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Year 2000 Computer Problem Addressed on Campus

[Editor's Note: This is the first of an on-going series which will address the issues associated with computers as they are affected by the Year 2000.]

By Matt Winston

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 03 - September 11, 1997

Imagine you are watching Dick Clark usher in the New Year as the big ball drops into Times Square to signal the beginning of the year 2000. In a only a few more seconds, you will witness what life will be like in the new century.

Five, four, three, two one. "Hey, who turned off all the lights? Who shut off the TV? Why is the water percolating in the coffee maker? Why did my sprinkler system just come on?"

Is this scenario a bad Saturday Night Live skit? Or is it a vision of things to come? There are those who do believe that this scenario is a fairly accurate depiction of what life will be like at the turn of the century. Some believe that simple inconveniences like power outages are minor compared to the other things that may ripple across the planet in this age of computers. ATM's will shut down. Cars will not start. Insurance policies will be canceled. The electric company will send you a bill stating your account is 49 years past due.

Each one of the aforementioned appliances--like the coffee maker, television, and the sprinkler system--and many more items of modern necessity and convenience all contain microprocessors or tiny computer chips.

Computers reach into our everyday lives more than can be imagined. Almost every appliance or piece of equipment on which we rely to do our jobs or make our lives easier contains a microchip of some kind. It's not just your home computer or the equipment on your desk at the office that can be affected. Anything from watches to elevators; cars to microwaves; refrigerators to stereo equipment; or answering machines to fax machines all now use a processor of some sort that may be affected when the clock rolls over to the new century.

Basically, the internal clocks of most computer systems work only on a two-digit year code (97 as opposed to 1997). When the year 2000 arrives, many systems may get confused and interpret the new two digit field, 00, as being 1900.

This phenomenon known as the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem has industry, governments and everyday people around the world scrambling to find an easy solution. Any entity which relies on record-keeping, like banks, hospitals, airlines, and colleges and universities, must address this problem.

Why does this problem exist? I thought computers were supposed to revolutionize our lives and make them easier.

The Y2K problem stems from what was considered to be a brilliant method of computer programming years ago. Early computers were physically large and their memory was extremely expensive compared to today. Memory was at a premium at that time and intuitive programmers saved space and subsequently billions of dollars by tightening date codes to two digits. Nobody at that time could foresee the increase in computer production and modern memory capacity as compared to the pioneering days.

Unfortunately, the solution to the Y2K problem is not as easy as creating a program that rips through computer-programming code and adds two digits. Programs are relatively complicated and the two-digit date codes are intertwined within the code frequently. Programs must be examined manually line-by-line and a typical program could contain several thousand lines of code. In addition, much data stored in databases and files only contains two digit years.

Many companies producing computer hardware have already taken steps to address this problem. Most of the equipment produced in recent years is Y2K-compliant--meaning that its internal clocks are prepared to interpret a new century after Dec. 31, 1999, as opposed to reverting to the beginning of the current century. The more significant concerns will involve those using large mainframe systems. Most desktop computers, including the one that may be on your desk right now, may already be Y2K-compliant.

However, the operating software that runs your computer or some of the software programs you may use to do your daily jobs, may not be Y2K-compliant. If they are not, then there may be some record-keeping and system-function snafus that may occur if these problems are not addressed relatively quickly.

Virginia Tech has already begun to address many of the problems that may affect campus systems as a result of the Year 2000 dilemma. A task force has been created, under the auspices of the Administrative Information Systems management council, to identify and correct problems associated with the Y2K problem and to bring both the centralized and non-centralized computing environments to Y2K compliance.

The task force is already working on the university's transition to a Y2K-compliant environment. As early as spring 1996, Virginia Tech began putting together a transition plan to be implemented. The council approved staffing and budgets for the implementation plan in late summer of that year. It is a costly but necessary endeavor.

"If we don't fix this problem now, the university will simply have to close its doors on Jan. 1, 2000," said Fred Medley, who chairs the Centralized Academic/Administrative Year 2000 Task Force. "There are no two ways about it. But we are committed to completing this task quickly and in the most cost-effective means possible."

This undertaking is deemed essential because of the number of users the university systems affect. The most important problem to address is those systems involving either student records or the university's financial records. Already, that affects most departments on campus including the Registrars Office, the Bursars Office, Financial Aid, the University Libraries, the Budget and Finance Office, Virginia Tech Foundation, the Alumni Association, Accounting and Information Systems, Institutional Research, the Admissions Office and Research and Graduate Studies. In fact, any employee or student who interfaces with systems on the university's mainframe, like users of JCL, IMS, or SAS, will be affected.

Medley says that transition can involve either rewriting code, or investing in programs that are both Y2K-compliant and will also offer the technical support, personnel, and resources necessary to be used efficiently and effectively. "There are programs currently being used in some areas of the university that are Year 2000-compliant, but the infrastructure software (compilers, operating system, etc.) used to support these applications is not compliant," Medley said. "These application programs must be converted to the new infrastructure-software specifications.

"Whichever way we go, whether we rewrite some programs or invest in new software and equipment, the most time-consuming part of this transition is testing the software." Medley said. "We must prepare for every contingency and every little quirk that can occur during use."

Aside from fixing or correcting any problems that may exist with hardware and software related to the Y2K problem with the university's central computing systems, another group has been charged with assessing any problems that may exist within departments across the university community. Basically, this charge involves communicating potential problems and issues to the entire university community and helping individual areas determine if their hardware and software will be Y2K-compliant.

Most offices purchase commercially licensed software which must be assessed. However, a larger concern exists for those individuals, particularly graduate students and research centers who may have written and compiled their own computer programs designed to handle their respective needs. Assessing the needs of these groups is one of the keys to ensuring a smooth transition across the entire campus.

The task force has already established a website that will serve as a resource for information about transition activities taking place on campus. The site will alert users to testing dates of campus systems and keep an up-to-date account on the task force's transition efforts. You can also link to sites of vendors whose software and hardware is already Y2K-compliant. There are answers to frequently asked questions and links to sites which offer a progress report on various industries, governments and municipalities which are coming on line with Y2K compliance all located on the website.

"There are literally millions of websites out there now that offer information on the Year 2000 problem," said Tom McAnge, who heads the non-centralized committee of the Y2K task force. "We want to utilize this website as a gateway to all of this information which will answer many of the questions that may come up as people become more aware of how this problem will affect them on campus."

The web address for the Y2K website is http://www.ais.vt.edu/ais/Y2K/Y2KWebSite.htm.

"We are encouraging people to visit the website or call their software and hardware vendors to find out whether or not their office equipment is Y2K-compliant," McAnge said.

McAnge says that in the meantime, every department on campus should do a hardware- and software-inventory assessment. Departments should evaluate their present environment against what they will need to ensure they are operating on systems and equipment that are Y2K compliant. A committee representative will meet with departments to help with a departmental needs assessment.

Over the next few weeks and throughout the year, Spectrum will feature articles, updates and transition information about the university's efforts to address the Y2K problem. The column will alert users to testing dates of particular systems; will provide continuous updates on the progress of the university's transition; and will highlight various department and division efforts to address Y2K problems.