The Y2k Bug


The Y2k Bug Essay, Research Paper

The year 2000 problem could have been completely prevented had some

early people envisioned the degree to which the microprocessor would

change our lives. Surely, no one would have thought that in the early

days of ENIAC that everything from your alarm clock to your car would be

computerized. Even the IT managers of the 80’s could not be blamed: The

disk space savings from dropping the two digits of the date over 100

Million Records would represent almost 200 Megabytes! Space requirements

aside, overhead on search times and disk loading/access are also added.

Surely one could have designed a system whereby the program would be

aware of the century, regardless of the data records used. Hindsight is

always 20/20 however, and this was almost never the case.

Regardless where you address the problem from, the year 2000 problem is

a huge, expensive and international one. In many cases it is a problem

lined with doubt as to it’s effects. This paper will analyze the various

aspects to the year 2000 problem, classical and software solutions to

the problem, and present the author’s ideas on how a systematic approach

to the “millennia virus” can prevent doomsday from becoming a reality

for many information technology managers and their corporations.

What, specifically, is this “millennia virus” to begin with? There has

been much talk about it, and most people know it has something to do

with the date formats and how the computer processes them. How it is

affecting that processing is what the key to implementing a solution is.

There are several forms the “bug” will metamorphose into.

For example: Field / Date Processing

Time based calculations

Hardware failure

“Will all be affected by the problem? “OLD will seem YOUNG, a FEW

moments will seem like an ENTIRE century, FUTURE events will have

ALREADY occurred.”

– Duncan G. Connall; Global Software, Inc.

Scope of Problems

The scope of this problem is immense. The awareness and information

available on this problem is growing rapidly, as a observation of the

rate at which the amount of information available on the Internet has

been growing. An advanced search of “year AND 2000 AND problem” through

the Altavista index yielded over 60,000 pages! Even this volume of

information does not sufficiently judge the magnitude of the problem.

Early IBM-PC machines and compatibles will be rendered useless for date

applications without running software patches as the system clocks on

the hardware level will not handle the four-letter date format.

This problem is not only limited to personal computers and mainframes,

however. Most electronic devices that make use of dates will have

serious unpredictable problems. The micro controllers that are in car

ignition control systems, clocks, microwaves, and even nuclear weapons

all suffer from the same problem. The unpredictable effects come from

both the microprocessor used in the device and the compiler or linker

used to generate the code. As any programmer knows, when software is

given a input which it does not expect, anything can happen. Anything

ranging from an error message to a serious program crash. The material

effects of these could be anything from your BIOS preventing your

computer from booting to your car not starting the morning after your

millennium party.

Strange effects have already begun to occur with many programs on the PC

platform not understanding the 2000-year field, or when it is entered,

defaulting to 00 or 1900. This is of particular concern with widespread

versions of home database and spreadsheet software becoming obsolete

unless patches are released to fix this behavior. For many companies,

however, the attitude has been to make a complete upgrade of the

software necessary – hardly an ideal solution for the home user.

“According to a variety of experts, it will take, on average, 6 months

to do and impact analysis of the systems before beginning another three

to six months worth of pilot projects. Then, production itself could

easily take a couple of years, depending on the size of your business

and the availability of resources. And those resources, whether in-house

or outside services, will become increasingly scarce as time runs out:

“We’re telling people to book their services by the second half of 1996

at the latest,”

– Bruce Hall, IT Expert, January 1996 Datamation Magazine

Estimated man hour replacement costs for a large corporation

Comments Lines of Code Estimated Man Hours

Manufacturing System 1,200,000 2,000

COTS Software Provider 8,800,000 116,300

Commercial Software 2,000,000 2,500

2,000 Programs 7,000,000 38,000

Retail System 1,300,000 9,000

401k Plan System 12,000,000 200,000

Totals: 39,800,000 442,800

–Source: “The Millennium Mess” by CACI Incorporated

List of Problems

Several machines have already started to exhibit millennium bug. The

Unisys 2000, ironically named, uses a signed integer to represent the

8th bit of the year field, meaning that it failed on the first day of

1996. Several credit card systems have problems that cause cards entered

with a year of 00 to be designated as invalid. Some insurance companies

cannot sell 5-year annuities because their systems will not accept date

entries past 1999.

