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Fiction, Fantasy, and Fact:
“The Mad Scramble for the Elusive Silver Bullet . . . and the Clock Ticks Away.”
November 7, 1996
The year 2000 is practically around the corner, promising a new era of greatness and
wonder . . . as long as you don’t own a computer or work with one. The year 2000 is bringing a
Pandora’s Box of gifts to the computer world, and the latch is slowly coming undone.
The year 2000 bug is not really a “bug” or “virus,” but is more a computer industry
mistake. Many of the PC’s, mainframes, and software out there are not designed or
programmed to compute a future year ending in double zeros. This is going to be a costly “fix”
for the industry to absorb. In fact, Mike Elgan who is the editor of Windows Magazine, says ” . .
. the problem could cost businesses a total of $600 billion to remedy.” (p. 1)
The fallacy that mainframes were the only machines to be affected was short lived as industry
realized that 60 to 80 million home and small business users doing math or accounting etc. on
Windows 3.1 or older software, are just as susceptible to this “bug.” Can this be repaired in
time? For some, it is already too late. A system that is devised to cut an annual federal deficit to
0 by the year 2002 is already in “hot water.” Data will become erroneous as the numbers “just
don’t add up” anymore. Some PC owners can upgrade their computer’s BIOS (or complete
operating system) and upgrade the OS (operating system) to Windows 95, this will set them up
for another 99 years. Older software however, may very well have to be replaced or at the very
The year 2000 has become a two-fold problem. One is the inability of the computer to
adapt to the MM/DD/YY issue, while the second problem is the reluctance to which we seem to
be willing to address the impact it will have. Most IS (information system) people are either
unconcerned or unprepared.
Let me give you a “short take” on the problem we all are facing. To save storage space
-and perhaps reduce the amount of keystrokes necessary in order to enter the year to date-most
IS groups have allocated two digits to represent the year. For example, “1996″ is stored as “96″
in data files and “2000″ will be stored as “00.” These two-digit dates will be on millions of files
used as input for millions of applications. This two digit date affects data manipulation,
primarily subtractions and comparisons. (Jager, p. 1) For instance, I was born in 1957. If I ask
the computer to calculate how old I am today, it subtracts 57 from 96 and announces that I’m 39.
So far so good. In the year 2000 however, the computer will subtract 57 from 00 and say that I
am -57 years old. This error will affect any calculation that produces or uses time spans, such as
an interest calculation. Banker’s beware!!!
Bringing the problem closer to the home-front, let’s examine how the CAPS system is
going to be affected. As CAPS is a multifaceted system, I will focus on one area in particular,
ISIS. ISIS (Integrated Student Information System) has the ability to admit students, register
them, bill them, and maintain an academic history of each student (grades, transcripts, transfer
information, etc.) inside of one system. This student information system has hundreds and
hundreds of references to dates within it’s OS. This is a COBOL system accessing a ADABAS
database. ADABAS is the file and file access method used by ISIS to store student records on
and retrieve them from. (Shufelt, p.1) ADABAS has a set of rules for setting up keys to specify
which record to access and what type of action (read, write, delete) is to be performed. The
dates will have to have centuries appended to them in order to remain correct. Their (CAPS)
“fix” is to change the code in the Procedure Division (using 30 as the cutoff >30 century = “19″
30) then it can
be assumed that you are referring to a year in the 20th century and a “19″ will be moved to the
century field. If the year is less than 30 (absolutely necessary, ISIS will add a field and a superdescriptor index in order to keep record
retrieval in the order that the program code expects. The current compiler at CAPS will not
work beyond the year 2000 and will have to be replaced. The “temporary fix” (Kludge) just
discussed (30) will allow ISIS to operate until the year 2030, when they hope to have
replaced the current system by then.
For those of you with your own home computers, let’s get up close and personal. This
problem will affect you as well! Up to 80% of all personal PCs will fail when the year 2000
arrives. More than 80,000,000 PCs will be shut down December 31, 1999 with no problems.
On January 1, 2000, some 80,000,000 PCs will go “belly up!” (Jager, p. 1) These computers
will think the Berlin Wall is still standing and that Nixon was just elected President! There is
however, a test that you can perform in order to see if you are on of the “lucky” minority that do
not have a problem with the year 2000 affecting their PC.
