As midnight nears on December 31, 1999, most of us will be getting ready to greet the new year. Many will plan special celebrations.
But, as the clock strikes midnight... will you be worrying about your computers? Many experts recommend that we be concerned now, not later, because as midnight tolls, and our computers' internal clocks advance from 99 to 00, a great many of the world's computer systems will become inoperable.
Why? The problem, known as the Year 2000 (or Y2K) "glitch" or "bug," originated in the classical days of computing when memory was expensive. Programmers in those days devised a solution which saved both time and memory: they used two digits instead of four to signify year-dates in their programming codes. Hence, many computers interpret 94 as 1994, 50 as 1950, 00 as 1900, and so on. Unfortunately, we now realize that this solution was short-sighted. With the approach of Year 2000, these computers will interpret the year 2000 as 1900 (both end in 00). And since software and hardware is often date-sensitive, it is expected computer programs will suffer a host of maladies.
Believing that computer systems country-wide will be at least partly infected with the Year 2000 bug, some news reports have suggested that a veritable Y2K epidemic will start on January 1, 2000, with truly nightmarish implications for daily life and the economy. They predict credit and ATM cards will suddenly be unusable, automated factory machinery will grind to a halt, stoplights will freeze, utility companies will stop working, and more. Economists, also, express concern. A recent issue of Business Week predicts that companies around the world will be less productive for the next two years, as they redirect their resources - personnel, finances and time - to correcting Y2K problems.
Perhaps the greatest area of speculation, however, is how large government agencies and institutions such as Penn State will handle the problem. Economists point to alarming prospects of sprawling federal organizations like the Internal Revenue Service coping with Year 2000 problems, given their pre-existing difficulties with computing and/or budgetary issues. Alternatively, in the private sector, small businesses with lower spending margins may find it difficult to hire the needed programming talent to correct problems in a timely way.
Penn State's administrators have been preparing for the Year 2000 for over a decade. With less than 500 working days remaining before January 1, 2000, the head of Penn State's new Year 2000 Coordination Office, Kenneth C. Blythe, believes that the University will be "Year 2000 Ready" well before the new millennium.
In January this year, John A. Brighton, Penn State University's Provost,
and Gary C. Schultz,
Treasurer, asked Blythe, the Director of the Office of Administrative Services, to set up the Year 2000 Coordination Office within the Office of Administrative Services. Simultaneously, they requested each University Budget Executive designate a "Year 2000 Officer" to work with the Coordination Office. Blythe is now communicating with 48 Year 2000 Officers in as many Penn State organizations.
OAS has been in the forefront of Penn State's preparation for Y2K for several years. In 1995, Robert J. Crothers (Deputy Director of OAS) and the OAS staff prepared a chart to record progress in replacing ISIS (Integrated Student Information System) hardware and software contaminated by the bug. As early as April 1997, Crothers reported that there was only a small portion of this chart left to be filled in. There is optimism, therefore, that what was learned from this prior effort can be applied to the Year 2000 problem throughout the University. Hence the new Coordination Office will be able to complete the operation quickly, by providing a process for certifying that computers and networks are truly bug-free.
The Y2K Coordination Office assignments are to:
Blythe's initial action was to agree with Year 2000 Officers on the definitions of "Year 2000 ready" and "Year 2000 certified." "Before (this program) is over," he stated, "we will be evaluating every computer in all of our colleges, campuses and departments. But for now, the first step is to determine where our greatest exposures are. We know they are likely to be in larger, multi-programmed, mission-critical computers."
In follow-up on this prioritization, on March 2, 1998, the Year 2000 Coordination Office sent the departmental Y2K Officers informal surveys to be completed for their organizations. Officers were asked to respond quickly and give their best answers - even if some of these had to be, for the moment, "we don't know." Based on the responses, the office will create a report of the Y2K readiness status of all Penn State organizations.
After identifying the areas with highest Year 2000 exposure (like the Penn State business systems and student systems), Blythe plans to begin compliance testing.
The Y2K compliance testing will assess three conditions:
OAS estimates that, at present, Penn State has about 38,000 computers in total. Of these, only those recently purchased or recently upgraded (and CERTIFIED) can be expected to be "Y2K ready" without analysis. So, inspecting, immunizing and certifying all that remain will be a time-consuming task! But all units should be tested, since even low-end personal computers have the capability to infect others if they are linked. "We are especially looking for problems with networked units," explains Blythe, "because, if you have the 'patient' isolated, the Y2K bug can be rather easily contained; but if you have many computers in close network proximity, you have a much higher potential for an epidemic. An epidemic is certainly what we want to avoid."
But since much has been done already, Blythe expresses confidence that Penn State will be able to root out the major Y2K bugs well before January 1, 2000 dawns. "We knew Year 2000 was coming a decade ago, and early indications are that we are managing the problem well. I don't foresee a need for large-scale expenditures to overcome Y2K, because vendors have been correcting many problems, and Penn State programmers have already made headway with our other systems." But, he cautions, it is crucial that there be no diminution of effort in the remainder of 1998 and in 1999, if Penn State's eradication effort is to be successful. In addition, he emphasizes that completing this process in a timely and efficient manner will require the collective effort of everyone concerned in the university community.
Crothers agrees, stating that the key to success in any vulnerable organization will be the commitment to do the work needed to correct Y2K problems sooner, not later. Penn State, Crothers continues, has the advantage of having started earlier than some others. "We have been projecting data four years ahead of the present time to serve the four year cycle of undergraduate students," he notes. "The students who enrolled at Penn State as Freshmen in 1996 will be graduating in the Year 2000." So, administrative databases which contain information about them had to be able to recognize and use post-2000 dates correctly.
What you can do:
PATCHES: many manufacturers and vendors are now supplying software "patches" which will fix Y2K bugs they've identified in their computers and programs. Check with your vendor to find out what the solutions are.
UPGRADES OR NEW HARDWARE: most new operating systems, hardware and applications have been Year 2000 Certified. By upgrading, you can perhaps avoid the need to patch.
CERTIFICATION: before you buy anything to solve this problem, make sure you obtain with it a "Year 2000 ready" certificate from the manufacturer.