Web-Site 'tool Kit' Helps Campus Computer Users Deal With Year 2000 Problem

Release Date: April 24, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. - Information-technology specialists are dividing people in their organizations into two categories: those who have "gotten religion" on the Year 2000 issue (usually mid-level managers) and those who haven't (usually upper-level managers).

The Year 2000 problem concerns how electronic systems -- anything with an embedded computer chip -- will deal with the new millennium.

Many systems store the year using only two digits, in which case the "00" in 2000 may be interpreted as 1900, potentially wreaking havoc with important electronics systems governing everything from air-traffic control to medical equipment.

"Until management becomes convinced that this is a priority, the pressure to work on Year 2000 will continue to come from the ground up and that's typical," said Carolann Lazarus, University at Buffalo information systems auditor.

Unfortunately, according to Sue Huston, director of administrative computing services at UB, the average employee at many institutions believes that the Year 2000 issue is something that only information-technology (IT) people need to worry about.

"This is not an IT issue," stressed Lazarus. "It's a business issue."

One airline allegedly has stated it will not fly during the 1999-2000 New Year's period because of fears it has about the air-traffic-control system's ability to comply with Year 2000.

Other serious problems could manifest themselves in everything from fire-control systems to mobile phones to traffic lights.

Automatic teller machines and credit-card scanning systems also have been identified as major areas of concern.

For these reasons, industries like financial services, whose systems are clearly vulnerable, have had Year 2000 teams in place for years. However, many other sectors, including higher education, have been slower to face the issue.

At UB, the IT Coordinating Committee last year formed the Year 2000 subgroup to design a university-wide plan to address the problem.

Last week, it put up a Web site at http://wings.buffalo.edu/year2000 to alert campus users to potential problems and their solutions. The Web site describes how UB's effort to address the problem will proceed, provides "fix-it guidelines" and criteria for purchasing new equipment and offers links to other Year 2000 sites inside and outside higher education.

The information on the site is designed to function as a "tool-kit" for campus computer users to help them assess how they might be impacted by the Year 2000 and what they need to do to minimize that impact.

According to Huston, beyond the obvious impact on computer systems, anything with an embedded computer chip is vulnerable.

That means it could potentially impact elevators; heating, cooling and lighting systems that run on timers; security systems; medical and scientific equipment; automatic teller machines; fax machines, and card scanners, such as those used with campus identification cards.

At UB, some units have taken the lead in conducting internal inventories, testing systems and upgrading where necessary. The Office of Financial Aid has overhauled its mainframe computer system to ensure that it is already Year 2000-compliant, while the UB libraries also have allocated resources to address the problem.

The Year 2000 subgroup soon will request that campus units complete inventories outlining how compliant their systems are and their priorities for making systems compliant if they are not.

Some systems managers on campus believe their units will not be affected, noting that many systems are easy to test. In many cases, for example, spreadsheet systems easily can be tested by inserting a date that designates the year as "00" and seeing if the program interprets it as 1900 or 2000. (PC systems should be backed up entirely before they are tested.)

While some people think it is only a hardware problem, Lazarus said the issue could affect both hardware and software.

"In fact, your software may be fine, but if your PC has a problem, it may be passing that problem to your software, or your hardware may be okay but your software may not be compliant," she said.

Huston noted that even software designated as Year 2000-compliant must be verified.

"Maybe the programming language and operating system can handle the Year 2000, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the application that was written is processing dates correctly," she said. "It is possible to write bad applications with Year 2000-compliant software. Older applications are especially at risk."

Huston noted that many IT vendors' Web sites have Year 2000-compliance information available. Links to more than 20 of these are available through UB's Year 2000 Web site.

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