Strategic Computing

Strategic Computing

by / November 30, 1996
George Orwell thought 1984 would be the year that government and the governed would reach a crisis point. As it turned out, 1984 was just another year. The "Year 2000 Crisis" is now what strikes fear and apprehension into the hearts of brave government workers. Big Brother is stumbling.

In jurisdictions around the country there is a crisis brought about by the historic usage of two-character date fields to collect and store the year portion of the day-month-year notation. Some are looking for someone else to blame, others are looking for saviors, most are looking for ways to retire or be reassigned before you-know-what hits the fan!

I don't mean to make light of the "Year 2000 Crisis." Date field errors are a monumental problem. The problem is that, instead of storing the first two numbers that identify the century in question, programmers designed systems that left those two digits out, assuming the century was 1900. People who have significant dates, such as a benefit payment term of one sort or another until perhaps 2003, find that instead of getting paid for seven years, they're stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare that says their benefit period expired 93 years ago.

Newly registered vehicles for the model year 2000 may pay taxes calculated for a 100-year-old car instead of a brand new one, costing the state and county thousands of dollars in lost revenue. There are literally hundreds of thousands of algorithms in tens of millions of lines of code that won't know which century they are calculating for. Some of the systems will give significantly erroneous outcomes. Some will have abnormal ends (abends) and blow up. All will cost a lot of money if we fix them and a lot more if we don't. So what is the right strategy for addressing the "Year 2000 Crisis"?

Some jurisdictions, primarily localities, are considering suing the vendors who built the systems with the two-character date fields. Unfortunately, the chances of winning are not good. Almost everyone used two-character fields and they did it with due consideration.

The reasons for what -- from today's perspective -- seems to be a poor choice include a difference in the economics of technology during the period when these systems were designed, and the economies of technology today. Not too long ago storage media and memory were very expensive. Saving two characters in each of millions of records saved a whole disk pack or more.

For a state government that already had a DASD farm (or plantation!), saving disk space was the holy grail. Now we can buy 16MB of RAM for a PC for under $100. Personal computers come with two gigabyte hard drives, which used to be a very expensive stand-alone device's limit.

The other reason they had was planned obsolescence. Technology has been evolving continuously, so no one expected systems to live into the next century. To waste storage and memory to allow software to be utilized into the next century appeared to be an expensive and unnecessary luxury. We used to reward vendors for saving memory, we can't sue them for it 20 years later.

Every hardware vendor, software house and systems integrator on the planet will come to your rescue for a fee. For $1.40 or so per line of code, the integrators will scour your application and add the two characters where they are missing. They will also deal with the downstream changes that have to be made. If the system you have is mission-critical and gets the job done, this solution is a bargain and they really are your saviors. Pick a vendor who has delivered for you in the past or someone you trust, because it is harder than it sounds to get the job done.

Software houses and hardware companies have tools for you to do it yourself. If you need a tool more sophisticated than an editor, you probably have had all the people who know these old systems retire or get hit by a truck, which makes the do-it-yourself approach pretty risky.

Finally, if you've been with your employer for 20 years or more, retire NOW!

There is one more solution. This one takes courage but yields the highest return. Use the crisis. To get support to do anything substantially different in government requires a crisis as motivation. Use the "Year 2000 Crisis" as a reason to force your agency or department to invest in new technology. Replace the dinosaur with the two-character date fields with new systems that will enable reengineering for more effective business processes.

When that old system was built, information systems were used to provide some efficiency by automating a repetitive process. We now can use information technology to improve outcomes of business processes. Use the "Year 2000 Crisis" to put information technology into its rightful place as an enabler of public policy.

Most public-sector organizations use up to 80 percent of their budget to maintain existing systems. Use the crisis to free up some of that budget to move forward into the Information Age. Don't fix the problem in the existing system. Replace the existing system with something better, something modern, something more effective.

Remember, it's a new millennium. Anything is possible when you have a good crisis that you can blame on your predecessor. Take a chance, do the right thing.

Larry Singer -- an expert on strategic computing with 12 years experience in the information technology industry serving all levels of government -- is currently a research fellow with the Strategic Computing and Telecommunications in the Public Sector program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. E-mail: < >

Larry Singer Contributing Writer