Avoiding the year 2000 chaos

Avoiding the year 2000 chaos

Old hardware goes into a museum, but old software goes into production every day. This is the stark observation of CMI’s Year 2000 Solutions report, the first real attempt to examine the much hyped but little understood computer problem which many organisations will face on 1 January 2000, writes Guy Dresser.

The essence of the problem is that many computer systems in use today were first written in the 1960s and 1970s, when capacity was limited and every attempt was made to reduce memory take-up. Programmers made significant savings by abbreviating the year part of dates and omitting the century.

Few ever thought their software would still be in use at the turn of the century. Unfortunately, a lot of it is still running with companies all over the world.

Many experts predict disaster when their systems fail to cope with the four-digit year change, and yet it is something they should have been aware of years ago. Will businesses go to the wall? Some experts believe so – there has, after all, never been any shortage of alarmists in the IT community. The reality, however, is that most businesses will in fact survive, but it will prove a costly, chastening experience.

Any large organisation which has not checked its exposure to the problem has probably left it too late. There is already a shortage of suitably experienced programmers and the price of putting things right is rising all the time.

Dr David Walton, of Durham Systems Management commented: ‘There are no silver bullets, tools, methods, Lone Rangers, Fifth Cavalry, or tooth fairies who can contribute to solving this problem. There is no substitute for careful thought and analysis. This is not a popular message with boards of directors.’

CMI’s report does put forward some solutions – starting with the need for a thorough analysis of the business and technical needs of the organisation.

Any senior manager conducting this technical analysis will soon discover how dependent their organisation is on IT.

This analysis should examine the IT platforms, applications, languages and packages which are currently in use. It should look at its suppliers and demand proof of century compliance. Many financial applications developers have compliant products already. But users should reassure themselves of the fact.

Steve Farr, product marketing manager at Systems Union, said that in the pure accounting environment, the year 2000 impact could be less catastrophic than some have suggested. He added: ‘The problem is being over-hyped in the packaged software market, but in mission-critical or legacy applications and in the linking software between different applications, it could be very serious indeed.’

Farr said concerned companies could find now is a good time to join a systems user-group and discover from their contemporaries how badly they may be hit. According to CMI, just 15% of UK companies have begun to address the problem seriously, and few have finished doing so.

Simply resetting the clocks is not an option, so if UK plc isn’t going to wake up on 1 January 2000 and find itself with computer chaos, it had better begin now. CMI’s report is a useful starting point.

CMI can be contacted on: 0171-924 7117.

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