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Year 2000 Compliance - Bang goes the millenium!

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You, Your Company and the Millennium Bug
Good News - Bad News About PCs and Y2K Compliance

Useful Y2K links (including training)
Background | Short Sight in Business | UK Health Service | More UK Preparations | Apple Macs

Military Fail Safes?

Year 2000 compliance for computerized systems is not news. Logic suggests that when counting from the number ONE the chances are one will arrive at 2000. This fact was ignored, partly for space economy on early computers and partly for laziness,why programme four digits when two will do! Hardware designed in the early years of computers was upgraded and modernized, but with few exceptions* the two digit standard remained in place until the late 80s early 90s. Software programmes too used the two digit system and as we became more of a computerized society, it was not just laziness by programmers, but a desire to market upgraded versions quickly meant updates were often 'tacked' on to original programmes rather than taking time to do a complete rewrite. In the fast moving world of computers a delay could allow rivals to market their products first - and there is no prize for being second - except possible bankruptcy!

Short sight in Business
Forward planning in business is often done over five, ten, twenty-five and fifty year periods. Computers have been used in many companies since 1970 (28 years) becoming more general in the past ten years. For banks (with a history stretching back nearly 400 years) and other industries the lack of foresight of investing in systems and hardware, in some cases costing millions, which had a very short shelf life must surely be reason to question the quality and ability of their management. More questions must be asked as to why many banks and financial institutions only began to take steps less than two years from the deadline to prevent either a major economic catastrophe or a minor hiccup - depending on which of the prophets of doom one believes.

UK Health Service
The lack of preparation at other levels can be seen in the UK where, with less than 12 months to the millenium, approximately one in six Local Health Services had not updated their equipment. The enormity of this may be seen when one considers the incursion of computerized systems on our medical care over the past ten years, from incubators for premature babies, to 'vital sign' monitors in theatre. Even most GPs have probably put at least patient prescription records on computer, with notes on medications unsuitable for individual patients, including in some cases of drug allergies which can be life threatening.

More UK preparations
The proposed cutbacks in the UK Territorial Army, which were published in mid November 1998, were still under discussion at the time the Scottish Minister wrote to the Ministry of Defence. This leaked letter from the Scottish Office suggested the proposed cuts had not taken into account all factors, including 'problems' that might arise from breakdown in services due to the Year 2000 factor! Despite this the cuts have gone ahead, but is that letter an indication the possibility of civil unrest due to these 'problems' has been discussed at Cabinet level? Perhaps the UK government would do better to devote more time to Year 2000 Compliance and how to overcome the difficulties than such matters as 'role models' or Lord Irvine's tights!

Military Fail Safes?
The potential for tragedy in medical terms pales into insignificance compared to another worldwide disaster that could be enacted. The military usage of computers is an area for legitimate worry that has been so little mentioned one might almost believe there to be a conspiracy of silence. In this area a minor computer hiccup is capable of becoming a major world catastophe in very short order. Many countries have computerized weapons and defence systems. Some systems rely on responses along the lines of "if A happens within a set time then B does not follow within a set time" - "if A does not happen within a set time then B follows within a set time" (taking A as the green light or OK that no attack is happening, B as the launch of defence/attack weapons). There are supposedly 'fail safe' checks in place, but these systems are not 'fail proof' as reports of false alarms affecting the Defence Systems of many major countries show. Some older military computers might shut down once the clock ticks over to '2000', but then there is a question as to whether the larger defence system they are connected to will see this as a simple 'offline' situation or whether 'offline' will be computed as 'destroyed by enemy action' and a pre-programmed response kick in.

It is these defence systems that are deeply worrying, one hopes (without assuming) that countries such as the US and UK have prepared their systems to be Year 2000 compliant - though the case of the UK National Health Systems might be a pointer to a worrying lack of forethought on the part of UK governments. But what of other countries? Many of them bought in expertise for initial installation, but now rely on local operatives; some countries have nationally produced systems but are not so advanced in the computer sciences; yet others inherited their systems from now defunct governments. In the latter group are some of the former Soviet Union satellite countries that are now independent states, many took over defence systems (including nuclear capability and computers) from the Soviet Union - have these been updated? And beyond all the military and political considerations there are also the operators who in some cases have made 'illegal' alterations to their hardware/software installations.

