PC managers seek the real deal on real-time clocks

Year 2000 project teams have gotten conflicting advice about real-time clocks from two
powerful partners in the PC industry: Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp.

The topic is more than academic for managers who worry that even brand-new PCs might
not be fully year 2000-ready [GCN, Oct. 19, Page 1]. At
issue is how far they must go in testing their PC hardware to guarantee it will work
properly after Jan. 1, 2000. Some operating systems, including Microsoft Windows NT,
consult the real-time clock rather than the PC BIOS for time and date information.

Dell Computer Corp., the largest PC supplier to the federal government, has been
shipping new systems with real-time clocks that “by themselves are not
compliant,” said Dave Cunningham, Dell’s year 2000 program manager. Dell plans
to correct the defect with software drivers.

“Microsoft has thrown the whole problem back on the manufacturers by saying the
real-time clock has to be fixed,” said Patrick Simonis, a computer support consultant
from Brisbane, Australia, and managing director of Simcom Enterprises Pty. Ltd.

Simonis, who said he has spent 25 years as a PC troubleshooter, thinks Microsoft is
right in this case and that the government should require Intel to provide a proper
hardware fix for what he called a faulty real-time clock.

“Intel has been procrastinating about what they’re going to do about
it,” he said.

Microsoft has warned users that its NT operating systems will not function properly
after Jan. 1, 2000, if not installed on hardware with a year 2000-ready real-time clock.

Meanwhile, Intel is telling users on its Web site that “the only proper method of
accessing the date in systems with Intel motherboards” is indirectly via the BIOS.

Until Microsoft and Intel work together to provide “information that makes sense,
they are compounding the year 2000 concerns that organizations have,” said Stuart
Greenfield, an analyst in Texas’ Office of the Controller of Public Accounts in

Intel has acknowledged that its motherboards fail year 2000 tests directed at the
real-time clock. Its statement says, “If your software application retrieves the date
from the real-time clock [memory], we recommend that you contact your software vendor for
information on the year 2000 capability of the application.”

Simonis charged that Intel should have taken responsibility for the fix. “No
operating system should ever be used to fix a hardware problem, because you know damn well
it’s not going to do it properly,” he said.

Windows NT is not the only operating system that accesses the real-time clock memory
directly rather than indirectly through the BIOS. Novell NetWare, IBM OS/2 and other
operating systems also do so, as do many applications.

“That’s one of the reasons we believe the real-time clock has to be
fixed,” Simonis said.

All Dell Computer systems shipped since Jan. 1, 1997, have been YMark2000-certified,
according to Dell’s Cunningham. But the YMark2000 utility, developed by the National
Software Testing Laboratories Inc. of Conshohocken, Pa., does not test the real-time

When Dell recently acknowledged the real-time clock problem, it promised a correcting
real-time clock driver for systems that require it. The user-installed BIOS code will test
and fix the real-time clock.

But Simonis said the workarounds coming from Dell, and others from Compaq Computer
Corp., will keep the year 2000 problem alive for years to come. A patch “has to
operate every single day in the life of the machine after 2000, or you go back to what you
had before,” Simonis said.

Patches cause latency or lag-time problems, he said, because of uncertainty about when
such a patch is going to be applied, he said. “It might be 300 milliseconds after
midnight, it could be 5 minutes after midnight. It depends when the BIOS is

On file servers and mission-critical systems, Simonis said, any kind of latency is
unacceptable. BIOS fixes and software patches slow things down and add layers of
complexity, causing “more reasons for things to go wrong,” he said.

A number of hardware fixes are available in the marketplace, including an Intel
motherboard fitted with a socket for a year 2000-ready clock from Dallas Semiconductor
Corp. of Dallas, Simonis said. A jumper on the board turns off the Intel clock, which is
embedded in the Pentium chip set and was not designed to update the century byte.

Simonis said he spent time during his recent U.S. visit talking to Ralph Nader’s
consumer organization in Washington, because he thinks the real-time clock is becoming a
consumer issue. “If you buy a new car and have a key component that is faulty,
the car manufacturer has to do a full recall and fix it for nothing,” Simonis said.

More information about his hardware testing is available on Simcom Enterprises’
Web site at http://www.simcomcity.com,  by
e-mail at support@simcomcity.com  or by
calling +61-7-3841-3999.    

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