Keith D. Berkland (BerklandK@dsmo.com) is the Applications Development Administrator with Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky in Washington, D.C. Keith’s range of experience includes: managing huge network installations and conversions for dozens of U.S. law firms; working as a training specialist and with software hotline support; as an operations manager for a law firm; and as a freelance automation consultant.
A Space Odyssey
Like the movie, 2001 A Space Odyssey, we could begin to see a real life re-enactment of the fictitious computer system, the H.A.L. 9000. If you recall, HAL had a mind of his own and began eliminating the entire space crew. The current Year 2000 problem is also one of space. As you will read below it has to deal with memory space allocated for dates up to the year 2000. Could it be that when the new millenium begins, computers around the world will begin failing due to the now infamous Y2K date problem? If you believe the consultants that are now working on this problem, you will see widespread hardware and software outages beginning 1/1/2000 at 12:01a.m. It may not mean people will begin dying, but it could account for huge financial loses and chaos throughout the business community.
In short, the problem exists because early in the development of computers and computer software, developers needed to preserve precious memory. Therefore they used whatever means necessary to limit the amount of space being used. In the case of dates, they pared the first two digits off when storing them in memory. For example, the date January 15, 1952 became 01/15/52, or in some cases, is stored as 520115. This scenario works well until we arrive at the turn of the century. After the turn of the century the date would look like 01/15/00 or 000115. Obviously, storing the information in this format does not in and of itself cause the problem. The problem shows up when the logic used against the data fails. This logic usually falls into the categories of sorting, comparing or calculating against the data.
If you were to take several dates, including dates past the year 2000, and try to perform the logic on these dates, the results would be incorrect. For example, if you were going to sort the following dates, 10/01/01 (October 1, 1901), 01/15/52 (January 15, 1952), 01/15/00 (January 15, 2000) the result would look something like, 01/15/00, 10/01/01 and 01/15/52. If you had to bet your business on these results, you obviously would lose.
Who Is Responsible?
The problem is real. In my estimation it is not a bug, it is not a virus, and it is not an excuse. The potential for disaster exists because programmers thought the code would be rewritten and the hardware would have been replaced long before the year 2000. Since programming practices are defined as an art but in reality are habitually performed through very sloppy means, the industry as a whole is responsible. In general, management has looked at the bottom line and sees no value that can be added by fixing the problem. Therefore, the bill has finally come due on years of inept management practices. It could also cost management or directors their jobs or even their companies, and make them vulnerable to potential lawsuits by investors. Because of this short sighted approach, many corporations, government agencies, countries and average individuals will suffer greatly.
How big is the problem?
The Gartner Group suggests that it will take between 300 and 600 billion dollars worldwide to fix the problem. They also suggest that 20 percent of all businesses will fail as the result. This is serious enough to gain attention from most of the business community and the federal government, but some are completely ignoring the issue. A report card issued by the federal government states that only four government agencies received an “A” for their efforts on this issue. Many were not even aware of the problem. The legislative report states that the federal government plans to spend 30 billion dollars to address the millenium crisis.
The magnitude of the problem become clear in light of the fact that a whole industry has evolved in response to it. In the last five years, the number of consultants working on this issue has been growing rapidly. As the impending date grows closer, the feeding frenzy will continue to increase. In the next ten years it will grow to include lawyers, accountants, the courts and the legislature.
Many analysts say that as the need for programmers increases, so well the corresponding cost. Five years ago the cost to maintain or fix a line of problem code averaged between five and ten cents. That cost could escalate to forty cents before a resolution is attained. For some companies, the amount of money required is enormous. This phenomenon is so daunting that some companies don’t know where to begin. If your situation is so overwhelming, then it is already too late to start working on a solution. This being the case, there are many good lawyers upon whom you can call. You may want to sell the part or whole that could take you down or simply limit your exposure to liability.
From an industry point of view, some industries are much more vulnerable than others. For instance, the insurance, financial and banking industries face the biggest challenge. They typically have the oldest hardware systems, have migrated the greatest amount of code or are dependent on the largest number of lines of code written. Federal, state and local governments should also be very concerned. They usually interact with the greatest number of agencies, at all levels. Therefore, they will have a harder time resolving all the dependencies. Next on the list would be hospital and health care organizations. They have both the largest numbers of dependencies to pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, donor organizations and governmental agencies and the oldest systems. Included in the health care industry are the drug companies themselves. Their testing is typically performed on systems that date back to the early days of computers and the test sets they use literally perform hundreds of thousands of calculations. Most of these test sets are based on old Cobol code and dragged out during each test cycle. Many other industries will be effected. It is hard to determine the extent to which the problem exists. Many of the factors on successfully fixing the problem in your business depend on the relationships you have developed and your dependencies on those relationships. It also depends on your ability to discern the extent of the problem and your willingness to address the issues.
Where Should You Start?
You should begin the task of analyzing the problem within your own organization. Speak with your IS staff and organize a small group or committee to investigate the potential for loss of critical business functions. If you already have an existing disaster recovery plan, use it to determine these critical functions and add the Y2K associated problems to it. If you don’t have a disaster plan, this certainly would be a good time to develop one.
You should also speak to your vendors to see how the problem will effect them. It would be a good idea to develop an extended dependency model. If you have business activities that depend on “just in time” services from vendors that can not survive if one of these vendors fail, it would be unfortunate if your plan worked but your company failed because of a vendor dependency.