First, set the date on your computer to December 31, 1999. Next, set the time to 23:58
hours (if you use a 24 hour clock (Zulu time)) or 11:58 p.m. for 12 hour clocks. Now, Power Off
the computer for at least 3 to 5 minutes. Note: ( It is appropriate at this time to utter whatever
mantras or religious chants you feel may be beneficial to your psyche ). Next, Power On the
computer, and check your time and date. If it reads January 1, 2000 and about a minute or two
past midnight, breathe a sigh of relief, your OS is free from the year 2000 “bug.” If however,
your computer gives you wrong information, such as my own PC did (March 12, 1945 at 10:22
a.m.) welcome to the overwhelming majority of the population that has been found “infected.”
All applications, from spreadsheets to e-mail, will be adversely affected. What can you
do? Maybe you can replace your computer with one that is Year 2000 compatible. Is the
problem in the RTC (Real Time Clock), the BIOS, the OS? Even if you fix the hardware
problem, is all the software you use going to make the “transition” safely or is it going to corrupt
The answers to these questions and others like them are not answerable with a yes or a
no. For one thing, the “leading experts” in the computer world cannot agree that there is even a
problem, let alone discuss the magnitude upon which it will impact society and the business
world. CNN correspondant Jed Duvall illustrates another possible “problem” scenario. Suppose
an individual on the East Coast, at 2 minutes after midnight in New York City on January 1,
2000 decides to mark the year and the century by calling a friend in California, where because of
the time zone difference, it is still 1999. With the current configurations in the phone company
computers, the NewYorker will be billed from 00 to 99, a phone call some 99 years long!!! (p. 1)
What if you deposit $100 into a savings account that pays 5% interest annually. The
following year you decide to close your account. The bank computer figures your $100 was
there for one year at 5% interest, so you get $105 back, simple enough. What happens though, if
you don’t take your money out before the year 2000? The computer will re-do the calculation
exactly the same way. Your money was in the bank from ‘95 to ‘00. That’s ‘00 minus ‘95, which
equals a negative 95 (-95). That’s -95 years at 5% interest. That’s a little bit more than $10,000,
and because of the minus sign, it’s going to subtract that amount from your account. You now
owe the bank $9,900. Do I have your attention yet??!!
There is no industry that is immune to this problem, it is a cross-platform problem. This
is a problem that will affect PCs, minis, and mainframes. There are no “quick fixes” or what
everyone refers to as the “Silver Bullet.” The Silver Bullet is the terminology used to represent
the creation of an automatic fix for the Yk2 problem. There are two major problems with this
philosophy. First, there are too many variables from hardware to software of different types to
think that a “cure-all” can be found that will create an “across-the-board” type of fix. Secondly,
the mentality of the general population that there is such a “fix” or that one can be created rather
quickly and easily, is creating situations where people are putting off addressing the problem due
to reliance on the “cure-all.” The ” . . . sure someone will fix it.” type attitude pervades the
industry and the population, making this problem more serious than it already is. (Jager, p. 1)
People actually think that there is a program that you can start running on Friday night . . .
everybody goes home, and Monday morning the problem has been fixed. Nobody has to do
anything else, the Yk2 problem poses no more threat, it has been solved. To quote Peter de
“Such a tool, would be wonderful.
Such a tool, would be worth Billions of dollars.
Such a tool, is a na ve pipe dream.
Could someone come close? Not very . . .
Could something reduce this problem by 90%? I don’t believe so.
Could it reduce the problem by 50%? Possibly . . . but I still don’t believe so.
Could it reduce the workload by 30%? Quite likely.”
Tools are available, but are only tools, not cures or quick fixes.
How will this affect society and the industry in 2000? How stable will software design
companies be as more and more competitors offer huge “incentives” for people to “jump ship”
and come work for them on their problems!? Cash flow problems will put people out of
business. Computer programmers will make big bucks from now until 2000, as demand
increases for their expertise. What about liability issues that arise because company “A” reneged
on a deal because of a computer glitch. Sue! Sue! Sue! What about ATM lockups, or credit card
failures, medical emergencies, downed phone systems. This is a wide spread scenario because
the Yk2 problem will affect all these elements and more.
