Fixing code for turn of century will cost government big bucks

The cost of ensuring that federal computer applications continue
running when the calendar changes to 2000 is being estimated at up to $25 billion.


The Social Security Administration alone is evaluating 30 million lines of code, which
will take an estimated 300 employee-years, said acting deputy commissioner for systems
Dean Mesterharm.


The date problem is not difficult to fix, Mesterharm said. "It's an easy problem.
The problem is you have to go through your code," he said, and look for specific date
references.


The cost of this process is between 30 cents and 40 cents per line, he said. Estimates
of the cost of doing this for the entire federal government range from $10 billion to $25
billion, and nobody is immune, Mesterharm said.


Although this could be a windfall for vendors of products and services for the
millennium conversion, it also could be a drain on increasingly scarce IT resources. This
year, the federal government will spend $25 billion on all its computer operations and
projects.


"We're concerned about diverting funds from other IT projects," said Olga
Grkavac, a vice president of the Information Technology Association of America. "We
obviously think there are too many critical programs that cannot be stopped while this is
going on."


ITAA is forming a millennium conversion task force to educate federal agencies and to
lobby Congress on the need for adequate funds for calendar conversion.


"There still doesn't seem to be a lot of awareness of it at government agencies or
among their vendors," Grkavac said. "Hopefully, we can resolve the funding issue
without stopping existing programs."


The problem is that most systems use a two-digit field for years in dates. This has
worked fine for as long as there have been computers. But as applications begin working on
calculations that involve dates beyond the year 1999, the calculations contain errors or
cannot be done at all, Mesterharm said.


"We actually had our first problem back in '88," he said. "1989 was when
we started working on the problem."


Despite a six-year head start, most of the work lies ahead for SSA. "We have
changed all of our databases," Mesterharm said. "However, people didn't go in
and change the code. They put in a filter."


"People tend to think of this as a mainframe problem, and it's not," he said.
"PCs are as big as or more of a problem than mainframes."


SSA is using tools from Biosoft, a division of Acropolis Computers Ltd. of Ferguson,
Mo., to search, correct and test the code on its mainframes. It has not yet found suitable
tools for working on PCs, Mesterharm said.


So far, few federal agencies have addressed the millennium problem seriously, and
"most states are even further behind than the federal government is," Mesterharm
said. "I think everybody is taking it too lightly. The trouble is when you've got a
management group at the top that doesn't understand the problem."


Helping agencies to understand the problem will be the job of the ITAA task force,
which Grkavac now is assembling. Most of the educational material so far produced about
the problem is geared toward the commercial sector, she said. She hopes to brief
congressional staffers on the issue and possibly organize a show of products for searching
and fixing software.


"I think a lot of people thought this would be a quick fix," she said. She
wants to inform them, "in a non-alarmist way," that it won't.


Task force member Chuck Ross, director of federal services for Data Dimensions of
Colonial Beach, Va., said the sooner agencies begin tackling the problem the less
expensive the work will be. If a preliminary plan is not in place by mid-1996, the cost
could increase by as much as 50 percent as work becomes rushed, he said.


Data Dimensions has evaluated and corrected 1.3 billion lines of code for large
corporations in the past five years. It now is moving into the federal market as a
subcontractor to companies such as Unisys Corp., Computer Sciences Corp. and Electronic
Data Systems Corp.


"There is no time to go out with a request for proposals," Ross said.
"We have to work through existing contracts."


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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