Year 2000 Comes Crashing In

Vendors stand to make out like bandits as the millennium approaches

P> When Tom Driscoll starts talking about reaction to the impending year 2000 crisis, you can hear his blood pressure rising just by listening to the tone of his voice.


"We're in the middle of an invisible disaster, and unless we quickly mobilize internationally we haven't got a hope in hell of solving it," said Driscoll, vice president of product development at Formal Systems Inc., based in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.


Because most computer programs only allow a two-digit date field, the new millennium, which would be designated as 00, could cause application or system errors. For example, if a program using the two-digit date field is calculating the age of a person born in 1930, it would subtract 30 from 00 and conclude that the person is -30 years old, not 70 years old.

The lack of widespread response is troubling at best, and a catastrophe waiting to happen at worst. There is no time for optimism, there is "time only for a highly accelerated sense of urgency," agreed Peter de Jager, a computer management consult based in Brampton, Ontario, Canada.

Fewer than 14 percent of large information systems projects are delivered on time, de Jager said. And the deadline for the millennium date change cannot be missed - or moved.

Vendors are popping out of the woodwork to offer solutions to the problem. Everyone from large integrators, such as Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas, to small start-ups such as Avatar Solutions Inc. in Tysons Corner, Va., are getting into the act.

One trick all these companies have up their corporate sleeves is the use of software tools. Some companies sell off-the-shelf tools while others hide them away and sell their services to clients.

Tools have become widely used to identify and sometimes correct the date change problem. If a company has lost its source code, a tool exists that can reverse-engineer it. Since time is such a crucial issue, project management tools that can help keep a remediation on track also play a role in the year 2000 changes.

When shopping for a vendor or a tool, be cautious, warned de Jager. Computer users will only have one shot at this, they need to pick someone - or something - that can get it right the first time. They also need to pick a vendor that can retain the people to do the job. In the Washington area, COBOL programmers are in such high demand that they are rumored to be making $75 an hour.

If a company decides that expanding date fields is the best strategy for them, then "tools play a very significant role," said Faye Gregory-Yuppa, director of marketing and strategic alliances for Horizons Consulting. This is the simplest solution. A more complex fix would be to rewrite the code. At this point, time is the biggest concern.

The automated capability to find two-digit date fields makes tools a big time-saver, said David Reingold, corporate vice president of marketing and strategic services for Computer Horizons Corp. It has been proven that tools are more accurate than humans, he asserted.

A major insurance company, whom Reingold declined to identify, had a group of programmers manually search through lines of code. The team found 15 hidden date fields. The company then told three other groups of people to search the same code. The first group found 10 fields. The second and third each found 14. A tool found 25. On average, people will miss 20 percent of the hidden date fields that a tool would find, said Reingold.

"Even if a tool costs more initially, it will enable a more complete solution, which will cost less in the long run," said Reingold.

For a medium-sized company with 8,000 programs, the cost of addressing the year 2000 crisis will be approximately $450 to $600 per program, for a total of $3.6 million to $4.2 million, said Kevin Schick, research director for application development technologies with Gartner Group. "Tools will aid in the sizing of the problem, as well as in reducing by half the cost of addressing the crisis," Schick said.

Yet information systems managers should not rely on tools alone to correct their problem. Software tools are not a magic bullet, companies will have to do some work manually, said M. Kathryn Benson, program manager for AD Enterprise Services with IBM's Software Solutions Santa Teresa Laboratory in San Jose, Calif.

Most tools identify where a human is needed to fix a problem, said Otto Doll, federal market analysis program manager with Input, a market research firm. They can identify a problem with the code, but more than that needs to change. Files also need to be corrected.

And once the code and files are changed, they will need to be tested to ensure that they work properly.

Another fact that limits the effectiveness of tools is the diversity of computer languages. Approximately 60 percent of legacy systems use COBOL, so many software tools are available for this language. The remainder of computer systems are programmed "in a lot of everything else," said Ed Knauf, president and CEO of Avatar Solutions Inc. There are few tools that address the more modern languages such as Natural or Assembler.

Avatar has developed its own software tool that works independent of language and platform. The company makes it available to clients as part of its Avatar 2000 solution package. Computer Horizons also has a tool that works with multiple languages.


Tools work by creating objects and then analyzing the interactions between the various sets of objects to find the ones that are date aware. For example, if there is a variable that is assigned a date, the software will track it down.

These variables would come into play because not all dates are entered, some are calculated as part of the program. Common dates that are calculated in a human resources program would include a hire date, the last date someone's personnel file was updated, or the date of a person's next salary review.

Tools are effective because they look for transactions involving dates, so they can find date fields that may not be easily discerned. For example, many programmers used a person's name, possibly someone they were "dating" as an easy-to-remember variable because of the "date" association, to which a calendar date would be assigned, said Knauf. This may have been done for security purposes.

The tool also can be used to find dates that are embedded in another number, such as an insurance policy number.

If there was a choice between letting a computer program process a million lines of code and having a roomful of people work on it, I'd pick the computer any day, said Driscoll.

Both industry and government need all the help they can get. And they need to act fast. "If you don't get a vendor soon, you'll be stuck with Wayne and Garth's Excellent 2000 [services]," said de Jager.


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