As is obvious, the dimensions to this challenge are apparent. Given society’s reliance on
computers, the failure of the systems to operate properly can mean anything from minor
inconveniences to major problems: Licenses and permits not issued, payroll and social service
checks not cut, personnel, medical and academic records malfunctioning, errors in banking and
finance, accounts not paid or received, inventory not maintained, weapon systems
malfunctioning (shudder!), constituent services not provided, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Still think you’ll be unaffected . . . highly unlikely. This problem will affect computations which
calculate age, sort by date, compare dates, or perform some other type of specialized task. The
Gartner Group has made the following approximations:
At $450 to $600 per affected computer program, it is estimated that a medium size company will
spend from $3.6 to $4.2 million to make the software conversion. The cost per line of code is
estimated to be $.80 to $1. VIASOFT has seen program conversion cost rise to $572 to $1,204.
ANDERSEN CONSULTING estimates that it will take them more than 12,000 working days to
correct its existing applications. YELLOW CORPORATION estimates it will spend
approximately 10,000 working days to make the change. Estimates for the correction of this
problem in the United States alone is upward of $50 to $75 Billion dollars.
(ITAA, p. 1)
Is it possible to eliminate the problem? Probably not, but we can make the transition
much smoother with cooperation and the right approach. Companies and government agencies
must understand the nature of the problem. Unfortunately, the spending you find for new
software development will not be found in Yk2 research. Ignoring the obvious is not the way to
approach this problem. To assume that the problem will be corrected when the system is
replaced can be a costly misjudgment. Priorities change, development schedules slip, and
system components will be reused, causing the problem to be even more widespread.
Correcting the situation may not be so difficult as it will be time consuming. For
instance, the Social Security Administration estimates that it will spend 300 man-years finding
and correcting these date references in their information systems – systems representing a total of
30 million lines of code. (ITAA, p. 3) Common sense dictates that a comprehensive conversion
plan be developed to address the more immediate functions of an organization (such as invoices,
pay benefits, collect taxes, or other critical organization functions), and continue from there to
finish addressing the less critical aspects of operation. Some of the automated tools may help to
promote the “repair” of the systems, such as in:
* line by line impact analysis of all date references within a system, both in terms of data and
* project cost estimating and modeling;
* identification and listing of affected locations;
* editing support to make the actual changes required;
* change management;
* and testing to verify and validate the changed system.
(ITAA, p. 3)
Clock simulators can run a system with a simulated clock date and can use applications that
append or produce errors when the year 2000 arrives while date finders search across
applications on specific date criteria, and browsers can help users perform large volume code
inspection. As good as all these “automated tools” are, there are NO “Silver Bullets” out there.
There are no quick fixes. It will take old fashioned work-hours by personnel in order to make
this “rollover” smooth and efficient.
Another area to look at are the implications for public health information. Public health
information and surveillance at all levels of local, state, federal, and international public health
are especially sensitive to and dependent upon dates for epidemiological (study of disease
occurrence, location, and duration) and health statistics reasons. The date of events, duration
between events, and other calculations such as age of people are core epidemiologic and health
statistic requirements. (Seligman, p. 1) Along with this, public health authorities are usually
dependent upon the primary data providers such as physician practices, laboratories, hospitals,
managed care organizations, and out-patient centers etc., as the source for original data upon
which public health decisions are based. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
for example, maintains over 100 public health surveillance systems all of which are dependent
upon external sources of data. (Issa, p. 5) This basically means that it is not going to be
sufficient to make the internal systems compliant to the year 2000 in order to address all of the
ramifications of this issue. To illustrate this point, consider the following scenario: in April
2000, a hospital sends an electronic surveillance record to the local or state health department
reporting the death of an individual who was born in the year “00″; is this going to be a case of
infant mortality or a geriatric case??
Finally, let’s look at one of the largest software manufacturing corporations and see what
the implications of the year 2000 will be for Microsoft products. Microsoft states that Windows
95 and Windows NT are capable of supporting dates up until the year 2099. They also make the
“It is important to note that when short, assumed dates (mm/dd/yy) are entered, it is impossible
for the computer to tell the difference between a day in 1905 and 2005. Microsoft’s products,
that assume the year from these short dates, will be updated in 1997 to make it easier to assume
a 2000-based year. As a result, Microsoft recommends that by the end of the century, all PC
software be upgraded to versions from 1997 or later.”
