Replacing a system is often a wise 2000 move

I have been retrained to understand that when a VCR breaks you have two choices.


You may, in a fit of optimism, bring it to the VCR repair shop. You pay your $25 for an
estimate and have the shop tell you it can or cannot be fixed. If it can be fixed, you
must weigh an $80 to $100 charge for repair against buying a new, more-easily programmable
model for the current price of $225 to $300, not the $450 or $500 you originally paid for
the broken one.


Repair or replace works on a larger scale as well. The government needs to keep that in
mind when planning for date code conversion, even if the amounts involved have lots more
zeros.


The job of revising date codes in existing computer systems has shifted into overdrive
as a problem for all business entities, including the government. It has gone beyond the
solicitous posturing of Congress and the executive branch, each maneuvering to avoid blame
for the potential parade of horrors on or by Jan. 1, 2000. Now we're into the very hard
and cold decision-making phase.


March 1998 is a critical time in this regard because decision-makers in every
organization, like baseball umpires in an important game, must make the right call now
without the benefit of any further information.


Given the number of blown umpire calls in the Baltimore Orioles vs. Cleveland Indians
series last summer--all against the Os--I have no doubt our government executives will get
a higher percentage correct, and that their calls will be more important.


At the moment, however, some agencies seem caught in an undignified and decidedly
uncomfortable fence straddle over whether to repair or replace systems. They are
attempting to fix code on systems created long ago for now-obsolete computers. The
possibility exists that replacement of old code can be made by the purchase of new
commercial equipment and software. These agencies ought to buy such systems immediately so
managers can field and tune them in time for 2000.


The Federal Aviation Administration, along with the Defense Department and several
other agencies, faces the most terrifying date code conversion software issues. FAA knows
that a screw-up in air traffic control can be fatal. The numbers tell a tale of immense
complexity. FAA has 20 en route air traffic centers with 50 interrelated computer
systems--769 systems in total. FAA has found that 34 of the 100 mission-critical systems
are likely to suffer a catastrophic failure if not renovated.


During recent testimony, however, it was clear that Congress would not be satisfied by
FAA's position that it would try to fix code when the agency really ought to replace both
its software and its hardware. The General Accounting Office testified that FAA is moving
in two directions simultaneously--repairing code line-by-line but preparing to purchase
and implement new hardware. Repair and replace appears to be the strategy FAA is pursuing.


FAA vendors have candidly told government agencies they have no confidence in their
ability to fix software code to serve the millennium date change. That's partly because
the individuals who built the code are now retired or deceased, and current software tool
sets are designed to work with more modern code than FAA has.


Is anyone listening to them while FAA overrides the vendors' recommendations and tries
to fix the bad code?


Fielding new systems also has its risks. Rollouts are often late because unexpected
problems develop.


John Koskinen, the former deputy director for management at the Office of Management
and Budget, has agreed to return to government as head of the President's Council on Year
2000 Conversion.


It is good of Koskinen to accept such a difficult and thankless assignment. He may want
to adopt a fundamental rule for the next few months: If a system is critical and the
government's ability to ensure its readiness is uncertain, the agency should swiftly
replace the system if it can. We could call this the Replacement Paradigm.


It is also a time to permit wholesale reprogramming of funds for date code conversion
purposes.


Lloyd George, the former British prime minister, said, "It is dangerous to leap a
chasm in two bounds." So it is, too, with the year 2000.


Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Brand, Lowell & Ryan. He
has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at smr@blrlaw.com.


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