The clock is ticking. In the amount of time (tick) it takes to read these words (tick), it's that much closer to the year 2000 (tick), the new millennium (tick). Or, as some call it (tick), electronic doomsday. Boing!
If you haven't already heard, right after the words "Happy New Year!" are uttered, and 1999 is but a memory, there are fears we might be left with one very big electronic mess on our hands. The cause for the concern is what is known as the year 2000 computer glitch, or the millennium bug. At Hopkins, this glitch has the potential to alter student and alumni records, scramble satellite calculations in computers at the Applied Physics Laboratory, or cause elevators at the hospital to stop between floors or refuse to work altogether. In other words, the repercussions of this glitch could be nothing short of disastrous.
So, like sandbaggers preparing for a flood, university administrators and department computer technicians have been working for the past seven years in an effort to make sure that none of these events occurs when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 1999.
"It's a matter of fixing something that needs to be fixed. And we don't have forever to do it," said Ted Poehler, vice provost for research and chair of the university's Year 2000 ad hoc committee, one of several groups that have been formed to deal exclusively with the Y2K issue. "At just the medical institutions there is a massive set of system hardware and software at work. We are taking this problem very seriously."
To make sure that all computer systems and electronic equipment are year 2000 compliant, university administration has implemented a deadline of Dec. 31, 1998.
The Y2K ad hoc committee Poehler heads includes Stephanie Reel, vice president of information services at Johns Hopkins Hospital; Judi Wood, interim director of Homewood Academic Computing; Larry Kohlenstein, director of the Business and Information Service Department at APL; Michael Taylor, assistant dean of finance and administration at the School of Hygiene and Public Health; Tony Dowgiewicz, director of Audits and Management Services at Homewood; and Arthur Heigl, director of Administrative Computing at Homewood.
Poehler said the Y2K committee meets periodically to update the status of the university's year 2000 compliance. Yet, Poehler added, in a decentralized institution such as Hopkins, the actual task of reprogramming or updating the equipment has been and continues to be the responsibility of each school and department.
The Y2K problem originates from the widespread practice of programming computers and microprocessors to recognize only the last two digits of the year and assume that the first two digits are 1 and 9. Thus, if not dealt with, when the year 2000 rolls around, computers will read "00" as a lower figure than "99," a glitch that may cause systems to malfunction, alter existing records of dates and times, or--a less likely scenario--cause the device to shut down completely.
One group dealing with millennium bug is the Johns Hopkins Medicine Center for Information Services Y2K team. The team was brought together in late 1995, and its first steps were to define exactly what the problem was and to determine what to expect when the year 2000 arrives. After accomplishing its first goal, the Y2K team, in conjunction with local administrators in the various medical institutions, began to take an inventory of all the systems and places where they would likely encounter problems.
Yet, despite the diligence, Diana Knight, one of the project leaders, said that since the team's inception the problems associated with the year 2000 glitch have mushroomed.
"We didn't really understand the extent of it back then. We thought it was just mainframes that would be affected," Knight said. "But then we started to realize that PCs will have problems, as well as embedded systems. We had to look at all the areas that could be affected." A former systems programmer at the hospital, Knight is now one of three full-time staff at JHMCIS who work on just the Y2K systems.
The embedded systems to which Knight refers are the microprocessors inside electronic equipment such as fire alarms and security systems. Because some of these microprocessors are date sensitive, Knight said, they, too, can be impacted by the glitch.
Knight added that it's not just the roll over from "99" to "00" that could be a problem, but since 2000 is a leap year, not all software programs will be able to recognize the date February 29 and the fact there are 366 days that year.
"Some software expects it to be day one after 365," Knight said. "Computers just aren't as forgiving as the human brain."
The five key components of dealing with the glitch, according to administrators, are awareness, assessment, renovation, validation and implementation. The first two involve understanding the problem and taking an inventory of all electronic systems; the third, renovation, is aimed at correcting the problem. The last two steps involve testing and then using the newly programmed hardware and software.
One way of dealing with the Y2K issue is to update all electronic and computer systems, because most hardware and software being developed today is 2000 compliant. However, Knight and others warn that just buying new equipment is not a foolproof solution.
"Believe it or not, even in 1998 some software companies are still programming with the glitch," Knight said. She added that if any users have a doubt about whether software or hardware is 2000 compliant, it's best to check with the vendor or their department's computer administrator. A more effective, albeit more time-consuming, way of dealing with the Y2K problem is to actually reprogram the software or hardware. For mainframe computers, that means examining every line of code to make sure the computer will recognize "00" for what it is, the year 2000.
"In some cases this reprogramming can be quite a chore," Poehler said. For local administrators, "it's another big job on top of everything else."
As for the costs and the scope of making the university Y2K compliant, Poehler said it's "highly problematic" to estimate those amounts. Although some of the Y2K work has been done by outside consultants, most of it, he said, has been done by full-time staff in bits and pieces over a course of several years. However, he did add that both the cost and number of people associated with the Y2K issue were "significant."
At Homewood, most of the work to major systems used for payroll, student records and financial operations has been done. In 1991, for example, when the Legacy system used for student records was being installed, changes were made to expand the system's date field to four digits. Likewise, similar changes were made when the university adopted a new accounting system two years ago.
"We were planning on converting these major systems anyway," said Ronald Dempsey, director of management information systems at Homewood. "It was a good time to make these systems 2000 compliant. This way we only had to go in and make the change once."
The work done on the individual PCs of students, faculty and staff is performed by local administrators who update the software of the user and run software-based tests on the system to determine if it's year 2000 compliant. But Heigl, director of Administrative Computing, said it is not logistically or economically feasible to test and verify whether all the computers on the campus are 2000 compliant. One reason is that not every piece of computer and electronic equipment is registered with the university.
To make certain the university will function smoothly on Jan. 1, 2000, all systems will be tested after they have been reprogrammed or updated. In the case of student records, testing includes registering fictitious students for the fall term of 2000 and checking their data.
Yet even with testing, there are no guarantees that everything will work come Jan. 1, 2000, Knight warned.
"There is no way to know you're 100 percent compliant with any level of testing," Knight said. "Things are always going to slip through; we can't catch all the errors. But it's definitely possible to be fairly certain. We're taking very good care of all the systems."
Heigl said that approximately 95 percent of the central administration computer systems are year 2000 compliant at this point, and hardware has been ordered to fix the remaining 5 percent.
To get the message out on the Y2K problem and solutions, university Web sites have been created. The site developed at JHMCIS offers both information on the Y2K problem and links to some of the hundreds of Web sites nationwide that deal with the issue. Likewise, the School of Public Health has its own year 2000 site. Here, the home page asks the question "Are you ready?" while underneath, a miniature animated man runs furiously against the clock at his feet that counts down the seconds until the year 2000. It's getting closer (tick) all the time.