To save memory, many programmers used a two-digit field (rather than a four-digit one) to record the year ('97' rather than '1997'). Microchips with the same design have been embedded in nearly every electronic device developed over the last 30 years. Using this two-digit field has saved money over the years by saving computer memory, but with the year 2000 approaching, it has become a problem. Coded as '00,' the year 2000 will be read by affected computers as 1900. Systems of all types and sizes may corrupt data or reports. These include mainframes storing institutional data, minicomputers used by campus departments or faculty researchers, and personal computers (PCs), which are increasingly found in offices, homes, and dormitory rooms.

There may be serious repercussions. For instance, an insurance company sold $1,000 policies that were to mature in 30 years. Policy documents promised a return of $50,000, but that figure had been calculated by a PC with a Year 2000 glitch. The actual return to the policyholder should have been $5,000. By the time this error was discovered, the insurance company had sold 20,000 policies, making it liable for $900 million in payouts. The Year 2000 problem is as pervasive as technology in our society. It may affect the calculation of taxes, loans, and interest. Computer chips may be embedded in cars, video recorders, elevators, microwave ovens, and medical devices. Copy machines, power transformers, security systems, heating and air conditioning units, and programmable sprinkler systems are all potentially vulnerable.

The problem might affect operating systems (Windows 3.1 or 3.1.1), software compilers, applications (Microsoft Word version 6.0, Lotus 123 versions 4 and 5), peripheral systems (tape backup systems), queries, spreadsheets, or database reports. The problem may exist in all types of personal computers. IBM-compatible PCs, especially those built prior to June 1996, will not correctly roll over to the year 2000. Even those built since June 1996 should be checked because some PC vendors might not have made the change. While the Macintosh does not have a hardware or operating system Year 2000 problem, applications produced by other vendors may be vulnerable.

Here at UC Davis, Information Technology has been evaluating the central administrative computing and telecommunications systems since 1996. Programming changes and system upgrades are being planned to achieve full Year 2000 compliance during the 1998 calendar year.

Many local systems around campus have yet to be evaluated. These systems have been written in a variety of programming languages across a multitude of hardware platforms. The magnitude of such an evaluation requires that every department organize its technical staff to review its systems and begin planning for possible Year 2000 modifications or upgrades. Individual workstations should be included in the departmental evaluations.

How can your department begin this process? Start with an inventory of your systems by your Technical Support Coordinator (TSC) or other technical staff. Work with Information Technology or other campus departments that are addressing the Year 2000 problem. Find information about agencies and organizations that have worked extensively on vendor Year 2000 compliance (see our recommendations below). Contact the vendors or manufacturers and ask for Year 2000 compliance certifications, or status reports on their products achieving Year 2000 compliance.

Information Technology is planning for Fall Quarter a series of Brown Bags and Technology Support Program (TSP) training seminars to help campus units inspect and modify local departmental servers, desktop systems, and applications. The presentations will provide the opportunity to share experiences and best-in-class practices for researching, preparing for, and managing the Year 2000 change.

A follow-up article in the September I.T. Times will explore in more detail the steps taken by Information Technology to resolve central administrative and infrastructure systems issues related to the Year 2000 problem. Meanwhile, you will find more information on Year 2000 compliance at the UC Office of the President (UCOP) Year 2000 Web site (http://www.ucop.edu/irc/yr2000), the State of Washington home page (http://www.wa.gov/dis/y2000/y2000.htm) or the Web site for the Year 2000 Internet Information Center (http://www.year2000.com/cgi-bin/clock.cgi). A UC San Diego document addressing the issue may be found at http://www-act.ucsd.edu/year2000/y2kpref.html.

Kent Kuo (ktkuo@ucdavis.edu) is the Assistant Director of Information Resources and the Information Technology contact on central systems Year 2000 issues.