Are You Ready for Y2K?

Tick, tick, tick...The year 2000 will be here before we know it, and the education community must be prepared. At stake is the utility and preservation of the information systems and data that all entities, public and private, that have automated their work processes rely on to function.

The Year-2000 (Y2K) problem resulted from a common programming practice, begun in the 1960s, to represent years with two digits instead of four, such as 98 for 1998. This shorthand saved disk space and, therefore, money. When RAM cost millions of dollars per megabyte, conserving this precious commodity was vital. Though expedient at the time, this strategy has come back to haunt us, for when the date rolls over from 1999 to 2000, the computer will read that as a change back to January 1, 1900, rather than forward to January 1, 2000.

Y2K problems can affect personal computers, local-area networks, telecommunications systems, and systems and equipment that use embedded technology, such as fire-alarm systems, heating and cooling systems, elevators and telephone-switching equipment. One advantage that education has over business in dealing with the Y2K problem is its fairly widespread base of Apple computers. The Macintosh computer system was not designed to be reliant on earlier codes, and therefore has the ability to correctly handle the transition to the year 2000 and beyond. Macintosh software is safe too; only those rare applications that do not take advantage of standard protocols built into the Macintosh will have any problems.

DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95 are incapable of recognizing this problem and will in turn pass the wrong date to vital applications. However, even if you are running Windows NT or Windows 98, which are more aware of the problem, you are not entirely out of the woods. Many applications bypass the operating system to retrieve the current time and date.

Why Y2K is a Problem Modern PCs have a battery real-time clock (RTC) that sits on the motherboard, keeping time while the power is turned off or the computer is unplugged. The RTC in many older Pentium systems, and in most 386s and 486s, stores the year in two digits, and will need to be unplugged and swapped for a compliant replacement. In some cases, the RTC is soldered right on the motherboard, requiring major surgery by a skilled technician for replacement.

Every time a PC is powered on, before the operating system begins to load, it activates a permanently stored code called the BIOS (Basic Input Output System). When the BIOS wakes up, it asks the RTC for the time and date. When the operating system needs the date and/or time, it asks the BIOS. Most BIOS chips produced before 1995 will need to be replaced, although in some systems, this can be upgraded through software procedures. Before doing anything else, contact your PC manufacturer to ask if your machine has a BIOS glitch and if that glitch can be corrected with a new BIOS.

Any software programs that depend on dates to make calculations or to store data are the most susceptible, such as those that handle accounting or recordkeeping. Also, keep in mind that Y2K compliance varies widely from vendor to vendor and from program to program. In most situations, the RTC provides the date to the BIOS, which provides it to the operating system, which provides it to the applications. Any one of these can be non-compliant for the year 2000.

Some people have suggested to you just change the date. This is what needs to happen, but you have to change every reference to a date, in every program and file in use, archived and stored. Few school districts have kept track of their software, and most have either lost or thrown away their original "source" code. Others have suggested that you just change from 2 to 4 digits. That is the ideal solution, given time and resources, but time and resources are limited.

Contingency Plan There cannot be any complete analysis disclosure of the problems and risks without the development of a detailed contingency plan. The contingency plan should identify what the school district must do to keep its operation running while living with the fact that some or many of its critical systems are not Year-2000 compliant.

While every school district must complete its inventory, assessment and planning phases, each must ask several questions. What, in fact, can it fix in terms of critical systems and embedded systems infrastructure used to operate its physical plants? What backup exists if the plan cannot be met? What manual backup alternatives will be available? What impact will it have on day-to-day operation?

The following is a list of some areas to check where dates are used in a computer and embedded system operations:

-Databases.

-Spreadsheets.

-Word-processing applications.

-Accounting.

-Computer and networking hardware.

-Communications systems.

The glitch also may be imbedded in chips that run heating and air-conditioning systems, fax machines, elevators, sprinklers and fire alarms.

A basic plan should include the identification of any equipment or systems with electronic logic that could be date dependent. Then, prioritize the most critical systems and test the computer(s) or network. Contact key providers for information and compliance statements. Finally, test systems, evaluate findings and take action.

Testing your systems Though it is recommended that you test your machine(s) using a downloadable utility, you can easily do these tests on your own. While this may not be the most efficient method, it is the best way to understand how to correct the problem.

Make multiple backups of your data, and back up applications if you have the space. If you are testing a network or have multiple computers running the same operating system and software, you might want to initially test a single computer, but remove it from the network first.

Set the date to December 31, 1999, and the time to 11:58 p.m. Turn the computer off, wait three minutes, and turn it back on.

Your computer should report that it is January 1, 2000, at about 12:01 a.m. This "rollover" test determines if the system clock and your applications will join you in the next century.

Set your computer's date to April 1, 2000 (or any other date after January 1, 2000). Turn the computer off, wait until the hard drive spins down, and turn it back on.

While some systems can correctly roll over and keep track of the proper year, they may have problems taking a user-entered date beyond 2000. A problem at this stage is probably the real-time clock having only a two-digit field.

Open and run all your programs. If you are using a program that takes date entries (spreadsheets, contact manager, etc.) enter some post-2000 dates and save, close, and reopen. One good date to use is February 29, 2000, since 2000 is a leap year.

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