Year 2000 Problems Get International Attention

Year 2000 Problems Get International Attention

By John Makulowich
Contributing Writer

A snapshot of efforts by governments around the globe to tackle software conversion problems and potential year 2000 solutions were showcased at a recent "Mastering the Millennium Rollover" conference.

The June 9-10 event at the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Md., featured a wide array of vendors, federal agency staff and several international speakers.

Gary E. Fisher, the general chair of the conference and a member of a NIST software testing division, said a key aspect of the conference was getting some international recognition of the problem.

At the session, case studies were presented so people understood what other organizations have already gone through, he said. Also, there was a workshop run by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers called the study group on year 2000 test methods designed to come up with recommended practices, he said.

That workshop looked at different ways of handling testing by setting up so-called test assertions that need to be reviewed by individual organizations to determine if they have completely tested their software. The workshop also solicited comments about specific requirements and interests in year 2000 testing.

Lindy Bryant, Commonwealth Year 2000 Coordinator for Australia, gave attendees an update on the issue in Australia. Bryant has put together a national strategy to cover the needs of a diverse group of end users, including consumers, the postal service, transportation, utilities and emergency teams.

Last May, she surveyed 94 government agencies about year 2000 readiness and cost through a year 2000 subcommittee. She also sent out a year 2000 comprehensive checklist to help departments prepare compliance plans. Covered were the different groups that comprise the Commonwealth of Australia's six states and two territories.

According to Bryant, a critical area is telecommunications. "It's the backbone not only of the public sector but also of everyone's core business, whether the water and electric utilities or hospitals and medical equipment suppliers," she said.

It's important to review from the aspect of risk, she said, noting that aging telecommunications equipment is rarely thrown away; it is often sold to Third World countries. "We have to be mindful of its role in public safety and ensure that it can handle year 2000 issues, for example, checking for dates embedded in the different equipment," Bryant said.

The United States is ahead on the year 2000 problem along with the United Kingdom, Bryant said. She places Canada and Australia at about the same place. However, there is a "resounding silence" from Asia and Europe generally, based on the erroneous belief that this is a vendor problem that is going to be fixed, she said.

Anders Johanson, director of Year 2000 Conversion for the Swedish Agency of Administrative Development, said that a meeting of government personnel last October led to the realization that very few agencies had addressed the year 2000 problem.

As a result, the Swedish government signed a law in January "compelling all its agencies to ensure their information systems are ready for the year 2000." It requires Sweden's 100 central agencies to analyze the scope of the problem and set up a plan to manage it. The agencies were given until the end of May to report the results of their analyses and the adjustments carried out or planned.

In describing preliminary results of the survey, Anders said only 22 percent had completed their analysis, 69 percent were in the process and 9 percent hadn't started. Seventy-four percent of the agencies felt adjustments were necessary. Only 20 percent provided cost estimates, while 30 percent said they needed extra personnel to deal with the problem.

Fisher pointed out that there are two sets of problems: the first is whether the machine, that is, the hardware, can handle the year 2000 processing; the second is whether the software processes the dates correctly in the first place.

"If a piece of software pulls the date from a database, for instance, and the database only uses a two-digit year, what is the software supposed to do with it? Does it process it correctly or not? If you were to add 30 days to the date that was pulled off, for example, you were aging an account, do you get the correct date?" asks Fisher.

He admits that there can't be a standard solution simply because everyone has a different context in which they are worrying about the issues. Banks do it one way, insurance companies another, utilities a third.

Overall, he sees essentially three different ways of fixing the problem. The first is to change to a four-digit year throughout. This would include changing the database as well as the software processing all the dates and times to use a four-digit year. The second is to encode a flag or indicator in the two-digit year or date field itself that says this is 1900 or 2000. The third approach is to use a moving window, for example, of 50 years. However, this approach requires you to move the window every year.

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