Even PC users need to prepare for 2000

No, that isn't a typo. For many software programs, the so-called millennium bug will
strike a year earlier than most people think. That's because programmers and users often
have entered a "99'' in the year field to indicate an exception or incomplete date.
So the end of 1998 could bring problems galore to all kinds of applications.


That pitfall is just one of thousands ahead as computer clocks tick over. If you
haven't started protecting your organization by now, it may be too late.


The most serious, costly and frightening traps lie within the billions of lines of
legacy code on mainframe systems connecting the economies of nations. But average desktop
PC users face just as many unknowns in less than two years.


Let's first dispel some myths surrounding the year 2000 date problem. The first is that
older computers are going to become obsolete. This is true, but not because of the year
2000. Most PCs can accept dates after the year 2000. The question is whether they will
realize them correctly or will need help from operating systems or users.


A computer's date function is handled by a chip called the real-time clock, or RTC.
Nearly all computers newer than the mid-1980s' IBM Corp. AT can store a two-digit year
date and a century designator. But not all computer BIOS code knows or can change the
century data at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999.


In most cases, the OS or network software will track the 2000 rollover and correctly
set the system clock. Problems will arise, however, if a computer with a noncompliant BIOS
is turned off before the rollover and turned on again afterward.


The BIOS might tell the OS that Jan. 1, 2000 (01/01/00) is Jan. 1, 1900. MS-DOS and
some versions of Microsoft Windows 95 will reject that date and instead assign the OS date
as 01/01/1980.


Microsoft Corp. claims that Windows NT 4.0 and the upcoming Windows 98 will recognize
the rollover and write the correct data to the RTC.


You as a user have several options. You can simply do nothing and let the CMOS setup or
OS clock routines write the century change to the RTC's nonvolatile memory. Or you can
download a new BIOS from the PC maker's technical support site and stop worrying about the
century rollover. There's no need to wait; you can upgrade the BIOS anytime.


A second myth is that all new PCs are year 2000-ready. Even some computers manufactured
in the last year or so have faulty BIOSes. How can you tell whether yours is OK?


Many companies have posted on their World Wide Web Sites lists of products they
consider year 2000-ready.


Leading PC makers such as Compaq Computer Corp. and Dell Computer Corp. offer
certifications from independent laboratories that models with specific BIOS versions will
roll over properly.


A number of utilities are downloadable from the Web to check PCs for readiness. For
example, YMARK2000 is free from National Software Testing Laboratories Inc.'s site at http://www.nstl.com.


A third myth is that off-the-shelf software packages are immune to year 2000 troubles.
Even though vendors such as Microsoft Corp. and Lotus Development Corp. assert that their
core products were built from the ground up to be year 2000-ready, there can be problems.


For instance, Microsoft Project 95 supports 21st-century dates only up to 2049. That
probably will bother only users who are building pyramids or the modern equivalent,
nuclear waste repositories.


Users of Lotus Organizer 1.1 will have to upgrade, however, because Organizer supports
dates only up to Jan. 31, 2001.


Watch sites where mainstream software vendors post lists of 2000-ready software and bug
fixes. Check them early and often to prevent problems in your office software.


Spreadsheets and databases such as Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access and Lotus 1-2-3
generally support four-digit dates, but some users enter only two-digit dates. Rolling
over existing spreadsheets and databases may require workers to enter four-digit dates in
forms and data-entry screens that have room only for two digits.


A change from two to four digits sounds trivial, but don't overlook the time needed to
fix forms and screens and retrain workers to use four digits.


Another trap lurks in different kinds of user shortcuts. Microsoft Excel 97, for
instance, will accept two-digit dates through 2029, simply assuming that any date entered
between 01/01/00 and 12/31/29 falls in the 21st century. Dates before 1930 or after 2029
must be entered using four digits.


But there are no universal assumptions about such shortcuts, so exchanging data between
programs with different assumptions can be dangerous.


For example, earlier versions of Excel assume the date 12/31/29 is in 1929, not 2029 as
Excel 97 assumes.


One government agency is making year 2000 programming changes based on the assumption
that any date after 12/31/29 falls in the 21st century. What assumptions are your
programmers and software vendors making?


It's a myth that the only dangerous date is 01/01/2000. How about 02/29/2000? Yes, 2000
is a leap year with 366 days. All sorts of calculation apps need to recognize that fact,
especially financial software.


You might not have to pay a day's worth of interest on your mortgage if a bank's
computer system isn't correct, but you could lose a day's worth of interest on your
certificate of deposit.


Many programs will regard certain dates as exceptions. An entry of 01/01/00 might be
interpreted as no date at all. A year entry of 99 might be judged an out-of-range date.
These exceptions occur in PC program code just as they do in mainframe Cobol code.


Scared yet? For PC managers, the news isn't all bad. Most operating system and network
vendors will likely have their year 2000 problems licked in the next releases.


Windows NT 4.0's automatic rollover and RTC write function already look pretty good.
Windows 98 will likely have the same date functionality when it arrives later this year.


Apple Computer Inc. claims its hardware and operating systems are year 2000-ready, too.
The current OS supports date changes by the user on the Date & Time control panel up
to 2019. Application software could have problems, however, if the developers did not use
the function SetDateTime, good for dates up to 2040.


Users of non-Microsoft and non-Apple operating systems might want to consult their
astrological charts for advice. It's scary to see what's missing in certified year
2000-ready software from Novell Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc.


Many NetWare and Solaris products have needed or still need patches and updates to make
them ready for the year 2000. That applies not so much to the most recent
versions--Solaris 2.6 Sparc/X86 already complies--but to earlier OSes and some management
tools. Both companies have affirmed that most of this work will be finished early this
year, but schedules could slip.


Time is of the essence for network OSes. For large organizations, just getting the NOS
patches to all sites and users will be time-consuming. And all users need to test the
fixes and updates to their applications in both standalone and networked environments.


If your custom application runs across a network and requires patches, you will have to
test in a working environment, with and without NOS patches installed.


So what should you be doing now, if you haven't already started preparing? Some hints
will get you going:


Remember to
budget for the costs of this effort in lost productivity, technical support, downloading
fees and so on. Make sure all new purchases come precertified as ready.


Software upgrading is not cheap, and it is fraught with
other difficulties. But the alternative is to watch your business processes grind to a
halt.


Make snapshot backups of the test bed at each stage so you can recreate the last
functional setup.


Consider hiring a third-party tester to advise you on the best test practices. Don't be
shy about allocating funds, time and staff for testing. It would not be unreasonable to
allocate 40 percent of your year 2000 budget for testing. After all, you won't get another
chance.


Andrew J. Froning is director of testing at the Government Services Division of
National Software Testing Laboratories Inc. of Conshohocken, Pa.


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