Hardware system problems have not gotten a lot of attention in relation

to the year 2000 problem, and their is little in the way of resources

available to determine if any particular system will be venerable to the

millennium problem at a hardware level.

There is another aspect of the year 2000 problem as well: Convincing IT

managers that they need to act in advance. There is a prevailing theory

that a “magic bullet” will appear to resolve the problems. All

indicators do not point in this direction. This problem is compounded by

the lack of professional resources available to deal with and repair the

problem. Analysts estimate that resources should have been allocated in

most mid to large-size companies by the end of 1996. This point has

passed and still most companies have not acted.

Part of this is that it is difficult to justify spending large amounts

of money just to remain in business. IBM estimates that they will need

to modify over 50 Million lines of code at an estimated cost of $20

Million dollars. The end result of which is to make the software work

the same on January 1st, 2000 as it did on December 31st, 1999.

The media is not helping matters, either. While almost everyone has

heard about the year 2000 problem, few people realize the potential for

disaster. The attention that the problem has received is minor accounts

of interesting “horror stories”, mainly centered around inconveniences

and program failures.

The problem itself is deceptively simple: To the layman, it’s only the

date. How much of an impact could the difference between 99 and 2000 be?

There has been no news coverage of a successful business going under

because of improper planning and preparation. Those are the stories that

scare managers into allocating the resources that are required to deal

with the problem effectively. Unfortunately for most, those stories will

not happen until it is too late.

Networking: Multiplying the error

The degree to which most large computer systems are networked and

interdependent compounds all of these problems. Even extra-enterprise

systems can cause losses for a company; If your widgets need titanium

lugnuts and the lugnut supplier thinks that it’s 1900, you won’t be

getting any lugnuts and will be unable to produce widgets. Banking

systems are particularly sensitive to this kind of crash as there are

hundreds and thousands of nodes in their networks; Consider how many

Interact / Credit Card / Automated Teller systems are in place now! If

the software (or firmware) in any one of these systems is not working

properly it can cause problems anywhere in the network.

These problems could range from money not being added and deducted from

accounts properly, problems with interest and financial forecast

situations, or even a complete crash of the network. Compounding this -

2000 is a leap year. Some programs (Including Lotus and Lotus-Compatible

worksheets) do not recognize Feb 29th, 2000. (Datamation Magazine, Jan.

1996 Joe Celko)

The latter touches on an important aspect of the problem. There is no

definitive answer to a manager’s question of “what will happen to my

program?” The all-encompassing answer is that it depends. Some operating

systems will default back to their creation date (1990 for MS-Windows

3.1; 1980 for MS-DOS machines). Some programs will do the same, or

interpret the year as 2000. Others still will work sporadically and

output random data. Some will crash altogether. Some other applications

are based around a client server model. The server may be able to be

modified to cope with a larger year field, but the client programs,

often off-the-shelf, cannot be modified and in many cases are no longer

supported! The problem, then, is very subjective and ambiguous – there

will be no quick fix.

“For once in our lives,” says de Jager, “it doesn’t matter the size of

the project, how many resources, how much money you have – the deadline

is fixed.”

– Peter de Jager, Year 2000 Consultant, quoted from Datamation magazine

Legality – Paying the Bills

There are several issues as to software and the insurance and the

potential liability for program failures of this magnitude. One of the

questions that information technology managers are being asked about the

year 2000 situation is “who’s to blame?”. While this is a new occupancy

on the millennium bug field, and not much information was available, it

is conceivable that external contractors who provided software may be

faced with expensive lawsuits related to the inevitable failure of their


The insurance industry has already looked at the issue and determined

that companies will not be able to claim software failures (such as) the

millennium bug under most plans unless specifically defined, as it was

an intristic problem with the software and not something which would

have been unexpected and unavoidable. Programmers who have “professional

oversight or neglect” clauses in their consulting insurance plans may be

able to claim this, if sued. Affected corporations will no doubt be

looking into ways to assign financial liability to others, as a way to

defer what can be enterprise-crippling expenditure.

