Govt. urged to perform triage in two-digit date field repairs
- By Florence Olsen
- Mar 18, 1996
NEW YORK--Year 2000 software glitches will halt systems in most
agencies, experts are saying, because there won't be time or money to fix every two-digit
date field lurking in billions of lines of computer code.
Some experts are urging government officials to decide now which systems they can
reasonably allow to fail.
"Realistically, we have to expect that systems will not be fixed. We're trying to
help our clients look at their entire portfolios and decide what's critical," Iain
Lopata, an associate partner with Andersen Consulting in Chicago, said at a Year 2000
The date problem affects every device with a microprocessor, including military weapons
systems. "I'm talking down to the chip that sits in a radio receiver on an
F-14," said Drew Steever, a vice president of FDC Technologies Inc. in Bethesda, Md.
Inevitably, the first programs that lose data integrity will be those with the longest
time horizons: forecasting, depreciation and inventory control programs. "You may not
even know they have failed," Lopata said.
The Social Security Administration is well ahead of most other federal agencies in
evaluating its 30 million lines of code and going in to fix the date problem with
temporary conversion filters.
The Internal Revenue Service has done some early studies on the magnitude of the
problem, Steever said. But for the most part, federal agencies lag behind the state of
North Carolina, which already has signed contracts to migrate all the state's information
systems to year 2000 compliance. The state awarded the project management contracts to
Keane Inc. of Boston and Andersen Consulting.
Many software experts acknowledge that bringing federal systems into compliance will be
a project management nightmare. The technical aspects are somewhat easier, said Keane vice
president Brian Keane.
"Much of our methodology for year 2000 compliance we've pulled from our
methodology for managing technology migrations," he said. Keane Federal Systems in
Rockville and Columbia, Md., develops and manages software for the Customs Bureau, Drug
Enforcement Administration and the Army's Fort Meade, Md., site.
One problem that has gotten little attention so far is to agree on a standard way to
fix the date fields where governments share data, said Donald Fowler, technical strategist
for IBS Conversions Inc. in Oak Brook, Ill.
One way, he said, is to expand all two-digit date fields to four digits. Another is to
modify the two digits to a binary value and embed the century indicator. Some people fix
the problem with calendar routines. Others may decide on fixed or sliding "century
"But somebody's got to set the standard," Fowler said, or "the result
will be chaos. You'll have every agency having to match every other agency, no matter what
solution they pick. The more you peel this onion, the stinkier it gets."
Available tools for the analysis and software conversion phases mostly apply to
mainframe Cobol applications, Lopata said, but PC and client-server applications must be
included in the overall assessment.
Isogon Corp. of New York will ship its SoftAudit/2000 for IBM MVS mainframe users in
May. The tool will identify unused MVS software modules that can be eliminated from
conversion. SoftAudit/2000 will be priced by millions of instructions per second, starting
at $195 per MIPS.
Viasoft Inc. of Phoenix offers similar capability in the $49,500 Estimate 2000, which
estimates the size of the programming effort for MVS Cobol, Assembler and PL/1 mainframe
The $10,000 Cobol Analyst 2000 offered by SEEC Inc. of Pittsburgh is a LAN-based
Windows 3.1 and IBM OS/2 tool that analyzes Cobol dialects, Adabas, IDMS and
Computer Horizons Corp. of Mountain Lakes, N.J., Millennium Dynamics Inc. of Cincinnati
and Quintic Systems Inc. in Des Plaines, Ill., also sell year 2000 utilities and testing
MIS organizations need to know "what to do, when to do it and how to communicate
through the entire organization," Lopata said. "Clearly, you don't put one
person in charge of the Navy's year 2000 problem."
Andersen Consulting advises some government clients to turn the project management
nightmare to strategic advantage by replacing old systems. "We've been working for
some time with the Maryland Department of Transportation" on the year 2000 problem
while moving from an old Sperry Corp. mainframe to an IBM mainframe, Lopata said.
The date problem really has two aspects, he said. Because of memory limitations in
early computers, programmers used two digits instead of four to represent years in date
fields. By the year 2000 or sooner, those two-digit fields will wreak havoc in programs
that sort by date or use dates to create unique keys.
A second and more minor aspect has to do with programming for leap years. The year 2000
happens to be a leap year, but the leap year rule is complex, and not all programmers
"If I walk into a room of programmers and ask if the year 2000 is a leap year, I
typically find a 50-50 split, which means half of them probably are coding
incorrectly," Lopata said.
Estimates for fixing the date problem start at 40 cents per line of code and run as
high as $1.10, Keane said. Some estimates put the federal government's bill as high as $25
Sy Inwentarz, an executive in Unified Systems Solutions, part of Computer Horizons, and
others said Congress may have to allocate special funds to keep government systems
"A lot of agencies are stuck in their normal processes, and it's pushing them out
almost too far beyond the critical time," said Fred Kush, vice president of Quintic
With no money set aside for conversion, many agencies will have no choice but to
reallocate budgets from other projects, Steever said. He said he's been surprised that
some people are tackling the conversion as part of routine maintenance. "It's too
complex a problem, and the dates for completion are too critical," he said.