California Educational Data Processing Association
The DataBus - Vol. 36, No. 4
June-July, 1996

The Millennium of Reckoning for Computer Users

Technology: Unless programmers soon find a cure for dated coding, Day 1 of year 2000 could dawn to global glitch.
From Reuters

LONDON--Computer programmers won't be doing too much celebrating on Dec. 31, 1999. As the dawn rises on 2000, many will be working overtime to correct a systems glitch that could cause chaos on a global scale.

Instead of raising glasses as the clock strikes midnight, they will be hunched over their mainframes anxiously waiting to see if their systems are ready for the third millennium. If they don't computer Armageddon beckons.

"We designed our computer systems in the 1960s and '70s with a built-in flaw. We used a two-digit-way of putting in the year, so instead of 1955, we put in 55," said Canadian consultant Peter de Jager, describing the Millennium Bug or 2000 Glitch.

"So when the century rolls to 00 we'll think it's 1900 when actually it's 2000. If we don't fix the problem, then organizations which rely so much on technology face a tremendous risk."

The Gartner Group, U.S.-based consultants on information technology, estimates it could cost $600 billion worldwide to correct a problem that resulted from programmers trying to save previous memory in the 1960s mainframe computers.

If the millennium bug isn't fixed, bank statements, interest payments, pension plans, delivery dates, radar for air traffic control and even defense systems could be affected.

Bill Goodwin, of the U.S.-based millennium newsletter "Tick, Tick, Tick," described the problem as "all pervasive" because computers that run just about everything will read 00 as an interruptive prompt..

Companies that do not squash the bug could fold because they will lose control.

"The stock market wouldn't function," predicted Goodwin. "A paperwork crunch will drown Wall Street if they have to do it manually."

Goodwin, who started in computer programming in 1966, said everybody knew the problem would happen. But they didn't have the budgets to correct it or thought that by 2000 the faulty legacy programs they helped to create would no longer be in use.

"The problem is simple. The solution is tedious," he said. Not all programs need to be changed, Goodwin said, just date-critical ones used in computations and comparisons.

But because the programs are more than 30 years old, even for a medium-sized company with 10,000 programs and 20 million lines of code, it could take years and millions of dollars to correct. Time is of the essence.

"There is no so-called silver bullet but there are tools that will make life easier," Goodwin added.

Computer experts said some firms have preferred to pretend the bug doesn't exist, but many governments and companies have taken steps to deal with the glitch.

Fujitsu has a project team of engineers to look into its customer needs to deal with the bug. The Japanese computer giant expects the overall costs to stamp out the problems in the country to run to about 1 trillion yen ($9.4 billion).

"The problem is large and it will take time to deal with it," a spokesman said. The impact of the millennium bug was lessened somewhat because software using dates based on the succession of Japan's emperor, rather than the Gregorian calendar, was changed about eight years ago.

French companies also have taken advantage of reprogramming ahead of the shift to a single European currency in 1999 to stamp out the bug.

In the United States, computer makers are urging customers to take steps to ease the transition and resolve problems soon. Last October, IBM Corp. announced a set of services including a 180-page document for customers to consult.

"Many customers may run out of time and not be able to alter their application portfolio if they wait," IBM said. "Also, the year 2000 problem is already beginning to surface for some customers and will occur more frequently as we approach the year 2000." The problem will not be restricted to Jan 1, 2000. IBM said the "time of day clock" on its computer systems can be set to run up to 141 years. Companies could face a time obsolescence problem long after the turn of the century.

The millennium bug is an old dilemma for some U.S. industries such as banks and insurance companies which began dealing with it in the 1970s to cope with amortization (writing off the initial costs of a debt) and interest rate tables.

This article originated from Reuters on May 5, 1996, and appeared in the Los Angeles Times. This article has been reprinted with Reuters permission.

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