While not a solution in it’s own right, assigning blame and negligence

in this matter will be a part of a corporation’s solution matrix,

especially if their development contracts for their software are clear

in this respect. Other personnel which may be found liable for failure

to act could face being fired or disciplined – something which is also

just as sure to happen when upper management is forced to deal with a

large failure or shutdown caused by a failure to act on the 2000


“Gartner Group, Inc., an information technology research firm, has

estimated that it will cost between $300 billion to $600 billion to

correct the Year 2000 problem worldwide. ”

– Legal Issues Surrounding the 2000 Bug, by Jeff Jinnet

“The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, plans to solve the problem

at a cost of $1.1 billion. ”

– Reuters News, April 7th, 1997

Possible Solutions to the 2000 Problem

The Key Solution: ISO 8601 Standard Date Formats. The real solution for

preventing this is to write software to standards. The wonderful thing

about the computer industry, it is said, “If you like standards, there

are a lot to choose from.” There is, however, such a format. The

International Standards Organization has a standard for the formatting

of the date and time for electronic computing devices. The objective

would be then to get the software compliant with this international

standard. If this had have been done from the beginning, there would not

be this dilemma. Indeed, the problem originates from programmers not

writing software to accepted standards, or even being aware that they

exist. Getting the software there, unfortunately, is the hard part.

There is a need for this consistent adherence to the standard. This

provides a means whereby the interchange of date information can be

facilitated between systems. Why is this important? Most computer

systems are networked and sharing information between many different

operating systems and programs through the use of common protocols, like

TCP/IP (Transport Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). Thus many systems

are sharing largely incompatible and/or incomplete (the source of the

2000 problem) date information.

The solution for this is to provide the complete date information in the

form outlined by ISO 8601. The implementation of this is quite simple,

and an OOP (Object Oriented Programming) approach is to define a date

class and use a date object to represent chronological information. An

example of this is the class provided in the Sun

Microsystems JDK 1.0 package. This allows for all relevant information

to be dynamically shared between systems in a platform independent


Local Fixes: Saving the Data

In many cases, especially in larger corporations, it’s not the program

that is the valued information: It’s the data. These applications (large

mailing lists, financial information) open the door to a unique solution

that solves two of the larger problems at once. Writing plug in

enterprise wide replacements for the flawed application has two


1. Saves older information

2. Offers the chance to enhance productivity through upgrading software

and hardware.

Allows independent startups to show up with “magic bullets” that IT

managers that are unprepared will be looking for at any cost towards the

end of the millennia. Unfortunately, it also has pitfalls: High R&D

cost. Whether absorbed by a independent software house or a client

corporation, such programs are expensive to develop on a large scale,

but will represent a large portion of the fixes for small Point-of-Sale

terminals and imbedded firmware applications. This high cost comes both

in the complex nature of the programs and the man-hours required

developing these solutions. High implementation cost. Unless over a

large scale, the research and development expense will be recouped at

the time of sale.

In House / External Re-engineering:

This is the solution being implemented in corporations with large IT

sections and has some plan in place. Through re-engineering their

existing source code they can develop applications that support the 2000

format. At the same time new features can be added and the source can be

recompiled to work under improved hardware. Like any other approach, it

has its benefits and pitfalls. This approach makes use of existing

source code, and where compilers are available and supported it can make

in-house expertise with that source code. Source conversion products for

several mainframe languages such as COBOL and Assembler are becoming

available. While these are part of the solution, a lot of code

manipulation is still required to make the product work as expected.

