Example of Our Fragile Systems

greenspun.com : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Here's a good example of what worries me about the domino theory as it relates to Y2K. I was called to go in to another company's client today to look around for 2000 problems.

The details of the client: The client supplies produce to over 400 (they're growers and brokers too) grocery store customers. Although most of their customers are small grocery stores, a couple are really large. One in particular has a chain of several hundred stores here in the Southeast. They have 200+ employees working there. Most of their larger customers modem in their orders every morning directly to this supplier's computer. They never talk unless there is a problem. Obviously, these guys aren't the grocery stores only suppliers of produce; but from the volume they move, if they went down it would be felt fairly hard. They're rack up quite a few millions per year in sales.

Here's the glitch. This whole orgainzation is run by just two computers. And both these computers are old, full of dirt (literally), 486's with 16 meg of memory running Win 95. Backup consists of a $200 tape drive. Nobody there can do more than enter orders, invoices, or cut checks. It seems that their largest customer actually set up the order system because I can guarantee you these people didn't.

When we checked out what they had, we found the 486's to be non-compliant. Not a hard call. We were quite amazed that the software they were running appears at first test to be fine. Obviously, Win 95 needs some tweaking. We informed the owners that they would need to at least replace the two units. I also told them they should consider setting up at least a backup system that could mirror the first. His reply, "Send me some prices, but I doubt if I'm going to buy any new computers. These are only a few years old." After explaining to him of the potential problems they might encounter, he informed me that he thought this Year 2000 "stuff" was just a bunch of folks running a con.

Now I know what a lot of people will say. At least if their system goes down, they can obviously run this operation without the computers. After all, they only use two now. But it won't work that way. Something along the lines of 80% of their sales depend on their largest customers being able to order. And I can tell you, these customers aren't going to be able to pick up the phone and order a semi load of sweet potatoes. Their customer's entire order system is built around automated inventory. You can't change 400 + grocery store's inventory system in a few months. (And even though the chain has made sure the guys are running a compliant software package, they haven't even mentioned the hardware side to them.) If these guys computers go down, the produce on hand will go bad before they could even think about figuring out how to take the orders again. And without their largest customers, they're through. And I know some will say that they can go to just pen and paper. But in this case, they can't gear up staff fast enough before they hit a cash flow brick wall.

Well, sorry to ramble on. It's just that I'm amazed at how fragile some of the systems (process) are that we depend on. Also at the attitudes of people that will refuse to spend a few thousand dollars to support a multi million dollar business. By the way, this isn't the only example. I'm running across many businesses with small, custom built packages that are critical. And in most cases, these old packages aren't going to make it in 2000.

-- Greg Sugg (gregsugg@bbnp.com), October 23, 1998


You are right Greg. We hear about the Big Boys and what they are doing, but what about the millions of small and medium sized businesses just barely making it? They don't have IT budgets. They operate in the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mode. The studies of these businesses indicate most won't be prepared. If the phones are still working on 1/3/00, I would hate to working the order desk at Gateway, Dell, etc...

-- Bill (bill@microsoft.com), October 23, 1998.

I firmly believe we will have transition problems. TEOTWAWKI I don't believe for a minute. Your example is a good one - but I think you will find that the customers will find another supplier very quickly - unless these guys get off their dead a*ses and get the system ready. Which, in fact, they probably will. A lot of the visible reluctance I have encountered from these kinds of folks in the past I have found to be utterly false - they will cheat you like crazy by taking your advice and then doing everything you told them to do - but they get it done for next to nothing by cousin Bernie who just happens to be a Systems Analyst. I have thought about sueing a couple of such - but they count on the fact that most will just write it off to experience and then they move on to cheat the next guy.

Of course the other alternative is that you will get a frantic call about 5am 1/1/00 - our computers aren't working - come fix them - and you will spend your day off fixing the problem! SIGH. For all you independant consultants out there - I would suggest you lay in a stock of boxes a few weeks before 1/1 - its gonna be ugly for a while.

-- Paul Davis (davisp1953@yahoo.com), October 23, 1998.

Greg - thank you. The information you posted was helpful, and to continue along a more individual path - let's say the customers in ONE of these guys' stores go to the store and suddenly notice that a big block of the produce wasn't delivered, and isn't expected (according to the store's optimistic predictions) for "several days". Wll Mrs. Shopper, having had in the back of her mind the Y2K problem, rush home, worried, and call her sister, saying, "Gosh, remember what they said about stocking food? Down at the XYZ Store, they couldn't deliver the produce because somebody's computers went down." Sis says, "Jeez, maybe we should run to ABC store and stock up. I'm gonna go call Aunt Millie." The local TV station does a story on a "minor" disruption - many more people get the same idea - a "grcery run" ensues, THAT is covered on the news, picked up on the national news, people in Iowa see it, THEY start a grocery run.....

See how my mind works? The public gets spooky, not just me, and public perception of a shortage will create the exact same results as a REAL shortage.

-- Melissa (financed@forbin.com), October 23, 1998.

Greg, you have a good handle on the ramifications of Y2K, because you don't let the trees interfere with your view of the forest. It does not take a lot to be able to generalize from this one example, which seems to be pretty typical. At the same time, indeed it is generally going to be the SMALL businesses that have the best shot at survival, the big ones are going to go down hard when their computers become useless.

-- Jack (jsprat@eld.net), October 23, 1998.

Greg, the most important thing you wrote is, "Nobody there can do more than enter orders, invoices, or cut checks." Over the last decade, information systems have replaced mid-level managers. How do you think all those huge companies could lay off thousands of white collar workers while at the same time increasing their sales? Now a foreman on the factory floor can access more information from a single computer terminal than he used to be able to get from a building full of stuffed suits. It works great as long as the info is fast and accurate--which it most likely won't be come one-one-oh-oh (emphasis on the "Uh oh!") All those folks who have not been asked to do anything other than push buttons for the last decade will have no clue how to get things done manually. Even if they did, it wouldn't matter since there are far too few of them left. Assuming we have power and phones, etc. (yes, I know, that's quite an optimistic assumption at this point), there are still going to be literally tens of thousands of workers staring at blank or frozen screens, scratching their heads and saying, "Now what?" Economic activity is going to bog down like you wouldn't believe. Try to imagine the Olympic 100 meter dash being run for 50 meters on the regular track, and then suddenly hitting 12 inches of mud for the last 50 meters. Not a pretty sight. Let's just say no world records will be broken.

-- bill dunn (bdunn@snet.net), October 23, 1998.

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