July 1999

‘Y2K ready’: 6 months to go, ORNL fixes, tests, verifies

Y2K effects won’t be restricted to January 1.
It’s July. Y2K is only six months away. First, let’s clear away a common misconception. “Millennium bug” havoc will not be restricted to Jan. 1, 2000. Vulnerable systems may go haywire for a period of months before and after New Year’s Day, says SAIC’s Jim Edwards, who addressed a Web Week audience on the subject last month.

Already, for instance, a major food company has mistakenly thrown out millions of dollars worth of perfectly fine food because its computer system thought the 00 expiration date meant the food was 99 years old.

Overall, Edwards had statistics that put the United States in pretty good shape Y2K-wise, with 92 percent of federal mission-critical systems in compliance. On the other hand, some western European countries and Russia are in for major disruptions when noncompliant systems hit the dreaded double-zero.

Edwards cited an Italian Y2K expert who fatalistically reports that only two percent of Italians have even heard of Y2K. “We are going to be crucified,” says the expert.

Ciao, baby. So how’s ORNL measuring up?

“With mission-critical systems—things that absolutely have to work—we’ve determined what needed to be fixed, fixed them, tested them and verified through an independent contractor that what we’ve done is correct,” says John Glowienka, who has been the Lab’s point person on Y2K.

“The Lab has roughly 1000 systems that have some Y2K impact, but only two of those are mission essential,” he says. “About 40 percent of those 1000 are Y2K compliant: they’ve been tested. The other 600 are declared Y2K ready, meaning there is some known Y2K vulnerability. However, for reasons determined by the line organizaton, they won’t be subjected to rigorous testing.”

He explained that some system vendors advise against manipulating their systems for tests. It could void the warranty, violate a license or lock out its users. In such a case, system managers and owners need to understand what failures might occur and have a contingency plan.

For some systems, that plan could be as simple as turning a computer off, turning it back on and resetting the clock. For instance, the climate control system at the High-Temperature Materials Laboratory is run on a very Y2K-unready, vintage 1985 computer system. “But if you turn the clock back 28 years you get same day of week and date, and it’s happy as a clam,” Glowienka says.

Meanwhile, the mission-critical systems are being rigorously tested. “We’re still doing end-to-end testing on one of them because it interfaces with the outside world—putting it through its paces just to make sure everything’s fine. The next step is understanding how we’re going to walk through the millennium change—business continuity planning. Planning for the actual transition is basically deciding what you have to do to be ready, if anything, and to get organized to make sure it’s business as usual on January third or fourth.”

Implementation of the transition planning for Y2K will start December 17. “Between now and then, I’ll be asking managers to think how they need to prepare themselves for the change. For example, in the case of data systems, do I back it up, turn it off, or don’t I?” Glowienka says.

“Transition planning will be in the context of a worst-case scenario for the January 2000 transition. Here it is: Electric power is available because the Tennessee Valley Authority is in good Y2K shape. But the planning scenario dictates that TVA will be asked to divert power to the national grid to help power companies that have encountered problems. The reduction of power available locally causes a brownout. ORNL is being asked to plan to decrease its power usage from its normal 25 megawatts to 10 megawatts.

“Historical data for the holiday periods indicate that we should be able to meet the brownout levels.”

That’s hypothetical, or course, but it could happen. The Lab cannot isolate itself from outside effects, particularly if it’s dealing with small and medium-sized businesses, which are said to be more prone to Y2K problems.

ORNL Procurement, in fact, is looking at vendors who provide essential supplies. Supply disruptions of scientific staples such as mouse chow and liquid nitrogen, for instance, could have devastating impacts on valuable research. Many companies are cracking down on noncompliant suppliers for similar reasons.

“We’re given a high standard to work to, but with good preparation and planning there are no real reasons to spend money needlessly or panic,” Glowienka says. “January 1 could present one heckuva challenge for our systems—some real, some imagined. We will have the opportunity to see how everything we’ve done—or have not done—works out.”—B.C.