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January 4, 1999

Y2K Bug: One year and counting

By Jim Burns

If you believe some of the more hysterical predictions, it may not matter whether any of UC Santa Cruz's many computer systems fail when the clock strikes midnight on January 1 less than a year from now. According to some scenarios, nuclear reactors will melt down, military weaponry will discharge, air-traffic control systems will collapse, and space-based communications devices will malfunction in the first few moments of the new millennium--all catastrophic byproducts of the much ballyhooed Y2K bug.

At UCSC, staff in Communications and Technology Services have a much less grim outlook on UCSC's prospects for surviving the dawn of the new millennium. "It's hard to separate the hype of the millennium bug from the reality," said Pat LeCuyer, CATS' acting assistant vice chancellor. "While there will no doubt be some Y2K failures at UCSC, they shouldn't have a significant impact on campus operations. In CATS, our highest priority has been to make sure that there are as few failures as possible--and that none of them occur in the central systems that are considered mission critical."

At UCSC and elsewhere, the primary Y2K exposure comes from the decades-old industry standard of using two instead of four digits for year representation within computer programs, files, databases, and logic boards. For example, the year 1999 is represented by '99.' On January 1, 2000, however, the computer-represented date of 01/01/00 might be interpreted as January 1, 1900, causing computer programs that perform arithmetic operations, comparisons, or sorting of date fields to yield incorrect results.

LeCuyer estimates that by December 31 of this year, CATS staff will have checked hundreds of thousands of lines of computer code driving operating systems, applications, and files--and made necessary corrections. CATS staff have also conducted workshops for campus computer coordinators on the subject.

"We feel like we're going to be in good shape in terms of the central systems and applications that CATS supports, like the Student Information System (SIS) and the Financial Information System (FIS)," he said.

Still, with the Y2K deadline less than a year away, LeCuyer is establishing a campuswide committee that will broaden the scope of UCSC's "Y2K compliance" effort to include utility services and less-central activities such as unit-based research and instruction, as well as the multitude of nonacademic support services.

"Every unit needs to inventory hardware, software, and data files to see if there are potential problems," LeCuyer said. "If you have an Excel spreadsheet with imbedded dates, for example, you have to be prepared for the possibility of errors."

Last on the Y2K to-do list is to prepare a contingency plan, should even the most careful preparations miss an area of exposure, LeCuyer said. "Since students will be returning to campus for the start of winter quarter 2000 only days after January 1, we need to have developed back-up plans should any critical system or infrastructure components fail."

The committee will have one other important mission: to ensure that members of the campus community strike a balance between taking the Y2K problem very seriously and maintaining calm in the face of a succession of doom-and-gloom forecasts off campus in the upcoming year.

"In the mainstream media, there has been a lot of hysteria about the Year 2000 problem," he added. "At UCSC, we should put that to rest and get focused on all of the things we really need to look at."

CATS has developed a "Year 2000 Roadmap" Web site that defines the extent of the problem, gives a status report on campus compliance efforts, and provides links to software vendors whose products are used widely on campus.

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