TORONTO USERS GROUP for Midrange Systems
TUG eServer magazine November 1995: Vol. 11, No. 2

Only You Can Decide

By Peter de Jager

Only You Can Decide Our society is based on trust. I'll guess you're in some building somewhere. I doubt if you've met the architect. Nor have you met the builder. Yet you sit there with complete trust, that the building, several hundred tons of steel and concrete, will not fall on your head. Trustful... until I mentioned it.

Management asked us to construct their computer systems, to provide them with competitive advantage and equip them with strategic weapons. In short, they've placed the welfare of their business in hour hands. They don't really care about the details, anymore than we care how builders build buildings. They trust us. A wise man (Gerald Weinberg) once said, "If architects build buildings the way programmers build systems, the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization!

Our woodpecker has arrived, in the form of the year 2,000,

It's a simple matter, just 2 missing digits. We use the standard MM/DD/YY or DD/MM/YY to write the date. January the 1st 1999 is 01/01/99... January the 1st 2000 is 01/01/00... When we get to the year 2000, (less than 1,250 working days) most computer applications will either grind to a halt, or produce garbage. Either way, we have a problem.

When we see 01/01/00, we know it means January 1st 2000, because we add context in our minds. Computers are oblivious to context. The computer sees "00" as zero... not 2000. Just as it sees "93" as 93, not 1993. These digit deficient dates infest millions of data files, millions of applications, in hundreds of thousands of companies worldwide.

The significance of this situation?

I was born in 1955. If I ask the computer how old I am today, it subtracts 55 from 95 and announces that I'm 40. So far so good, but in 2000? The computer subtracts 55 from 00 and I become minus 55 years old! Oh-Oh... Should I stop driving? Should the government retract my driving license? Does my passport automatically expire?

This type of error affects every calculation which produces or uses spans of time crossing the "boundary" of January 1st, 2000. Because of this slight error, management's' trust is about to be betrayed. Competitive advantage becomes a handicap. Strategic weapons turn on the hands that wield them. The condition of Mission Critical becomes critical.

Too much "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"?? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Only you know how much the "Doomsday 2000" scenario applies to your organization. Only IS can determine the level of risk caused by MM/DD/YY.

We didn't do it on purpose. The source of the problem is NOT because we needed to save space, nor is it because we wanted to save keystrokes. It's not even because we're stupid and thought the year 2000 would never arrive. It exists because we didn't expect our applications to live forever. We thought we'd use these applications for several years, then build new ones. We didn't expect applications to be immortal.

The programme WOULD NOT exist in the year 2000... In our minds, 00 is a data exception! This is why the solution to the problem is not simply a matter of adding the missing digits. Can your computer system accept 01/01/00! "Of course it will!" you cry? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Try the following: Type DATE at the DOS prompt and enter 01/01/00... What did you get as a response? INVALID DATE? Surprised? Pity. Are you entering 2 digit dates into applications? Can you enter 00? Or does your programme belch, burp and say... no thanks? Is your accounting system affected? Perhaps your accounts receivable? How long can you survive without printing an invoice? 6 months? 6 weeks? 6 days?

Worse... what if your application accepts 00 but uses it incorrectly? What if it thinks 00 is 1900 instead of 2000? Remember -- "Garbage in, garbage out." How will you discover soft errors that don't stop the application, but generate erroneous reports? How much to fix the problem? Does it matter? The right question should be... what is the impact if we ignore it?

The problem is big. It's ugly. It's not un-do-able. Assuming of course, we have what it takes to get started. Good Luck!

T < G

Peter de Jager has spent more than a decade managing computers and working with people who were using computers for the first time. This experience has led him to the conclusion that there are no technical problems, only people problems. Perer de Jager can be reached at De Jager & Co., (905) 792-8706.