Look at the details of your programming practices and see which ones are likely to cause the greatest problems. There are many tools emerging in the industry that you can turn to, but don’t think you can wait and introduce a magic bullet at the last minute. There is no simple cure. This is tedious maintenance work that requires business decisions based on human intervention. Your committee’s analysis should reveal the extent of the problem. If you are unsure of how to begin your evaluation, I suggest you obtain some professional help. There are many good consultants addressing this problem. I also suggest you seek legal advice.
Law Firm Concerns
Once you have appointed a group or committee to address the general concerns listed below, attempt to resolve all the following issues before the end of 1997. Why do these concerns need to be addressed now rather than in 1999? In many cases, if you have code that warrants testing or vendors and suppliers that need to fix problems, you obviously can’t wait until the last minute. Typically it takes a year of testing before the bugs can be worked out for the Y2K problem. You may think many of the items listed below are petty or do not involve critical business tasks, but being proactive never hurts. You will need to determine which tasks are critical to your business. For example, if you can’t get to your office because the elevators don’t work, are you willing to walk the stairs until the problem can be fixed. Remember your elevator may not be the only one in the city that needs fixing.
- Inventory your hardware and software. This inventory should include other departments and areas outside the typical Information Services domain. It is relatively easy within law firms to identify the software being used. There are many good metering software packages on the market that can give you an inventory of what you are running. Contact the vendor for packaged software to make sure the software you are running is in compliance with the Y2K problem. If you created the software internally you should analyze the code and determine the potential for problems. If you have software that resides on a mini or mainframe, or if the software was migrated from a mini or mainframe, you should determine the source of the software and contact the vendor. If you no longer know the source of the software or the manufacturer is no longer supporting the software, it would be a good idea to research how or if the software is currently in use and replace it if possible. The biggest potential for hardware failure will be in tape and backup drive controllers and telephone switching equipment. It is also a good idea to check your hubs, routers and general infrastructure.
- Your telecommunications department should make sure that the telephone switches and each model of handsets meet compliance. They should also check the voice mail system and backup controllers used for backing up voice mail.
- Your building supervisors should ensure that the elevators, sprinkler systems, environmental control units and security systems are in compliance.
- Office services should ensure that the postal machines, copiers, software with connections to external vendors such as Federal Express and UPS, fax machines, cost recovery, bar code equipment, dictation equipment, cell phones and pagers are within compliance.
- The Media Center should not be overlooked. If you have devices that record time and date sensitive material, such as VCRs you should have them checked upgraded or replaced.
- The Library should be prepared to check all library software, online vendors, CD-ROM vendors and related service providers. The biggest potential problem for the library community is not just in the applications you run but in the searches you perform after the millenium has past. In many cases the data that is being stored is using the two-digit year and your search results may return inaccurate, incomplete or even more data than you wish to provide. Your vendors should begin to address these issues in an attempt to provide a work-around for these types of problems. The best scenario would be for them to increase the date fields to more accurately reflect the four-digit date. This may be impossible for context specific material.
- Accounting departments are the most likely areas that law firms should concentrate their efforts. This is probably the most critical function and has the greatest potential for failure. Many law firm accounting systems were migrated from mini computers, mainframe systems and service bureaus. Because most of these have evolved over time, many of the core routines are either based on the two-digit date or have other date related problems. Make certain the vendor is contacted as soon as possible to ensure compliance. Also make sure you get this one in writing.
Business Opportunity for Law Firms
Due to the large amount of money involved and the potential for businesses to be exposed to liability, it is inevitable that the legal community will need to step in. This opens the door for huge opportunities within the legal industry. It would be advisable for your firm to begin looking into how you can best provide legal services with regard to this issue for your existing clients and as a general business practice. I predict the biggest return will be in the areas of government contracts, banking, bankruptcy, software contracts, general business contracts and litigation of all flavors.
In general this is a big issue that takes a while to sink in as to how it may effect you, your business and your job. Its reach extends into all aspects of life and is a testament to the extent society uses computers for so many tasks. It could effect your ability to renew your drivers license next week. It could effect your banking records or your ability to use credit card services in the next three years. If you need a blood transfusion and the blood being used can not accurately be tracked because of the date problem you could be affected. If you can’t call your friends for three weeks or three months because a particular telephone switch needs to be upgraded the problem can be managed. If your business depends on that telephone switch in order to receive and sends calls you have a bigger problem. If huge parts of entire industries, such as the financial industry or your government, fail because they have not begun to address the issues, will chaos ensue?
My father was a no nonsense farmer, so I leave you with a saying that he taught me over the years. For management he would say that if there are rain clouds on the horizon it is wise to gather in the horses early so you don’t get wet, but it would be pointless to close the barn door after if the horses have already escaped. You decide if it is early enough to gather your resources to address the problem or if it is already too late call a good lawyer. I know a few.
For additional information see:
- The Year 2000 Information Center
- ITAA Year 2000 Information Resources
- Year 2000 Information Directory
- PC World – Online Exclusive: Ready for the New Millennium? (2/97)
- PC Week – The Millenium: The Day the Earth Stood Still
- Computer Law Observer: NEGOTIATING THE END OF THE MILLENNIUM, year 2000 problem