(Microsoft, p. 1)
Microsoft Access 95
assumed “yy” dates
Microsoft Access 95
long dates (”yyyy”)
Microsoft Access (next version)
assumed “yy” dates
Microsoft Excel 95
assumed “yy” dates
Microsoft Excel 95
long dates (”yyyy”)
Microsoft Excel (next version)
assumed “yy” dates
Microsoft Excel (next version)
long dates (”yyyy”)
Microsoft Project 95
Microsoft SQL Server
MS-DOS(r) file system (FAT16)
Visual C++(r) (4.x) runtime library
long dates (”yyyy”)
Windows 3.x file system (FAT16)
Windows 95 file system (FAT16)
Windows 95 file system (FAT32)
Windows 95 runtime library (WIN32)
Windows for Workgroups (FAT16)
Windows NT file system (FAT16)
Windows NT file system (NTFS)
Windows NT runtime library (WIN32)
Microsoft further states that its development tools and database management systems provide
the flexibility for the user to represent dates in many different ways. Proper training of
developers to use date formats that accommodate the transition to the year 2000 is of the utmost
importance. For informational purposes, I have included a chart that represents the more
popular Microsoft products, their date limits, and date formats. (Chart on previous page)
(Microsoft, p. 3)
So . . . is everyone affected? Apparently not. In speaking with the owners of St. John
Valley Communications, an Internet-Access provider based in Fort Kent, they are eagerly
awaiting the coming of 2000. They, Alan Susee and Dawn Martin had enough foresight to make
sure that when they purchased their equipment and related software, that it would all be year
2000 compliant. It can be done, as evidenced by this industrious couple of individuals. The key
is to get informed and to stay informed. Effect the changes you can now, and look to remedy the
one’s that you can’t. The year 2000 will be a shocker and thriller for many businesses, but St.
John Valley Communications seem to have it under control and are holding their partry hats in
one hand and the mouse in the other.
As is obviously clear from the information presented, Yk2 is a problem to be reckoned
with. The wide ranging systems (OS) and software on the market lend credence to the idea that
a “silver bullet” fix is a pipe dream in the extreme. This is not however, an insurmountable
problem. Efficient training and design is needed, as well as a multitude of man-hours to effect
the “repairs” needed to quell the ramifications and repercussions that will inevitably occur
without intervention from within. The sit back and wait for a cure-all approach will not work,
nor is it even imaginable that some people (IS people) with advanced knowledge to the contrary,
would buy into this propaganda of slow technological death. To misquote an old adage, “The
time for action was 10 years ago.” Whatever may happen, January 1, 2000 will be a very
interesting time for some, a relief for others . . . and a cyanide capsule for the “slackers.” What
will you do now that you are better “informed?” Hopefully you will effect the necessary “repairs
and pass the word to the others who may be taking this a little too lightly. It may not be a matter
of life or death, but it sure as heck could mean your job and financial future.
Elgan, Mike. “Experts bemoan the denial of “2000 bug”.”
Http://www.cnn.com/2000. ( 31 October 1996).
Jager, Peter de. “DOOMSDAY.” Http://www.year2000.com/doom
(2 November 1996).
* ” Believe me it’s real ! Early Warning.” Http://www.year2000.com
(4 November 1996).
* ” Biting the Silver Bullet.” Http://www.year2000.com/bullet
(2 November 1996).
Shufelt, Ursula. “Yk2.” Ursula@maine.maine.edu. ( 7 November 1996).
Duvall, Jed. “The year 2000 does not compute.” Http://www.cnn.com/news
(3 November 1996).
ITAA. “The Year 2000 Software Conversion: Issues and Observations.”
Http://www.itaa.org/yr2000-1.htm ( 7 November 1996).
Seligman, James & Issa, Nabil. “The Year 2000 Issue: Implications for Public
Health Information and Surveillance Systems.”
Http://www.cdc.gov/year2000.htm (9 November 1996).
Microsoft. “Implications of the Year 2000 on Microsoft Products.”
Http://army.mil/army-yk2/articles/y2k.htm (9 November 1996).
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