Year 2000 Compliance (Networking)

The year 2000 (Y2K) problem stems from the inability of computers and embedded chips to accept the two-digit date for the year 2000 (00) and misread it as 1900, leading to possible system shutdowns among businesses, transportation, banking, electric power, and telecommunications.

The source of this date problem originates from the early days of computers, which had limited memory capacity. Valuable space was saved by abbreviating the year to only two digits. The year 1978, for example, was stored simply as 78. This scheme worked well over the years, except that with the year 2000 approaching, computers will interpret 00 as 1900. This has potentially disruptive consequences for any computer-controlled system that implements date-sensitive functions.

Bellcore (now known as Telcondia Technologies) has determined that 75 percent of voice-networking equipment, up to 35 percent of data networking devices, and almost 100 percent of network-management devices are date-sensitive. Date-sensitive functions include service routing and scheduling, message reporting, clock maintenance, event alarm, and security of log-ins and passwords.

Potential Problems

If left uncorrected, the seriousness of this problem would range from minor nuisances to major disasters. For example, e-mail programs sort messages by date. When a program interprets the date as 1900 rather than 2000, it will put current message at the bottom rather than the top of the pile. Automated inventory control programs are likely to initiate orders too soon or too late. Cable TV subscribers may experience a variety of service disruptions including erratic commercial insertions, inability to order pay-per-view channels, and improper billings.

On corporate LANs, if date incompatibilities in distributed hardware and software are not caught in time, local execution problems will not only disrupt users but also corrupt central data during interaction with servers and mainframes.

With regard to telecommunications, the consequences of the Y2K problem are more serious. Because US. and global economies are dependent on continuous communications, a failure could affect telecommunication networks, major utilities, transport, production lines, security systems, and other systems that rely on software and microprocessors that have any date awareness or time dependency. Because telecommunication is based on the seamless interconnection of networks, the international dimensions of the Y2K problem are of particular concern. A problem in Bulgaria, for example, could mean worldwide phone systems would be unable to accept, terminate, or route calls to or through Bulgaria, thus affecting the global system. Countries without the resources to adequately address the Y2K issue can pose problems long into the future.

Of a more serious nature are problems with 911 emergency communication systems used by police, fire, and rescue organizations. There are three components in every 911 call: the public switched telephone network (PSTN), the public safety answering point (PSAP), and the automatic location database (ALI). The PSAP receives 911 calls and logs their date, time, and duration. The PSAP sends the caller telephone numbers to the ALI database and uses them to search the ALI database and retrieve the proper addresses. The Y2K problem could lead to a failure to incorporate ALI database updates, thus resulting in incomplete or incorrect location information; incomplete transmissions between the PSAP and the ALI database; and, particularly if a 911 call originates from behind a private branch exchange (PBX) or similar type of private switch, a failure of the 911 call to reach the PSAP.

The most serious ramifications of the Y2K problem involve disruption to air and sea navigation systems. At airports, for example, any delay in processing information could put lives and property at risk. At a minimum, one airport’s problems would delay or ground flights, affecting travel at other airports.

Corrective Action

Resolution of the Y2K problem calls for the intense and comprehensive upgrade of system hardware and software facilities around the world. A rather vexing problem is that of a shortage of engineers and programmers able to quickly tackle the Y2K problem.

There are literally hundreds of millions of program instructions that have to be reviewed and tested in order to bring all systems into compliance. Further, dates can be stored in programs and databases in many different formats. All date references have to be found and checked. The problem has been equated to simultaneously changing all of the light bulbs in a large city. This is not a difficult technical challenge, but it is a logistics nightmare.

To help weed out Y2K problems, vendors are offering tools that can help network administrators find and fix problems in far-flung PCs, servers, and network gear. Tivoli Systems, for example, offers a module for its Tivoli Enterprise, the company’s IT management software. The module helps users more effectively review and continually measure Year 2000 readiness on desktop computers, in their network, and in the rest of their distributed enterprise. The module uses information collected by the Tivoli Inventory application about server and desktop hardware and software configurations, and network device information collected by Tivoli NetView. Tivoli Inventory allows the review process to be automated and controlled from a central console, eliminating the intensive manual effort required to perform this task. The collected information is then analyzed by Tivoli Decision Support to aid customers in reviewing the Year 2000 readiness status of different elements in the enterprise.

The Network Testing Committee (NTC), a telecommunications industry forum sponsored by the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), began internetwork interoperability testing in January 1999 to evaluate the impact of the Year 2000 date change on the nation’s PSTN. This was accomplished by rolling forward the dates of interconnected switches in a laboratory environment to stimulate date rollovers for December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000, plus three additional significant date changes: February 28 to February 29, 2000; February 29 to March 1, 2000; and December 31, 2000 to January 1, 2001. During each simulated rollover, the signaling network was monitored to ensure that the public network responded in a satisfactory manner. Additionally, individual service providers and vendors of telecommunications equipment engaged in the testing of their networks, products and support systems in a stand-alone environment.

Last Word

Billions of dollars have been directed at the Y2K problem by most of the industrialized world, and some estimates have put the global cost at more than $1 trillion. There are many different opinions on what might happen as a consequence of ignoring or not adequately addressing the problem. Most experts agree that, when the millenium rolls over, computer code that cannot recognize the new date will cause computers to fail. What is unknown is the scale of those failures, how quickly the systems can be restored, the extent of the damage that may result, and what long-terms effects, if any, the disruptions will have.

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