Y2K Okay? Now the Other Dates
By Bill Corbett
Companies firmly focused on meeting the Jan. 1, 2000 deadline for fixing their computer problems might be missing a number of other important Year 2000 (Y2K) issues, says a Calgary expert.
Not surprisingly, many of these potential problems are related to dates. The upcoming Jan. 1 is just one of two dozen dates that could trip up computer systems over the next couple of years (see list below) , says Jennifer McNeill, president of Cipher Systems Ltd., which is spending 80 per cent of its time fixing Y2K problems across Canada.
"EVERY SYSTEM IS DIFFERENT. THAT'S WHY THERE'S NO EASY FIX," CIPHER SYSTEMS PRESIDENT JENNIFER MCNEILL.
Already, Jan. 1, 1999 caused taxis in Sweden and two other European countries to shut down. The problem was the year ends in 99, which in many computer codes also means "error" or "end file" (to save space, software designers used to delete the first two numbers of the century). Another problem date this year is Sept. 9, which for computer systems that track day, month and year can result in an "error" reading of 9/9/99 or 9999. "Some systems track the month and year, some just the year and some the month, date and year," says Ms. McNeill, who has testified before a House of Commons committee looking into the Y2K problem. "Every system is different. Thats why theres no easy fix."
Aug. 22, 1999 also poses a potential problem for Global Positioning System (GPS) users. GPS units keep track of location by measuring the time between signals from orbiting satellites. Specifically, they count weeks and then pinpoint the time to the second within a particular week. But when GPS code was developed, it had the capacity to count only 1,024 weeks, and those weeks run out at midnight on Aug. 21. When that happens, the counter returns to zero, perhaps causing some receivers to malfunction.
A largely overlooked day next year is Feb. 29. According to our Gregorian calendar, a leap year only occurs in century-ending years cleanly divisible by 400. That means 1900 wasnt a leap year but 2000 will be. The problem is when clocks roll over to 2000, many computers will read just 00, think its 1900 and thus assume theres no leap year.
Of course, there are the well-documented problems that could occur on Jan. 1, 2000. For
information technology systems, these will largely be problems of incorrect calculations.
For example, a payroll system determining benefits will look at an employee birth date,
say, of 1955 and subtract it from the present year which if in 2000 the system
reads 00 as 1900, will result in a negative number.
EVEN COMPANIES THAT HAVE DONE THEIR HOME-WORK AND PREPARED FOR ALL THESE DATES COULD STILL HAVE PROBLEMS BECAUSE OF WHAT OTHERS HAVE DONE OR NOT DONE.
Even companies that have done their homework and prepared for all these dates could still have problems because of what others have done or not done. "Twenty to 25 per cent of hardware and software being shipped today is not Year 2000 compliant. Contrary to popular belief, its not just a COBOL language problem but a technology problem with all types of codes. And its not just IT (information technology) systems but also embedded systems," says Ms. McNeill, whose staff of 50 includes three engineers working solely on embedded problems. Many embedded systems, such as encoded chips in a pipeline, will simply not understand what 00 means on Jan. 1. According to Ms. McNeill, this could cause half the fire trucks in Toronto to determine that they havent been maintained for 100 years and simply not start.
The reason that non-compliant technology is still being produced, Ms. McNeill says, is that some computer companies cut corners rather than spend the time and money to fix design flaws in this era of intense competition and short product lifespans. The lesson for users is to test all new systems for Y2K compliance, hopefully before buying them.
A greater hazard, she says, is posed by the approximately 30 per cent of Canadian companies that have yet to tackle their Y2K problems or that started too late. In todays intricately connected world, a partners, suppliers or customers failure to resolve their Y2K issues could wreak havoc with those who have been diligent. For example, a diligent bank could be disrupted by a supplier that produces cheques and was shut down because its computers wouldnt function on Jan. 1. To prepare for such disasters, Coca-Cola has stockpiled several months worth of cardboard containers.
"When people say they dont have a Y2K problem, it scares me," says Ms. McNeill, who as late as this January has received phone calls from local companies wanting to get started. "Everybody has a Y2K problem."