NFC's ready to 'take on' 2000

The National Finance Center has finished making its date code fixes, which is good news
for the 470,000 federal employees whose paychecks the New Orleans facility processes.

“Frankly, I would be prepared to take on the next century today,” said the
center’s director, John Ortego, who reported completing the code assessment, fixes
and initial tests.

The cross-servicing center run by the Agriculture Department maintains 23.5 million
lines of code, mostly in Cobol and chock full of dates.

“Our goal by June 30 of this year was to have identified, remediated, tested and
returned to production all code, and we accomplished that,” Ortego said.

The finance center received a clean bill of health this month from Agriculture’s
Office of the Inspector General for having fixed its mission-critical applications on
schedule, “placing NFC in a firm position for carrying out validation testing in a
timely manner,” the IG said in a report.

Agriculture as a whole has earned poor grades from Congress for its year 2000 readiness
efforts. But Ortego, who became NFC director last August, said readiness has been his No.
1 priority.

Later this month, the finance center will test its readiness to operate for an extended
time under diesel power. The test will run for 30 hours over a weekend, during which time
“we’re going to bring up every machine, every light, every terminal,”
Ortego said.

If there is any possibility of computer-induced electrical outages after 2000, Ortego
intends to park several diesel trucks near the center.

Readiness has required more contingency planning than usual even for a large
information shop, Ortego said. “We’re taking it very seriously,” he said.

Ortego will even consider asking the Treasury Department for authority to print checks
if Treasury systems are not ready to do so.

Still ahead is a full schedule of validation testing. This summer, the staff assigned
to year 2000 readiness will begin copying entire applications running on two IBM ES/9000
mainframes and loading them onto a separate IBM System/390 time machine for forward date

“Because we manually carry the tapes from production silos to the time machine
silos, we have to build procedures and bridges to get that data reloaded on the time
machine,” said Edgar McManus, project manager for the center’s 2000 readiness

The time machine has a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor processor rated at 61
million instructions per second, 1 terabyte of attached storage, two robotic tape silos
from Storage Technology Corp. of Louisville, Colo., and an IBM 3745 front-end
communications processor for testing 500 interfaces to external systems.

“We’re already scheduling clients for testing on our time machine,”
Ortego said, adding that the center “is ready to take on cross-servicing work for
people who are not compliant.”

The center processes the payroll for 100,000 Agriculture employees, along with the
payrolls for the IRS, Library of Congress and the Commerce, Justice and Treasury
departments. It also handles processing for the federal Thrift Savings Plan, which has 2.3
million participants.

McManus said only 14 state tax systems can accept the center’s automated W-2
information at this time. “Fortunately for us,” he said, “we were already
giving them a four-digit year, so those interfaces were compliant.”

The center tackled its date code problems with windowing logic rather than date field
expansion, McManus said.

The added logic can handle either two-digit or four-digit year dates. It assumes 1900
for any two-digit year written as 50 or higher, and 2000 for any two-digit year below 50.
But that logic will not work for all cases, McManus said. One woman employee still working
for the federal government was born in 1904, for example.

“We have some federal judges who are very old, and if it gets to the point where
we haven’t replaced the systems when those eight or 10 people are affected, we will
just pay them manually,” Ortego said.

The center has spent $8 million, much of it for platform software upgrades, and may
spend another $2 million to test and retest readiness throughout 1999, McManus said.

The entire readiness effort has been an in-house project engaging 200 government
employees at peak times and fewer than 10 contractors.

“The youngsters we are hiring are not trained in Cobol; they’re trained in
all the new stuff,” McManus said. The center managed the skills gap through in-house
training and pairing new hires with experienced Cobol programmers.

“We have policies and projects in place to replace all that Cobol code,” he
said, “but that’s probably going to take a few years.”


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