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December 5, 1996

Year 2000: Date poses a serious computer quandary

Many computer applications will fail in the year 2000 because since the early stages of automation the date format used by software and computer manufacturers has been MM/DD/YY, which ascribes two digits for month/day/year.

Under the system currently in use, for example, 1996 is stored as the two digits "96." As a result, the year 2000 will appear as "00," making it less than 1996 and throwing computer systems throughout the world into chaos.

"The two-digit date notation affects data manipulation, primarily subtractions and comparisons," according to Peter de Jager, creator of the Year 2000 Internet Information Center. "For instance, I was born in 1955. If I ask the computer to calculate how old I am today, it subtracts 55 from 96 and announces I'm 41.

"So far so good," continues de Jager. "But what happens in the year 2000? The computer subtracts 55 from 00 and will state that I am minus 55 years old. The error will affect any calculation that produces or uses time spans, such as interest calculation." In addition to mathematics calculations, according to the Year 2000 Internet Information Center (, the situation will affect databases, reports, screens, sorts, backups, imbedded coding and historical data.

"A large number of business processes, such as credit cards, operate on a four-year cycle," noted Jager. "In 1996, it will be interesting to see if any banks issue credit cards with '00' as an expiration year. What could happen is that ATM machines may think the card expired in 1900 if only '00' is used to signify the year 2000." According to the Year 2000 Information Center, many software products for PC platforms may also have been created with valid dates only through 1999. So operating system software, including DOS 6.0, and other recent vendor packages may not be immune to the disorder.

Why computer users throughout the world are faced with the Year 2000 problem can be attributed to two main reasons – economics and shortsightedness.

The situation has occurred because the price/performance of storage media did not economically support the carrying of extra digits when many programs now in use were being created in the 1970s. Two fewer digits in a program represented a substantial savings.

"At one point, the estimates I saw were that it took 13 cents a day to store a character," said Bruno Lacaria, director of Pitt's Computing and Information Services. "If you take those two characters and spread them across the tens of thousands of records that you might store, that gets to be a pretty large number." Even though the cost of storing characters has declined to the point where its is but a tiny fraction of what it was in the 1970s, the old two-digit system was perpetuated.

On the shortsightedness end, software developers expected their applications to last only 5 to 7 years and to be replaced long before the turn of the century, which obviously has not happened.

Although the numbers vary somewhat, most computer industry publications estimate the potential cost of correcting the problem at more than $100 billion worldwide, according to the Year 2000 Information Center. And the deadline for correcting the problem cannot be extended.

"It surprises me how many people have not taken this seriously yet," said Lacaria. "We've [Pitt] been on this track for some months now and I feel pretty comfortable in terms of where we are and what we've laid out in terms of us overcoming this. But I was at a seminar in September where I kept hearing people say this whole thing is vendor hype and they're just trying to make money." To combat the problems, Computing and Information Services has been following a process recommended by the Gartner Group, a research organization that is highly respected in the information technology field. The first thing the Gartner Group recommends is conducting an inventory of a company's or an institution's software, followed by an assessment to determine what software in a system is no longer being used.

"Pitt, as well as everybody else," Lacaria pointed out, "has things out there that over time people have just quit using and have never been deleted. They don't need to be fixed." Computing and Information Services has completed both the inventory and assessment parts of the plan and has come up with a cost estimate. According to Lacaria, the University will have to spend $6 million to $10 million, depending upon the cost of outside contracting help, to correct the Year 2000 problem over the next two years.

Areas of immediate focus include student systems, and payroll and pension software. Student systems is a primary focus because there are already individuals in the Pitt system who will graduate in the year 2000. Payroll and pension is the other focus because of the staff and faculty who will be retiring in the year 2000.

Lacaria said it would take about 110,000 man-hours for the University to change all of its current software. However, some older systems will be replaced instead. As much as half of the estimated $6 million to $10 million will go for new systems.

"A significant piece of that is in our student systems area," Lacaria said. "Those systems are rather old and not as usable as people would like, so the provost initiated a project to replace our student systems rather than try to correct the problem with our older systems. And the chancellor has approved it.

"A lot of companies and a lot of universities are doing the same thing," he continued. "If you have software that has been around 10 or 15 years, the technology has changed so much it makes more sense to replace it." Although there is no denying that the Year 2000 problem is going to cost Pitt a significant amount of money, Lacaria said he feels good about the University's position. "The thing we feel good about is that we got in early in the game," he explained. "Most of this is going to be done by outside contractors because you can't quit supporting what you are already supporting internally." Businesses and institutions that have not begun to confront the problem will find the costs of contractors rising dramatically in the future because of a shortage of personnel, according to the Gartner Group. Pitt already has interviewed contractors and has begun reviewing prototype corrective systems with an eye to locking in a good price.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 8

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