The Millennium Bug: Is your system critical, peripheral or in a grey area?

With time running out for making computer systems able to cope with the year 2000, many companies are being forced to reassess their entire IT strategies. Stephen Pritchard reports.

The idea of the Millennium Bug as a disaster on a grand scale has gripped the public imagination, with predictions of the wholesale failure of anything from traffic lights to air traffic control systems.

The reality is likely to be less dramatic. Some systems are bound to fail, but in most cases industry analysts believe that even if it is too late to fix the bug itself, there still time to organise contingency plans.

Experts on the problem divide computer systems into three classes. As Tony Hill, UK general manager of Intersolv, explains, there are critical systems businesses must fix, peripheral systems that there is little point in fixing, and a large grey area in between that should be fixed if time and resources permit. If there are failures, it will be in this middle ground: support systems such as databases and non-mission critical financial software that businesses find useful, but could probably live without.

As Hill suggests, any solution has to fit in with a business's financial circumstances. "You have to look at a cost-benefit analysis. For many companies, it is probably the first time they have had to step back and look at all their systems."

Faced with cash requests from the IT department, a finance director would be on solid ground in rejecting all but the most essential upgrades. Companies worry about the wisdom of spending money and time on systems that may, Millennium Bug or not, have only a limited shelf life.

Intersolv applied this logic to its own, in-house accounting system. "In our own case, we moved to another accountancy package sooner than we might otherwise have done," Hill says.

This sort of reaction is not always negative. Pressure of time limits the amount of creativity IT professionals can apply to the problem. "What we see happening is, companies either look for a fix, or just replace the system," Hill says.

The problem can also be turned on its head, and seen as an opportunity. Some millennium tasks, such as auditing IT systems, are valuable in their own right. Looking again at older computer systems can suggest ways to apply new technologies to them, and make them more useful. This approach is advocated by Keith Ireland, head of the professional services division at the IT consultancy and programming house Micro Focus. "People are having to revisit systems and think about making them compliant," he says. "Some people take the view that they can throw a system away and start afresh."

The real value of a computer system is more likely to be the data than in the hardware. Companies are finding, through audits, that they have considerable investments tied up in older computers, and there are ways to extend their useful working lives. Computers can be given a second life by being connected them to a local area network, or even to an intranet, so that anyone in the organisation with a Web browser can use the data. This, Ireland believes, is also a way to persuade the board that the spending is worthwhile. If the system has to be upgraded anyway, a new interface need not add significant extra cost.

"All you need to do is front-end the system with a technology that is user-friendly, and allow access to the legacy systems in a way that 'future- proofs' them. We have technologies that allow us to build a Web front end for systems that companies already have."

Recently, Micro Focus developed a Windows graphical interface for the ports company Southampton Container Terminals, which runs its container tracking system on an ICL mainframe, with software written in Cobol.

A graphical interface alone does not make a computer millennium-compliant. As Keith Ireland stresses, "you still have to fix the problem". This does not necessarily mean rewriting data. The core of the millennium problem lies in the way we write dates. Computer programmers of 20 or 30 years ago saved time, and valuable memory space, by shortening dates so that 1998 became 98. To a non-millennium-aware computer, that year could be 1998, or 2098.

"The obvious thing to do is expand the date - for example, to make it four characters," says Tony Hill at Intersolv. "In practice, many people are not doing that, but making changes to the software that accesses the data."

The technique, known as "windowing", makes assumptions about the likely real date when it is presented, either by the old computer system itself or to an interface on a PC. A program simply makes the arbitrary choice that 1/3/98 is more likely to be 1998 than 2098. "It is a work-around that may last for 10 or 15 years, which buys them time to fix it properly," Hill says.

The windowing approach fits in well with the idea of using new interfaces: the job can be done at the same time, often with the same software. A more radical alternative is to ask whether the program is needed at all. Sometimes, the best solution is to find a completely different way to carry out the task. "Sometimes, people re-engineer the business processes the computer system supports," says Tony Hill.

Finding a totally new and millennium-compliant way to run part of a business system avoids the potential errors of reprogramming, freeing up time for more pressing year 2000 concerns - such as a cheap supply of good champagne.

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album