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The Clock Is Ticking

Will Campus Computers Be Ready for Year 2000?

by Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
posted October 21, 1998

This is the first of several articles on campus efforts to address the year 2000 computer problem. Its focus is central campus computing systems. Future articles will examine departmental and building systems, potential impacts on research, the new campuswide coordinating committee on year 2000 preparedness, and campus and outside resources on the subject.

Some dismiss it as a giant scam to enrich computer consultants. Others fear it portends power failures, food and water shortages, plane crashes, medical emergencies and financial turmoil.

"It" is the year 2000 problem, the millennium bug or, succinctly, Y2K. And while technophiles and technophobes, pessimists and optimists see widely varied meanings, like Ror-schach test subjects, in its designs, those who take practical measures to ticking clockforesee and forestall potential glitches will have a more pleasant transition from 12-31-99 to 01-01-2000.

The number of digits used to denote those dates makes all the difference. The Y2K problem comes from the early days of computing, when computer memory was expensive and programmers saved precious storage space, and followed cultural convention, by allotting two digits instead of four to express the year.

In '68 that worked fine. But '00 could bring myriad headaches if the computers that affect our lives read the double zeros as 1900 instead of 2000.

Already newspapers and news broadcasts carry worried reports on the huge and often aging computer systems that run federal government such as those in the Social Security, the IRS and FAA, and the computerized services of PG&E, East Bay MUD and BART.

The Berkeley campus doesn't have millions of retirees depending on its check payments, or the safety of surgery patients or airplane passengers to worry about if its systems fail the Y2K test. But it does have a large and complex matrix of central business and administrative systems; research projects; tele-communications, building and security systems; desktop computers and business equipment potentially vulnerable to Y2K problems. For the guardians of those systems and for all of us who use them, there are 14 months left to prepare.

Preventive Measures

Year 2000 preparations began several years ago, according to Jack McCredie. As associate vice chancellor for information systems and technology (IST), McCredie is responsible for dozens of "mission critical" computerized systems. These VIP programs control student records, admissions applications, class registration, student loans, payroll, human resources, accounting, billing and inventory -- to name a few.

During the past three years, IST has allocated $900,000 to make its central systems "year 2000 compliant." Staff and consultants have investigated which software programs are date sensitive; upgraded or replaced operating systems and applications; run tests and made contingency plans in case of glitches. Both Chancellor Berdahl and UC Office of the President receive periodic progress reports.

So far, the compliance work is on track, McCredie says. "It costs a lot of money and it's a lot of work. But we expect the campus's central systems to be ready on time."

Administrative Systems

At Administrative Systems, which is under IST's umbrella and is headed by Diana Brown, the plan is to complete upgrades of more than 50 administrative systems by July 1999, leaving the last half of the year for extensive integration testing.

The tests run on campus central mainframe computers. "We created this make-believe year 2000 environment, with a logical partition so it doesn't affect the rest of our operations," says Brown.

Simulating dates in early 2000 in a sheltered testing environment, her staff can verify that all the systems work smoothly when they interact, and can simulate data exchanges with external entities such as the Franchise Tax Board, insurance companies and major vendors. Since 2000 is a leap year, Brown plans to simulate dates in January through March 2000 to make sure the systems work on Feb. 29 as well.

Brown says the project is proceeding with "no show-stoppers or big surprises." But the transition to the year 2000 "still requires close monitoring," she cautions. "There are so many pieces to the picture. We're dependent not only on our staff efforts, but also on outside vendors."

Getting outside parties to guarantee that they're Y2K compliant is difficult. Businesses fear that if they make such a guarantee and there's a glitch, they'll be sued.

Y2K: A Silver Lining?

Expensive and time-consuming as it is, the year 2000 problem may have some positive effects.

Gene Rochlin, professor of energy and resources and author of a cautionary book "Trapped in the Net," thinks Y2K may get people thinking more coherently about our growing dependence on centralized computer technology.

The deadline may also offer some unexpected organizational benefits.

Preparing for Y2K "gives us a chance to learn more about campus departmental systems," says Diana Brown. "We never knew how many local financial and business systems are out there in the campus departments. Having to report on the Y2K status of campus systems gives us a better picture of the lay of the land."

The year 2000 deadline has forced some long-overdue maintenance, review and upgrading, McCredie believes, and was an impetus behind the decision to convert to the new Berkeley Financial Systems software.

"Berkeley has been working on a financial system at least 30 years old," McCredie says. "All the tools used to manage the university are very, very old.

"Up until 1995, there was no compelling reason to switch to a new system," he says. "But when we looked at the cost of upgrading to make all this 30-year-old system year 2000 compliant, it was pretty easy to make the decision.

"As a university we're lucky," McCredie notes. "Dec. 31, 1999, is a Friday and a holiday. So we have a weekend before things start. Plus we're in intercession. Classes don't start until the 15th.

"With the kind of business we're in," he says, "we'll have time to work this through. With airlines, hospitals, the stock exchange -- you don't have that luxury. For us, if there is a problem, it isn't the same kind as if we were running a commodities market."

Explains McCredie, "All the lawyers are saying 'don't write a letter certifying you're year 2000 compliant, but do ask everybody you do business with to certify that to you!'"

Student Information Systems

IST's Student Information Systems began Y2K conversion and testing several years ago, "but the effort has accelerated as we've gotten closer," says director SIS Bjorn Solberg.

Half a dozen members of his staff spent Memorial Day weekend converting its database of all students who have attended Berkeley since 1978. A lot of the data elements, like admission and graduation dates, are vulnerable to Y2K troubles, Solberg explains. Each of these fields had to be expanded to four digits instead of two.

Solberg's staff is also searching and revising the programming coding that controls scores of customized programs like course approval and class scheduling and registration.

He plans to complete changes to the student systems by February, and to "run with" the modified programs through the end of 1999. "Hopefully there will be few surprises," Solberg says. "We'll be in good shape until the year 10,000."

IST's publication Berkeley Computing & Communications is launching a section on all aspects of the Year 2000 problem. The first installment appears in the Nov.-Dec. issue, available online at To subscribe, email


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