The University Record, March 29, 1999

Y2K contingency planning focus shifts to unit level

By Jane R. Elgass

University administrators continue to work to prepare the institution for any possible negative impact of the Year 2000 (Y2K) Problem, also referred to as the Millennium Bug. Most of the attention so far has been directed to central activities, and much of that focused on information technology issues and those related to facilities. As the rollover date nears, the focus is shifting to making certain the University can do "business as usual" as much as possible starting Jan. 1, 2000, requiring a look at things at the unit, rather than central, level.

The Millennium Bug problem boils down to this: Some software assumes that the first two digits of a year are "19" and uses a two-digit number instead of a four-digit number. For example, "89" represents "1989." This becomes a problem when the century changes and the software recognizes the year "00" as "1900" instead of "2000."

The Y2K issue has made clear the many interdependencies within and outside the institution. Awareness of these interdependencies, and the potential effects of a loss of service of any kind, is critical to keeping things moving along smoothly.

For example, at the most basic level, the Power Plant can produce heat and electricity for much of Central Campus, but its operation depends on the City of Ann Arbor water system. The University also relies on Detroit Edison and Consumers Power. All campus units look on Payroll to issue checks and deposits for their faculty and staff members. Payroll, in turn, relies on NBD to transfer the funds.

The U-M Committee to Review the Year 2000 Impact hosted three sessions on "Planning for the Millennium" earlier this month for Y2K representatives from across campus and from U-M-Dearborn and U-M-Flint. They were designed to provide an update on work accomplished, highlight work that needs to be done and explain what will be required of the Y2K reps over the coming months.

University Controller Robert Moenart and Y2K Coordinator Gloria Thiele noted at the March 15 session that the U-M is working "to be prepared without a lot of panic." Thiele indicated that in an attempt to stabilize the central system, there will be no overall IT changes during the period leading up to and immediately after Jan. 1, 2000. In addition, she said, the software being used in the M-Pathways project is Y2K-compliant.

Both emphasized that much remains to be done at the unit level.

All the reps have been asked to submit contingency plans by June 1 that identify "worst-case" scenarios and "disaster recovery" plans that would be implemented should a worst-case scenario happen.

University officials have identified six mission-critical activities and functions that must continue and that require contingency planning. (See box.) In its contingency plan, each unit must consider the mission-critical priorities and develop contingency measures that ensure continuation of the unit's contributions to the mission-critical activities and functions of the University and continuation of the unit's internal mission-critical activities or functions.

Each unit must develop plans that will ensure continuation of the University's essential processes, whether or not systems are operational, facilities and infrastructure are available or other organizations are viable.

Moenart and Thiele offered two unit-level examples of things to consider:

  • Many University researchers have been collecting data over several decades. If the programs that store the research data are old, and the data is in any way date-dependent, problems can be expected if no action is taken ahead of time.

  • Several units operate international programs, and numerous faculty and staff conduct research activities in other countries. Moenart is fairly confident that there will not be major or long-term problems with the U.S. banking system, but that confidence doesn't extend to the international system.

    He also expressed little faith in the continued operation of communications systems outside the United States.

    He encourages units to make sure that out-of-the-country researchers have enough funds to continue their work, to make the fund transfers well before Dec. 31 and to devise some way of communicating with colleagues if electronic communications systems fail.

    The most important thing is to develop a worst-case scenario for every activity and then create a back-up plan, even if it means resorting to paper (as opposed to computers).

    Thiele noted that with the century turning at midnight Friday, the University has a bit of an advantage over many organizations--Saturday and Sunday to recover if there are any problems. Since students won't return until Wednesday, there's an additional "grace" period for functions and activities related to such things as housing, financial aid and course registration. "You basically have a 72-hour schedule to plan," she stated.

    In responding to questions, Thiele noted that the overall mission-critical priorities are being used as guidelines for decisions about where to put resources and effort. Units should assess their own standing against these priorities, with a particular focus on operations Jan. 1-5, 2000, and give careful thought to their dependency on other units and other units' dependency on them.

    Additional information specific to the University's Y2K projects is available on the Web at

    Mission-critical activities and functions

  • Health and safety of faculty, staff, students, hospital patients, contractors, renters and any other people on University premises.

  • Delivery of health care and hospital patient services: admissions, diagnostic tests, outpatient appointments, surgery and other procedures, patient records availability, etc.

  • Continuation and maintenance of research specimens, animals, biomedical specimens, research archives.

  • Delivery of teaching/learning process and student-related services: registration, faculty assignments, classroom scheduling, drop/add, financial aid services, government reports, grades, admissions, housing, etc.

  • Security and preservation of University facilities and equipment.

  • Maintenance of support for community/University partnerships.

    Why plan?

  • Some problems will be overlooked or ignored, or work will not be completed on time.

  • There is not enough time or money to fix everything.

  • Some solutions may not be available or work in time because they were overlooked, too complex, too costly or implemented incorrectly.

  • It is impossible to ensure that other organizations and groups, both internal and external, will have working systems.

  • Traditional contingency or backup plans put in place for computing problems or natural disasters may fail if widespread and simultaneous Y2K-related failures occur.