Server clocks pose risk

Government agencies are discovering that many PC servers’ real-time clocks will
not by themselves properly interpret dates after Jan. 1, 2000. That’s because 95
percent or more of RTCs manufactured before this year were not designed to handle century

Because of interdependencies between operating systems and RTCs in many PC servers and
desktop hardware, officials worry that applications will begin posting incorrect time and
date stamps beyond 2000.

That’s the exact problem Texas officials are concerned about. The Texas Controller
of Public Accounts last week began accepting tax filings via the Web, but state officials
fear the Webfile application will incorrectly stamp some returns it receives after 2000.

Like all new state-deployed applications, Webfile is supposed to be year 2000-ready.
But taxpayers who file no-tax-due returns send their transactions to the state’s
Hitachi Data Systems Corp. Skyline 727 mainframe through an IBM Corp. PC Server 704
running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0.

“Collecting taxes is time-critical,” said Stuart Greenfield, an analyst in
the Texas controller’s office. “You have dates and times by which a tax return
has to be filed so it’s in compliance with the law.”

The small percentage of older RTCs that do have century counters come from a Texas
company, Dallas Semiconductor Corp., which introduced them in 1992. Only recently have the
2000-ready RTCs been regarded as anything more than specialty chips, according to Ed
Kenny, president of the UniComp Products division of UniComp Inc. of Marietta, Ga.

But NT is not the only operating system that consults the RTC rather than the PC BIOS
for correct time and date information, Kenny said.

Unix, Novell NetWare, and IBM OS/2 and OS/400 also access the RTC directly and could
propagate calculation errors and other types of bad data across networks if the RTC is
faulty, Kenny said. “RTCs in a networked environment should be protected,”
he said.

If a Unix application is running on a PC, “that RTC chip is going to get a call,
no question about it,” Kenny said.

Texas’ Greenfield said the state cannot immediately afford a new server with a
“Designed for Windows NT” logo, which is the only guaranteed way of getting an
RTC that will work properly with NT well into the next century.

Greenfield said he doubts he is the only person confused about what to do next.
Microsoft Corp. recently yanked its white paper, “Windows NT Server 4.0 Interaction
with the Real Time Clock,” from its Web site at and posted
in its place a notice that the company is revising the document.

Kenny said he, like Greenfield, was confused after reading the original white paper.

“I really don’t know what Microsoft’s position is at this point,”
Kenny said.

Microsoft officials would not comment on the Windows NT and RTC issue.

Greenfield said he has had no luck getting an answer from Microsoft about steps he must
take to make sure no tax returns get date-stamped incorrectly.

The problem, as Microsoft originally explained it online, is that NT reads or writes
directly to the RTC rather than to the PC BIOS whenever it boots up or is asked to provide
a time and date service.

As far as Greenfield has been able to determine, Windows NT 4.0 has only a temporary
logic fix that will work in 2000.

NT 4.0 can compensate for some hardware that is not 2000-ready by adding 100 to the

“But in 2001, that fix goes bye-bye,” he said.

Greenfield said Microsoft officials have not appreciated his badgering them for
clarification and his warnings to colleagues.

One Microsoft senior technology specialist, he said, blamed him personally for
spreading “fear, uncertainty and doubt” about Microsoft products. UniComp
has a solution for the RTC dilemma: Install a secure device driver that takes control of
the RTC and BIOS.  

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