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Safeguarding Space Satellites and Prehistoric Pelts

What Campus Units Are Doing to End Run the Y2K Bug

by Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
posted November 11, 1998

This is the second in a series of articles on how the campus is preparing for the year 2000 computer bug.

During the summer break, when students and faculty were on vacation, English Department computer resource specialist John Ives had time to "really start looking" for campus resources on the year 2000 computer bug.

Frustrated in his search, and concerned about whether campus units were preparing for 2000, Ives created a web site with links to year 2000 resources, and an electronic mailing list to encourage discussion on the issue. (See resources sidebar, page 3.)

He says the "worst case" year 2000 problem in his own department would be if servers failed so that faculty and staff couldn't share information or do back-ups.

"In the English Department, we're in fairly good shape," Ives says. "But I worry about units that don't have time to look, or don't have on-staff computer specialists."

He's not alone.

For much of the computing age, programmers expressed the year with two digits, instead of four. At the millennium, 58 weeks from now, computer systems that interpret '00 as 1900 instead of 2000 may malfunction or shut down. So the computer-dependent around the world are racing the clock to deal with "the millennium bug" or "Y2K" before century's end.

At Berkeley, administrators of campus' central computing systems are confident these systems will transition smoothly into the year 2000.

But those systems are only one piece of the year 2000 puzzle.

The campus has more than 300 departments and research units, each with its own computer hardware and software systems and many with date-sensitive office and research equipment. Each unit is responsible for identifying its own Y2K problems and fixing them in time.

"I hope that departmental systems administrators are making their systems year 2000 compliant," says Jack McCredie, associate vice chancellor for information systems and technology. "I get very nervous about this because we have no formal way of tracking their progress on this campus. I know of several departments that are in good shape, but it's the departments about which we know nothing that cause me a lot of concern."

What sorts of problems might the millennium bug pose for Berkeley and what is being done about them? Here's what staff from three units told us.


When Silvester McBride considers the year 2000 problem, he thinks not only of elevators and fire alarms, but also of DNA samples, prehistoric pelts and temperamental plants. As a Physical Plant/Campus Services manager, McBride oversees 19 buildings that are home to most of Berkeley's biological sciences research.

Much of that research requires controlled environmental conditions. Computers keep heat and humidity constant or simulate natural lighting conditions.

"Say you have a walk-in cold box for storing DNA samples," says McBride. "If the temperature control shuts down, we could lose all of that DNA." At the Oxford Street Research Unit, if greenhouse humidity controls or retractable roofs stopped working, "all the plants and bugs used for research would be lost," he says.

McBride's office has been working with the manufacturers of control systems in his buildings to correct potential problems in their programming.

"We would like to know by Feb. 1, 1999 what all is involved, and we'd like to have everything in place by May 1," says McBride.

Fit to Print

UC Printing, which is administered by Berkeley, does

$14 million annually in printing, copying and binding for this campus and the rest of the UC system.

Sue Sheehan, manager of UC Printing's business, sales and copy operations, says vendor Y2K problems could impact the delivery of essential supplies like ink and paper. She's also concerned about custom accounting, job costing, billing, tracking and inventory applications and plans to complete the Y2K updates by the end of this month.

"You find out more the more you get into it," says Sheehan. "You have to upgrade everything -- operating systems, applications, databases, hardware."

UC Printing uses specialized software for tracking personnel and monitoring the status and costs of jobs. If the software fails, the shop has to keep records manually, and pay overtime for the data to be reentered into the system once it comes back on line.

The software's international users group has kept Sheehan apprised of Y2K needs. Last spring, when the vendor upgraded the software to a Y2K-compliant version, UC Printing agreed to be the first customer to Beta test it. The Y2K-ready software is now in place.

Year 2000 upgrades, while time consuming, are "something we have to do," Sheehan notes.

Y2K: A Space Odyssey

Berkeley staffers uplink commands and download data from the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer (EUVE), a research satellite launched six years ago to shed light on mysteries of the universe.

For most of the project's life, the year 2000 problem was moot because the EUVE mission was not funded past 1999.

This fall, however, the project got good news -- money to operate to mid-2000. Suddenly the team faced what project manager Brett Stroozas calls a "potential mission killer" -- Y2K problems in dozens of software packages and "odd-ball systems" running in various operating systems and languages.

In a worst case scenario, the EUVE project could lose the ability to command and control the spacecraft. With more minor Y2K glitches, notes Stroozas, "we couldn't process the science data. Our times are accurate to a millisecond. We'd be 100 years off."

Or the team might have to scramble to write coding "just to keep the satellite updated on its position," says EUVE operations manager Rob Nevitt. "We'd still be able to collect data, but we'd be overworked and inefficient."

Since NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is working on Y2K solutions for generic software used by several space missions, the Berkeley team hopes to piggy-back on Goddard's better-funded efforts, reserving its own funds to investigate and fix EUVE-specific software.

"For us to push past the Y2K barriers," says Nevitt, "we have to be creative."

"Although I expect things will work out for us," Stroozas says, "I think we're going to have many more problems than people here suspect."


Y2K assistance is easier to come by than when computer resource specialist John Ives first went searching for campus resources last summer.

Besides Ives' Y2K web site and electronic discussion group, IST's publication, Berkeley Computing & Communications, is devoting a significant amount of attention to Y2K in each issue.

And a new Year 2000 Steering Committee formed by Vice Chancellor Horace Mitchell will work with an operations subcommittee throughout 1999 to oversee Y2K readiness for mission- critical equipment and systems that are not part of campus' central information technology systems.

Staff and administrators can also take advantage of several campus programs offering modestly-priced computer assistance on a recharge basis.


Campus Y2K Resources

John Ives' Year 2000 Reference Center website is at To join his Y2K electronic discussion list, click on mailing lists.

Departmental Technology Solutions, a part of IST-Administrative Systems, provides technical support, including Y2K compliance assessment, to campus departments for their business operations. Call 642-7856, email, or see on the web.

Letters & Science Computing Resources offers computer assistance for deans, staff and faculty within the College. Call 642-3176, email or see on the web.

Workstation Support Service's Departmental On-site Computing Support (DOCS) program offers computing support to campus departments at their site(s). Call 643-3272, email, or see on the web.

IST's publication Berkeley Computing & Communications has launched a section on the year 2000. Its web address is To subscribe, email



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