While such programs can handle programs that get the date from the

operating system, they cannot handle areas where the date is an integral

part of a numerical algorithm. This problem still requires analyzing the

code by hand and often requires less external assistance and support,

leading to a much cheaper solution for companies. This solution requires

a significant amount of planning in advance and is often not practical

for many ventures that haven’t begun their 2000 conversions.

Software patching

Some hardware systems are the problem in that the date they provide from

the hardware will not be functional after the year 2000, or before. IBM

has announced such patches for its S390 processor machines running VMS

5.1 or later. Intel based personal computers that do not support the

2000 format in their BIOS will have a real problem in that they will

require a DATE command to be entered very time the machine is turned on!

This is not a practical solution for applications that require

organization around dates – what if an operator forgot to enter the date

some Monday morning?

The software patches to hardware are a “quick fix”, that will require a

hardware (firmware) upgrade. The market for such BIOS chips is sure to

grow exponentially fast after 2000 has passed given the millions of

these machines in service. IBM PC’s manufactured before 1996 (all) will

have this problem. IBM has since promised that all machines shipped

after 1996 will function properly after 2000. Hardly the ideal solution.

(Jan 1996 Datamation article by Joe Celko)

The System is the Solution: Solving the 2000 Problem

For most companies, the solution will involve a combination of the above

strategies. How they will be implemented, and whether or not they will

be in-house, contracted or some combination thereof will dictate a

companies year 2000 strategy.

Assess & Identify

The first problem facing the IT manager in charge of developing a

strategy to have their company undergo a smooth transition past 2000 is

to determine what their problem is. How much of their software will be

affected? What will be the consequences if no action is taken to resolve

the problem? Is their centralized database software capable of the

change? What about client applications?

These are only some of the questions that must be answered. Once a

reasonable estimate of the scope of the problem that must be dealt with

has been obtained, an assessment of the problem can then be made.

Specifically: Is it cheaper to repair or replace the system?

There are several factors that must be considered here. If you are

dealing with a mainframe computer, is the source code still available,

and if so, is there a supported compiler that does not suffer from any

inherent 2000 problems? If this is the case, do you have the people that

can modify the code in house, or if not, do you know that adequate human

resources can be found?

An analysis of the expenditures and benefits to repairing the existing

system may lead you to the conclusion that replacing your system

altogether is a more attractive option. This step requires a great deal

of planning and foresight. If your system is seriously affected,

replacing your existing processing applications with new ones that can

convert your old data may be an appropriate decision to make.

Communicate with Business Partners

What are your suppliers and customers doing? If your systems are

interdependent, then you need to agree on a format and a course of

action. Using independent standards is the obvious intelligent choice,

but whatever format that is agreed upon it must be implemented by all

parties that will have systems affected by your own in-house changes.

Develop a Strategy for Deployment and Testing

Once you have committed to a plan of action, there needs to be a

schedule for deployment and testing of the new system. There is no way

that the deadline can be extended – regardless of your resources, you

must be running when the Jan 1, 2000 clock rolls over, or there will be

losses to account for.

The year 2000 problem is the kind of programming project, which is

typically subject to delays, and setbacks – characterized by serious

time constraints, broadly defined scope and inter-compatibility

problems. Many sources recommend that a separate project manager with

experience in these kinds of applications be hired to assist in the

timely completion of your plans. This project manager should preferably

have experience in dealing with year 2000 conversions, but as many

companies are finding out, such experienced personnel are few and far


Testing of the software has it’s own unique problems and difficulties.

Not only must you make sure that the software works with post-millennium

code, but it must work with prior code and data alongside. This process

is very time-consuming and where parallel testing equipment is not

available (most cases), a large component of the testing will have to be

carried out by hand, a time-consuming and error-prone process.

“Systems must be well tested to ensure that functionality has not been

changed in any program as a result of the date changes. This means a

unit test of the program, a system test with a test bed of data covering

all functions, a simulation test to any date in the future that may

impact your system (this involves moving your data and your system date

into the future), and finally, a test with historical data to make sure

you can process old data through the system once changes are complete.

