Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Nov. 15, 1996

Can our computers handle 2000?

by Linda Charles
Maybe HAL had a breakdown in 2001: A Space Odyssey because Dave forgot to program him for Y2K.

Y2K, in techie talk, is the year 2000, when many predict that computers around the world either will compute inaccurately or simply crash.

The problem originated in the early days of computing when programmers, attempting to save as much space as possible, began recording years as two, rather than four, digits. For example, the year 1996 is stored as 96 on many computers. Programmers for many generations of computers, including mainframes, mini-computers and personal computers, have used this two-digit method.

Unless the two-digit problem is corrected by the time the year 2000 rolls around, the computers will look at 00 and read it as the year 1900, or some other incorrect date such as 1980. That's when the trouble begins.

For example, a person on the East Coast calling a friend on the West Coast just after midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, could end up with a bill for a 99-year phone call.

Other bills may never come due. Older stock on shelves may not be used because it appears younger than the new stock. Calculations on deposits and loans may be incorrect, and future scheduled actions, from subscription renewals to vaccinations, may never be triggered.

George Covert, director for technical services at the Computation Center, quipped that he would carefully consider airline travel as the year 2000 rolls around because of the multitude of clocks in airplanes.

According to an April 6, 1996, article in The New York Times, an estimated 80 percent of companies in business today will be affected by the problem.

At Iowa State, time-sensitive data include student transcripts, payrolls, budgets, financial accounts, human resources information, trend studies, notices of when pledges are due and historical information, to name just a few.

While many of those who use computers are just beginning to realize the seriousness and extent of the problem, Iowa State's ADP Center already has a game plan in place, says Wayne Ostendorf, ADP Center director.

"We have a good plan to deal with it," he said, adding that ADP Center staff began to address the problem about 10 years ago when it installed a new relational database. All central administrative information systems built since 1987, about half of the total databases, use a four-digit year.

In addition, for more than a year students working for ADP have been examining the remaining 6,000 application software programs to determine if changes are needed. Only programs that use the date for calculations, logic or sequencing will need to be changed. So far, about 700 programs have been reviewed and Ostendorf said he thinks there is enough time to correct the rest. The target date for getting everything analyzed has been set for the first quarter of 1998, he added.

Frank Maly, assistant director of data systems/internal systems, is heading a group of ADP personnel finding solutions to the problem. One approach the group has put together, called a "sliding window," allows the programmer to tell the computer how to read two-digit years.

For example, the programmer might instruct the computer to read any two-digit year of 20 or less as 2000-something and any two-digit year of 21 or more as 1900-something. The sliding window allows the programmer to slide the window forward annually or to pick the appropriate years, based on the data.

The university also is in the process of sending letters to software vendors asking what they are doing to correct Y2K problems. Some software vendors have fixed the problem, but others still are working on solutions.

Covert said the Computation Center also is studying the impact of the year 2000 on the campus community. He added an information campaign to help students, faculty and staff address Y2K problems probably will be launched next school year.

Ostendorf stressed that the problem "is very important to us and is being addressed. But people should start thinking about it now."

Iowa State homepage

Inside Iowa State,, University Relations
Copyright © 1996, Iowa State University, all rights reserved
Revised 11/14/96