Year 2000 Bug The Millennial sun will first rise over human civilization in the independent republic of Kiribati, a group of some thirty low lying coral islands in the Pacific Ocean that straddle the equator and the International Date Line, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. This long awaited sunrise marks the dawn of the year 2000, and quite possibly, the onset of unheralded disruptions in life as we know it in many parts of the globe. Kiribatis 81,000 Micronesians may observe nothing different about this dawn; they only received TV in 1989. However, for those who live in a world that relies on satellites, air, rail and ground transportation, manufacturing plants, electricity, heat, telephones, or TV, when the calendar clicks from 99 to 00, we will experience a true millennial shift. As the sun moves westward on January 1, 2000, as the date shifts silently within millions of computerized systems, we will begin to experience our computer-dependent world in an entirely new way. We will finally see the extent of the networked and interdependent processes we have created.
At the stroke of midnight, the new millennium heralds the greatest challenge to modern society that we have yet to face as a planetary community. I am describing the year 2000 problem, known as Y2K (K signifying 1000.) Nicknamed at first “The Millennial Bug,” increasing sensitivity to the magnitude of the impending crisis has escalated it to “The Millennial Bomb.” The problem begins as a simple technical error. Large mainframe computers more than ten years old were not programmed to handle a four digit year. Sitting here now, on the threshold of the year 2000, it seems incomprehensible that computer programmers and microchip designers didn’t plan for it. But when these billions of lines of computer code were being written, computer memory was very expensive. Remember when a computer only had 16 kilobytes of RAM? To save storage space, most programmers allocated only two digits to a year.
1993 is 93 in data files, 1917 is 17. These two-digit dates exist on millions of files used as input to millions of applications. Programmers did whatever was required to get a product up and working; no one even thought about standards. The same thing happened in the production of microchips as recently as three years ago. Microprocessors and other integrated circuits are often just sophisticated calculators that count and do math. They count many things: fractions of seconds, days, inches, pounds, degrees, lumens, etc.
Many chips that had a time function designed into them were only structured for this century. And when the date goes from ’99 to ’00 both they and the legacy software that has not been fixed will think it is still the 20th century — not 2000, but 1900 Y2K Date calculations affect far more millions of systems than those that deal with inventories, interest rates, or insurance policies. Every major aspect of our modern infrastructure has systems and equipment that rely on such calculations to perform their functions. We are dependent on computerized systems that contain date functions to effectively manage defense, transportation, power generation, manufacturing, telecommunications, finance, government, education, healthcare, and more. The list is longer, but the picture is pretty clear.
We have created a world whose efficient functioning in all but the poorest and remotest areas is dependent on computers. It doesnt matter whether you personally use a computer, or that most people around the world dont even have telephones. The worlds economic and political infrastructures rely on computers. And not isolated computers. We have created dense networks of reliance around the globe.
We are networked together for economic and political purposes. Whatever happens in one part of the network has an impact on other parts of the network. We have created not only a computer-dependent society, but, also an interdependent planet. We already have had frequent experiences with how fragile these systems are, how failure’s cascade through a networked system. While each of these systems relies on millions of lines of code that detail the required processing, they handle their routines in serial fashion.
Any next step depends on the preceding step. This serial nature makes systems, no matter their size, vulnerable to even the slightest problem anywhere in the system. In 1990, ATTs long distance system experienced repeated failures. At that time, it took two million lines of computer code to keep the system operational. But just three lines of faulty code brought down these millions of lines of code.
(6) And these systems are lean; redundancies are eliminated in the name of efficiency. This leanness also makes the system highly vulnerable. In May of this year, 90% of all pagers in the U.S. crashed for a day or longer because of the failure of one satellite. Late in 1997, the Internet could not deliver email to the appropriate addresses because bad information from there one and only central source corrupted their servers. (6) I would now like to describe in greater detail, the extent of Y2K. As a global network of interrelated consequences, it begins at the center with the technical problem, legacy computer codes and embedded microchips.
For the last thirty years thousands of programmers have been writing billions of lines of software code for the computers on which the world’s economy and society now depend. Y2K reporter Ed Meagher describes “old, undocumented code written in over 2500 different computer languages and executed on thousands of different hardware platforms being controlled by hundreds of different operating systems . . [that generate] further complexity in the form of billions of six character date fields stored in millions of databases that are used in calculations.(1) The Gartner Group, a computer-industry research group, estimates that globally, 180 billion lines of software code will have to be screened.(3) Peter de Jager notes that it is not unusual for a company to have more than 100,000,000 lines of code–the IRS, for instance, has at least eighty million lines. The Social Security Administration began working on its thirty million lines of code in 1991.
After five years of work, in June, 1996, four hundred programmers had fixed only six million lines. The IRS has 88,000 programs on 80 mainframe computers to debug. By the end of last year they had cleaned up 2,000 programs. (6) Capers Jones, head of Software Productivity Research, a firm that tracks programmer productivity, estimates that finding, fixing and testing all Y2K-affected software would require over 700,000 person-years.(5) Also at the center of this technical time bomb are the embedded microprocessors. Their are somewhat over a billion of these hardware chips located in systems worldwide.
They sustain the world’s manufacturing and engineering base. They exist in traffic lights, elevators, water, gas, and electricity control systems. Theyre in medical equipment and military and navigation systems. America’s air traffic control system is dependent upon them. Theyre located in the track beds of railroad systems and in the satellites that circle the earth. Global telecommunications are heavily dependent on them.
Modern cars contain about two dozen microprocessors. The average American comes in contact with seventy microprocessors before noon every day. Many of these chips aren’t date sensitive, but a great number are, and engineers looking at long ago installed systems don’t know for sure which is which. To complicate things further, not all chips behave the same. “Recent tests have shown that two chips of the same model installed in two different computers but performing the same function are not equally sensitive to the year-end problem.
One shuts down and the other doesn’t.” (6) That is why some companies are junking their computer systems and spending millions, even hundreds of millions, to replace everything. It at least ensures that their internal systems work. The global economy is dependent upon computers both directly and indirectly. Whether its your PC at home, the workstation on a local area network, or the GPS or mobile telephone that you carry, all are integral parts of larger networks where computers are directly connected together. Failure in a single component can crash the whole system; that system could be an automobile, a train, an aircraft, an electric power plant, a bank, a government agency, a stock exchange, an international telephone system, the air traffic control system.
If every possible date-sensitive hardware and software bug hasn’t been fixed in a larger system, just one programming glitch or one isolated chip potentially can bring down the whole thing. Modern business is completely reliant on networks. Companies have vendors, suppliers, customers, outsourcers (all, of course, managed by computerized data bases.) For Y2K, these highly networked ways of doing business creates a terrifying scenario. The networks mean that no one system can protect itself from Y2K failures by just attending to its own internal systems. General Motors, which has been working with extraordinary focus and diligence to bring their manufacturing plants up to Year 2000 compliance, (based on their assessment that they were facing catastrophe,) has 100,000 suppliers worldwide. Bringing their internal systems into compliance seems nearly impossible, but what then do they do, with all those vendors who supply parts? GM experiences production stoppages whenever one key supplier goes on strike. What is the potential number of delays and shutdowns possible among 100,000 suppliers? (7) “The oil and gas industry is highly automated and the task to remediate all critical systems is enormous,” said committee Chairman Robert Bennett, R-Utah. “It appears they started too late.” (8) Congressional auditors agree that the FAA has made great progress recently, but they still question whether the agency will really be ready.
“That many systems in that many locations, extremely difficult to do. If FAA can pull it off, great. We hope they can. Im not sure they can with the thoroughness of testing well be looking for,” said Joel Willemssen o …