Developing a test bed for these changes is a significant task. The

testing stage represents 40% of the effort for the entire project.”

– Brenda McKelvey, from a report on the “Year 2000: Blueprint for

Success” conference in Orlando, Florida, November 1995; Datamation


Allocate Financial Resources

No doubt about it – this is one project that is going to be extremely

expensive for some companies. Whether it is money spent on converting or

re-engineering their computer systems, or money lost on downtime caused

by millennium bugs, the projected figures are enormous. Where will you

get the financial resources to make the conversions? If you have been

planning all along, then you have already established a fund that can be

drawn off for consultation and implementation of the bug fixes. If not,

you will have to look into where resources can be drawn from to fully

implement these changes before downtime starts costing you money.

If your company had software developed that suffers from your spec, was

inherent system failure written in the development contract for your

systems, and if so, is legal action a possibility to recoup some of the

costs associated with re-engineering or repairing your computer network?

Take Action

Start implementing your plan of action. The nature of the repairs and

replacements are extremely time critical, and planning with regular

progress meetings and code reviews should be undertaken to help assure

that you are on track to staying on line throughout the next millennium

- or at least until the next software upgrade.

An Example: Case Study – MicroCorp Widget Producers, Inc.

Scenario: A small corporation, utilizing customized PC based sales

software for Windows 95 and a larger, custom programmed

database/retrieval system (old). This larger system talks to their

supplier’s computer to automatically ship source materials when they are

low. The solution for Microcarpa Widgets is multi-faceted. Starting off

on a checklist: Testing their PC’s to determine if the BIOS will support

the year 2000. Without this, all their software will report incorrect

dates, including the operating system. Analyzing their sales software to

determine if it will handle the year 2000 correctly. Provided source

code is available, the manipulation of the software to support the date

format that is settled upon (IS 8601, of course.) should not be a

difficult task. If source code can not be obtained a re-write will have

to be performed. Talking to their suppliers to implement a IS compliant,

or mutually agreeable, standard so that normal business particles will

not be upset. Looking at their mainframe situation to determine if there

is source code and compatible tools and compilers available. If so, are

the programmers available to make the conversion a reality? Would moving

to a more modern, more flexible system be an attractive move to make?

Will it be a necessary move? On the basis of this impact analysis,

develop a concise and clear strategy for moving their company on to

operations in the year 2000.

Even a common setup like this has many potential problems and can be a

very expensive one, especially if it is not handled properly &

efficiently. The biggest problem that this widget producer will have is

convincing its managers that there is a problem that needs to be



The one thing that this paper needs to demonstrate is that there is no

silver flyswatter to kill this bug with for most medium and even small

enterprises. Any corporation with in house software developed to handle

inventory or database control will almost inevitably have to deal with

this on some level which will involve a re-engineering or replacement

situation, and will probably be very costly in terms of both dollars and

man hours, and could be even more costly in terms of potential downtime.

This is further compounded by the magnitude of the problem – there will

be a worldwide shortage of people to deal with this problem.

The only solution that will work for most is a multi-faceted one. The

strategy for dealing with this problem must be well laid out well in

advance, and must be implemented before the absolute deadline of

01/01/2000. Many information technology experts have already said that

this deadline has in fact already passed and managers should now be

looking at plans, which will include ways to minimize downtime at the

turn of the millennium.

From the entrepreneur’s perspective this is a time which is full of

opportunities. There are several key applications which could be

developed as “plug and play” fixes, making use of existing data formats

for conversion and implementing a system which repairs the date problem

and adds functionality or speed in the process. The sheer magnitude of

the effects will make the upcoming years very interesting in the

information technology field. One thing that everyone can be sure of -

there will be a swift judgment of your preparedness on December 31,

1999, 23:59:59.99.


Web Pages and Web References

“Legal Issues Surrounding the Year 2000″

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