The University Record, January 28, 1998

U fights millenium bug

The M-Pathways project and other initiatives across campus will likely take care of the year 2000 computer problem, but those using 'home-grown' computer programs will need to assess if repairing the old is easier than switching to new. Photo Services file photo by Bob Kalmbach


Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the year 2000 computer problem and how it is being addressed at the U-M.

By Kerry Colligan

Don't panic.

At midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, your entire existence will not vanish. The millenium bug--or Y2K--is being taken care of, according to Business Week, by a $2 billion industry focused on making computer hardware and software year 2000-compliant.

Y2K actually surfaced 30 years ago. In those days, disk storage space was extremely expensive. To help reduce cost, programmers purposely eliminated century numbers from dates (including them as "98" instead of "1998").

Look at it another way. Staff Records has the birthdate of every University employee on file. These days, it's probably in a database or spreadsheet. That file uses the established system date and time to calculate the birthdate of each employee, rather than have it entered and stored. Calculating dates requires much less storage space, not to mention labor.

When a value is entered as the year 2000, or "00," one of two things can happen. If your computer system is up-to-date, it reads "00" as 2000 and proceeds as planned. If it is lagging behind a bit, it incorrectly reads "00" as 1900 and returns the incorrect value.

Again, don't panic. Gloria Thiele, product area manager for the Information Technology Division (ITD) and project coordinator for the year 2000 problem, says the University is in good shape.

"We've been dealing with this problem since the early 1990s. Our whole strategy of dealing with the needs of the University and the year 2000 problem are hand in glove."

The strategy includes the M-Pathways replacement project, and upgrades to in-use hardware and software to achieve year 2000 compliance.

The problem, from a software standpoint, exists in older pieces of software, personally authored software and databases.

ITD will contact vendors for products that are supported by the University. However, many departments, schools, faculty members and students use software written specifically for their own purposes, often by a colleague. Those software applications represent an unknown for Thiele and the year 2000 team. "That's the piece we don't know," Thiele says. "For those pieces of software which are in-house, you need to look at the stuff you wrote and either test it or decide that you don't need it. For persons who are using software that is 'garage,' or 'backdoor,' you get what you pay for.

"We have a short window and a very clean, minimal strategy. The M-Pathways replacement strategy has placed constraints on the project. We will make the least amount of changes possible," says Thiele. "We know we're replacing our systems, monumental and big as it is. And we know that's a good thing to do for the good of the University."

Hardware also can become unusable. Some microchips are incapable of processing data in a compatible manner. The Intel 80286 processor already has been found to be incompatible with the year 2000. What does that mean? If you're using a '286, at home or in the office, in less than two years your machine may produce inaccurate information or be inoperable. In such cases, Thiele says, "there's nothing anybody can do."

Projects to address the Y2K problem have been completed in the Benefits Office, Payroll Office and Human Resources, and others will be under way soon.


When the year 2000 problem hits home

Most of us know that the year 2000 problem could cause major problems at work. But, Thiele warns, donžt forget about the rest of your life. "Look around your life and identify those things that are date-dependent, that could be important or critical to you," she says. This includes everything from cameras and VCRs to medical providers (the system that your doctor uses for your medical records) and financial institutions. Then get assurances from those service providers or manufacturers that their product is compliant.