Some Y2k bugs in hiding : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread


Some Y2K bugs in hiding HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - For erstwhile Year 2000 (Y2K) exterminators, the most difficult millennium bugs to kill may be the ones in hiding.


By now, most computer users know that without potentially expensive updates a majority of computerized systems built before 1997 (and perhaps some built after) will probably crash when the circuits that run their internal clocks flip from 12/31/99 to 01/01/00 - and cant decide whether the year is 2000 or 1900. The same problems awaiting home, school and business computer users, however, may also lurk behind the scenes for anyone who has a machine that operates on a digital clock, including automated lawn sprinklers, cash registers, security and fire alarm systems, elevators, heating and air conditioning systems, time-controlled store and bank safes - even jail house doors. The biggest problem with year 2000 issues, is that organizations may think they have fixed all of their hardware and software, but if they have only one PC that isn't Y2K compliant - even in a networked supplier's system - the bad data it pushes can act almost like a computer virus. Dr. Stephen Floyd UAH Of the 25 billion automated embedded systems in the U.S., an estimated 50 million arent Y2K compliant, according to information from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). And the time remaining for correcting those problems is drawing short, says Dr. Stephen Floyd, an assistant professor of information sciences at The University of Alabama in Huntsville. This may affect everyone who has a personal computer or who depends on an imbedded system. Even knowing which systems are vulnerable can be a challenge. Most appliances, like VCRs, microwave ovens and alarm clocks, wont have a problem because most of them dont use a real time clock, Floyd explained. Instead, their timers just cycle through a 24-hour clock or a one-week clock. But that doesnt mean that all appliances are safe. If youre concerned, check with the supplier or the manufacturers website. One challenge to solving the problem is that it occurs on several levels, Floyd said. Y2K problems were programmed into software, are archived in a vast number of documents, files and databases, and were hardwired into much of the computer circuitry manufactured as recently as 1997. (According to NIST, a recent study found that almost half of the personal computers shipped in early 1997 failed Y2K rollover tests.) Most computers have a real time clock - a chip that keeps time. They also have a basic input-output system, which uses that timekeeping data. Because saving memory was so important to early computer systems, most older computers and digital control chips use only two digits to signify the year. When the date flips from 12/31/99 to 01/01/00, however, those systems may read the 00 date as an undiagnosed malfunction, causing a shutdown. Other systems use date digits for mathematical processes, such as figuring expiration or delivery dates. If a system tries to subtract from 00 it may get a negative number, which it might also read as a shutdown-worthy malfunction. Other systems used four digits for the year date, but hardwired 19 into the century and millennium places, Floyd said. These systems will flip from 1999 to 1900, causing negative aging for everything from mortgages to frozen food inventories (which the computer might suddenly see as more than 90 years past their expiration dates). Correcting Y2K problems in those systems might mean replacing the real time clock and/or the input-output chip, or installing software that adjusts how the input-output chip handles the data it gets from the real time clock. The biggest problem with year 2000 issues, said Floyd, is that organizations may think they have fixed all of their hardware and software, but if they have only one PC that isnt Y2K compliant - even in a networked suppliers system - the bad data it pushes can act almost like a computer virus. It may be a small glitch in some peoples systems and cause a major shutdown in others. Making some systems Y2K compliant may involve replacing one or more chips or circuits, or installing new software, Floyd said. For many people, the best solution to their millennium bug problems may be simple but expensive. For a lot of us the bottom line is - if Im smart - in the next ten months I will buy a new system, Floyd said. If I get a new system I wont have to worry about my hardware and software being Y2K compliant. I bought my home computer (a Gateway) in 1995 and it still serves my home computing needs. But it wouldnt make much sense to replace or upgrade the motherboard for Y2K compliance. Everyone knows that a four-year-old computer is worth only a fraction of its original cost. Its worth a much smaller fraction with compliance issues. If buying a new computer (and video camera and everything else you have that uses a digital clock) isnt a viable option, Floyd recommends checking with individual vendors and manufacturers or with on-line publishers such as ZDNet or PC Magazine to determine whether a system and its software are Y2K compliant - and how much it might cost to fix problems before they occur. Some companies are pulling all of this together, he said. They will tell you which of their software packages are compliant, which are partially compliant and which will need to be upgraded. You can also buy software for your PC that will detect the level of Y2K noncompliance and identify where you are going to have problems. A Y2K Help Center for Small Business has been opened by NIST. It can be reached via the Internet at or by telephone at 1-800-Y2K-7557 or by e-mail at Among the many Internet sites providing Y2K information, Floyd recommends the following: For the business professional: or the Information Technology Association of America site at The U.S. Consumer Gateway site at is an excellent source for federal information resources on consumer-related Y2K issues.

-- Homer Beanfang (, October 18, 1999

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