The Year 2000 Computer Problem

Washington, DC -- Feb 2000 ---- "What a relief!!  After tens of thousands of programmers had labored for millions of hours, the dreaded Y2K threat was all but obliterated. Looking back on the problem many are asking, "Was it all hype?' Well the answer is no, and yes. The underlying problem was very serious, and through hard work was fixed. But there was a large amount of hype, especially over embedded systems. I have left this FAQ up as it was written in 1996. Let us learn from the positive aspects of Y2K, and make sure we are not misled again, by false information, or worse still no information."

What is the Year 2000 Problem?

The current mess started over thirty years ago as a simple cost-saving measure, used to record dates in a mainframe computer. A prudent economy measure at the time, that through neglect has come back to haunt the computer world.

Simply, way back in the 1960's and 1970's decisions were made to write the date, in computer programs, as 2 digits. 1970 was written as "70" the 19 being taken as understood, by the system.

To calculate the age of someone born in 1940, represented as "40" , the computer took that days date, and subtracted the birthdate. "70" minus "40" gave an age of "30" , all was well.

The problem comes when the computer reaches midnight on December 31st 1999. It will then see the date "00" and interpret it as 19"00"

So on January 1st 2000 someone born in 1940 would be "00" minus "40", or -40 years old, and as you can't have a negative age, it equals "unborn", which equals "not here" - you won't get paid, benefits, money or anything.

Why are dates so important ?

They are used extensively to determine if someone should receive, or not receive something. (Social Security, pensions, Medicare, retirement benefits, driving license, voter registration, alcohol privileges, school grade, salary increases, tax codes, tax payments, tax refunds, seniority, overtime). They are used in industry to control manufacturing processes, maintenance schedules and keep track of machine operations. They are very important in Banks and finance. (Interest, due dates, delinquent accounts, bonuses, commissions, mortgages, bills, loans, stocks). In the military and navigation tracking time is absolutely essential.(Fire a missile on 31st. Dec 1999 and it will hit it's target, fire it on 1st Jan 2000 and it will use a star chart from 1900. Way off course!!!)

Why not just change the date ?

That is what needs to happen....BUT!!! You have to change every reference to a date, in every program and file in use, archived, and stored. This is a massive logistics problem. Nobody knows how large until they first find them and count them. Few companies have kept track of their software, and an estimated 40% of companies have either lost, or thrown away their original "source" code.

Why not just move from 2 to 4 digits?

That is the ideal solution, given time and resources. But time and resources are another part of the problem. Experts are still arguing as to what form the solution should take. To expand the fields or use some innovative methodology to fool the system. And if expanded should it be YYYYMMDD or CCYYMMDD or YYYMMDD, and several other combinations. Remember everybody must be standardized for global commerce, as we know it, to continue.

It is very much like the Captain of the Titanic arguing with the orchestra about which would be a fitting waltz to play, as the ship hits the iceberg.

What caused people to ignore this mess, and who should be blamed?

In the Information Revolution that swept the world, the corporate leaders ignored the technicalities of managing information. Cut costs, maximize profits was the cry. The problem owes it's roots to a desperate shortage of expensive memory, and storage capacity in early computers. Looking at the problem through today's' eyes is misleading. A Pentium computer on an executive's desk, probably has more memory and storage, than all the machines in a major city, in the 1960's. Programmers had to find ways of squeezing every bit out of the system. They had to be very frugal to operate. Unfortunately, technology blasted ahead. Those who developed the IBM Mainframes never expected their systems and software to still be in use at the turn of the century, thirty years away. The average life of a computer system was only 10 years. The system developers were trapped by their own success. Memory became cheap, very cheap.

And then there was downsizing!

The people who remember the early days are few and far between. COBOL, the most widely used language is regarded as obsolete and new programmers look to working in new more fashionable languages. Old programmers have probably been long replaced by young geniuses with MBA's, brought up to cut fat, downsize, outsource and do everything "Just in Time", to maximize the quarterly payment to Wall Street. In a corporate environment where decisions are made for quarterly profits, a twenty year timeframe is next to infinity.

So it's only old software that is at risk?

Well not exactly. Even software written a few months ago was created with "19" understood as the century. This is one of the other legal facets of the problem. Software companies, even when there was no excuse, continued to create programs that would not work in 2000. The attitude that "you need to upgrade, at your expense, to the latest edition" was the rule. Explaining away 30 year old software is one thing, explaining away 3 year old non-compliant software is another. Storage and computer power has been cheap for many years now. The use of YYYY should have been the norm for a long time, but old habits die hard.

Why do they call it a Bug, or a Virus. Was it planted by a Hacker?

No this is a feature of the system, decided by management that is doing just what it was designed to do. It is not a bug or virus, in the true meaning of the word, although "The Millennium Bug" has become widely used to describe the problem. The corporate managers see it as a technical problem. The lawyers see the problem differently, they are drooling at the liability issues. They see it as negligence on the part of management, and questionable sales on the part of the system and software providers. Consider proof of this problem occurred in 1970, with 30 year mortgage dates.

But it is only a problem on mainframes?

'Fraid not. It is both a hardware and software problem, on virtually every machine and program. Hardware, i.e. computers, have an internal clock, which may, or may not work after midnight on Dec. 31st 1999. Some will go back to 1900, some to 1980, some to 1984 and others will just go on their merry way, to where we know not! True it will affect the mainframe community most. Regardless what the PC salesmen may tell you, the mainframes are still the workhorses of commerce, government and finance. A simple "patch" can be put on a PC within minutes. The mainframe may have hundreds of millions of lines of code, all interconnected, and already patched many times. The problem here is that some companies have over 10,000 PC's spread across numerous offices. The task in changing the date manually becomes a daunting task. In the meantime numerous dates will be floating around, to corrupt databases and files.

Should we punch in 23.59 on December 31st 1999 and see what happens?

STOP!! Many speakers, 12 hour experts and reporters have suggested doing this as a test. You may get away with this on a home PC, with retail, off-the-shelf programs. DO NOT ATTEMPT a date advance on a network, or on a PC with beta software, licensed dated software, or attached to any other system. You can do untold damage.

There are many cases of licensed software blocking re-entry and expiring licenses. Many programs are instructed to view "turning the clock back" the same as a used car dealer turning back the mileage on a car. It means fraud.

Many say this problem concerns only dates on mainframes?

Unfortunately the effects are much greater than that. The date change effects every aspect of electronic operations, from computers, to security systems, to voter registration, to financial transactions, to operation of production machinery, copiers, satellites, television, elevators, the list goes on.

Consider a piece of machinery that needs to be serviced every xyz hours. It includes a counter reading off days from service, to days to service. Many have fail-safe switches to shut down if the safety period is exceeded. Goodbye production!

Credit is granted on computer-generated records listing delinquencies over 60 days or so. Consider the havoc non-compliant systems will have on this system.

Global money transfer is threatened. You may not be able to transfer money, as your bank has adopted YYYYMMDD and the other bank has CCYYMMDD. They don't talk the same language anymore.

You can use your vote, it's an election year. You are over 18. Or are you? You voted last election. But the computer says you haven't voted for over 99 years.

Hopefully most of these problems will be sorted out in time. But we know many will not. Consider the chaos with just everyday activities that are now completely controlled by computer. Benefits, welfare, law enforcement, taxes, defense. But, you can trust your government!! Tilt! Tilt!


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