On the question of ex Soviet states, it is not only the military aspect that is worrying, there are serious concerns regarding the safety of nuclear plants, particularly in the Ukraine. Some experts appear to believe that Chernobyl might only have been a dress rehearsal.

It is not just terrestial and marine systems that will be affected, since the 1960s man has been invading the skies and there are now hundreds (or possibly thousands) of pieces of hardware orbiting around our earth. Some of these bits of hardware are no more than that, bits of scrap metal that will burn up in the atmosphere on re-entry. However, there are computerized satellites up there, most of which are not Y2K compliant, these might make unscheduled and uncontrolled descents. Some are already being decommissioned, for example Mir Space Station was originally planned to be active until January/February 2000, it will now be closed down in June 1999. I suppose under these circumstances we should cross fingers and be glad that two-thirds of the earth surface is covered with water.

One would hope that if governments are now trying to panic commercial concerns into action that this is not sympomatic of a panic reigning at high levels regarding what could be a more disastrous result of non-year 2000 compliance than the temporary loss of utilities or banking services or the personal tragedies resulting from lack of preparation in hospitals. The absence of any statement from international organizations such as the UN, NATO, the EU or other international trade and military alliances makes one wonder whether the military of all nations are standing with their heads in the sand hoping the problem will go away.

There have been reports recently that the United States and Russian have set up a joint military operation to help ensure that 'inappropriate responses' are not made should there be a computer failure. Gee thanks guys - I'd hate to be on the receiving end of an 'inappropriate response'. Unfortunately, the 'Kosovo' conflict has had more consequences than expected in many ways, including the withdrawal of the Russians from this co-operative action.

The military, whatever their nationality or allegiance, seem more concerned with 'secrets', 'national security', and other such important matters than civilian peace of mind. Will we only find out about their failure to have prepared for the year 2000 as we all disappear in a cloud of nuclear dust in the first minutes January 1, 2000? What one might term 'welcoming the new millennium with a bang'!
Ieke van Stokkum
Member, Association of Internet Professionals
Apple Mac
*One major exception is the Apple Mac or Macintosh computer which since its inception in 1985 was designed to deal with the four digit year recognition. Companies that standardized on Apple Mac computers for design/typesetting then waited for Apple to develop accounting systems before becoming completely computerized must now be counting their blessings and foresight! It was possibly because the Mac was originally marketed as a typesetting/desk top publishing and graphics oriented computer, together with the long established reputation of IBM computers (designed with two digit recognition), and the vigorous marketing of IBM main frames and computers and the later developed IBM/DOS computers that gave us the PC that led most major industries, governments and financial institutions to go the IBM route and for many smaller companies to follow down a similar road once the popularity of the PC was established.
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Useful Y2K links

UK Government sponsors training for Y2K

The UK government has announced that £26 million pounds will be used to sponsor training schemes being made available to small businesses in England which wish staff to learn how to assess, manage and fix their IT equipment and software. The training courses are free to qualifying companies (under 250 employees and not IT consultants are the main criteria) through Business TECs (Training and Enterprise Councils) and other training organizations. There is a link on this site to the UK Government Press Release announcing the courses. Details on the training courses available may be obtained from the Action 2000 Helpline on 0845 601 2000 or got to the Action 2000 site at:

Locally in Dorset from Dorset TEC, 25 Oxford Road, Bournemouth, Dorset BH8 8EY Tel: 01202 680722, Fax: 01202 680741, e-mail:
For Dorset companies wishing to make General Year 2000 inquiries - call your local Business Link on 0345 567 765.
Further information on Y2K problems may be found at:
The National Training Organisation for Information Technology -
There are numerous articles about the Year 2000 implications on the Internet and more links will be added here from time to time.
See also: Article by Craig Stevens of Sutton Designs
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