'Tis the season to do 2000 testing, before all hell breaks loose

Let's set the scene: You told senior managers once a month for several years about the
millennium bug and finally got an "urgent, rush, drop everything" order to
complete repairs and begin testing by December 1998.


You had begun testing quietly more than a year earlier. With the official OK, you can
enlist some help. Your team spends the next 12 months working flat-out. Things look
manageable by December 1999, so you take a few days off before the big event.


Then you head for the office on New Year's Eve, 1999. After making a few test runs, you
settle in with a pot of coffee to see what happens.


At the stroke of midnight, the building's electrical power goes out. A nearby
transformer thinks it hasn't been serviced for 99 years and shuts down.


Your uninterruptible power systems keep running, but when you pick up the phone to
report the outage to the power company, you discover that the office's private branch
exchange has a date-sensitive chip. You can't get an outside line.


Your mobile phone account has been closed because the provider's computer thinks your
agency won't make a payment for another 30 years.


The network is still up, so you decide to ignore the distractions and just start
testing. But you're locked out of the network. The accounting software thinks you are 130
years old. Even your PC denies you access because you didn't change passwords on schedule.


The building's power comes back on, so you head for the elevator. It won't move because
its inspection is now 20 years out of date. Stumbling into the lobby 10 floors below, you
collapse in front of the night guard.


He contacts paramedics on his radio, but their ambulance won't start because vehicles
have computers, too. They jog over and rip open your shirt, but their defibrillator's
internal clock believes the unit won't even be built for 30 years.


The paramedics get you to the hospital only to learn that your health coverage is no
good. The insurance company's computer says no payments have been made for 20 years.


The doctor comes around with an old, noncomputerized electrocardiograph found in the
basement. Happily, it turns out that you didn't have a heart attack, so you head home to
find that your access card will no longer open the front door of your secure apartment
building.


Eventually you do get in. But the coffeemaker didn't start on schedule, and the
microwave oven won't heat breakfast until you unplug it to clear the date setting.


Staggering back to work late in the morning of Jan. 1, you feel cold. The building heat
went off last night--its controller thought it was July.


After a day with phone system and elevators working erratically, you arrive home in the
evening to the final indignity: Your VCR is flashing all nines and didn't record the bowl
games.


A neighbor tells you the satellite carrying the feed hadn't been tested before launch,
so no one outside the stadiums saw the games.


Cheer up. At least one thing will work. Your GCN subscription won't be canceled by a
computer glitch, so you'll be able to read about others who had a worse time.


The moral is: Enjoy your New Year's holiday this year. It may be the last fun you have
for a while.


Those who are looking for advice and not morals can get a head start fixing the PCs
under their control. Go to the World Wide Web site at http://www.hqisec.army.mil/y2kweb, which
posts BIOS test results for selected AST Research Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., Dell
Computer Corp., IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and other common PCs.


It shows which ones passed initial year 2000 tests and, of those that failed, which
have BIOSes that utilities can fix.


The BIOS firmware is the little troublemaker that causes so much grief when the PC
battery dies--you can't even access the hard drive if you lose all BIOS settings.


The BIOS sends the operating system its initial date on boot-up.


Most applications get the same date from the operating system. When the BIOS ticks past
the last second of 1999, it may or may not change to 2000.


Even if it does, at next boot-up it may tell the operating system the date is 00
(1900). The OS will reject that as invalid and substitute 1980 by default.


That date will be picked up by most applications, except for a few that get the date
directly from the BIOS chip, and they will set it at 1900.


The Web site at http://www.rightime.com has a
number of useful BIOS utilities. Test2000.zip has programs that evaluate your BIOS chip
and report whether a software fix will work or whether you need a new chip.


While testing, remember to shut down all software that runs at specific dates or
intervals, such as backup or virus-scan utilities.


As you read about this topic, you'll run across mention of the BIOS RTC, for which RTC
stands for real-time clock.


It runs as long as the PC's battery keeps a charge.


I remember when an RTC chip was an aftermarket option. If you didn't spring for it, you
had to set the system date manually at each reboot.


Now even coffeepots have RTCs, which just goes to show the possible scope of the
millennium bug.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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