Users rush to fix systems in time for daylight-saving

An earlier than usual starting date for daylight-saving in the United States is proving a big challenge for IT

With only days to go before this year’s earlier than usual starting date for daylight-saving time in the US, a last-minute scramble is on inside many corporate IT departments to finish the process of evaluating and updating systems in order to stave off possible problems when the clocks are put forward an hour.

Although the changes to DST (daylight-saving time) became federal law in August 2005, it has only been in the last few months — or weeks, even — that many companies have acted in earnest to prepare their systems for the new starting and ending dates. As a result, the situation remains unsettled, according to IT managers, consultants and analysts interviewed.

Ray Wang, an analyst at Forrester Research, says IT clients are jamming the firm’s phone lines asking for advice about what they should do.

“A lot of customers are still not ready because a lot of the vendors released their patches late,” Wang says. He adds that the early time change is turning out to be “a bigger deal than vendors and customers had expected.”

DST, which previously began during the first weekend in April, will take effect at 2 am on March 11 this year. That means IT systems have to be updated or modified to reflect the proper time for applications that rely on time stamps, as well as for tasks such as scheduling. But a problem now cropping up often, Wang says, is that patches from one vendor are causing code mismatches with other applications that then also have to be resolved.

“There are patch compatibility issues,” Wang says, citing Microsoft as an example. “There are cases where even Microsoft has released three different patches in the last few months” to resolve problems that the first ones caused with other applications, he says.

Rudy Ebisch, assistant director of the infrastructure group at a large manufacturer of home and office products that he asked not be identified, says his IT team is about 95% finished with a long list of system checks on the company’s nine major software platforms. “Nothing has been a showstopper,” he says.

But one area where DST problems are still being resolved, Ebisch says, is in a reservation system used to book corporate meeting rooms. Reservations made before DST-related software patches were installed could conflict with reservations made afterwards, leaving some users without rooms for their meetings, Ebisch says.

If conflicts do occur between reservation requests submitted by different employees, “one’s going to get it, and one’s not,” he says. Reports are being run against the reservation system to try to find any conflicts, which can then be manually corrected.

There have been a few other problems, Ebisch says, “but we’re not a bank,” where time stamp issues would be much more critical.

Dave Brockman, a product manager at a hosted-application vendor in San Francisco, says that his biggest DST problem has been the lack of a free fix from Microsoft for systems that are still running Windows 2000 or Windows 2000 Server. Brockman’s company, which he asks not be identified, still uses those operating systems on an unspecified number of machines.

“Some of these are in critical positions,” he says. “These machines have been running fine for years.” He added that the computers can’t be upgraded to newer operating systems because of application support issues.

Brockman says he’s annoyed because Microsoft is still issuing free security updates and patches for Windows 2000 but is classifying the DST update as a hot-fix patch that is being offered only as part of a fee-based extended support programme. In contrast, the software vendor is offering free DST patches for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, and it built code for dealing with the DST changes into Windows Vista.

“It seems silly that they’re calling this a critical update for some operating systems and not for all,” Brockman says.

His company has already updated its XP and Windows Server 2003 systems with the free patches provided by Microsoft, but he’s still looking at possible solutions for the Windows 2000 machines. One potential choice, he says, is an elaborate, labour-intensive manual fix that is described in a 19-page document posted on Microsoft’s website. But Brockman isn’t willing to undergo that process quite yet.

In response, M3 Sweatt, chief of staff at Microsoft’s Windows core operating system division, says the company isn’t providing a free DST fix for the Windows 2000 products because they’re no longer covered under its mainstream support programmes. But because of the DST change’s potentially wide-ranging effects on customers, Microsoft is offering a hot-fix designed to resolve the issue at a reduced fee, Sweatt says.

Under the reduced-fee programme, customers can get the DST fix for a one-off price of US$4,000 (NZ$5,856) that will cover multiple fixes for all Microsoft products currently under extended support. Normally, the fee is US$40,000 per fix for each product, according to Sweatt.

“We just thought this was just an extreme [customer] hardship for this government change,” Sweatt says.

For customers who do want to make the Windows 2000 changes manually, instructions can also be found in a webcast that can be viewed on Microsoft’s website. The vendor has also posted information about how the DST change affects all of its products.

Wang says Forrester is recommending that, at a minimum, affected businesses need to communicate with their customers before March 11 to advise them that DST issues are being worked on but that system problems could occur after the time change takes effect. In addition, financial institutions, travel companies and other businesses that rely on time-sensitive systems should tell customers they won’t be held liable for any time-related errors, he says.

Making things even worse for IT workers, the DST changeover issue won’t just go away after March 11. The status of systems will have to be revisited again when DST ends and clocks revert back to standard time on November 4, one week later than before. And because Congress could modify the starting and ending dates again in the future, companies should develop “ongoing testing strategies” for dealing with DST issues, Wang says.

Julien Courbe, a managing director in the financial services consulting practice at BearingPoint, says many of the firm’s clients struggled on their own trying to figure out what to do regarding the DST issue before finally asking for help in January.

Once BearingPoint officials realised they wouldn’t be able to do all the required patching work in time, they began prioritising the most critical fixes and told clients they would help them complete the rest of the updates after March 11, Courbe says.

Also, because many end users have installed unauthorised applications on their PCs, the patching efforts have been complicated because of unexpected software interdependencies and incompatibilities, according to Courbe.

“The complexity of working with the users to fix these was a challenge,” he says. “It took much more time than anticipated originally.”

BearingPoint is setting up operations centres that will be staffed round-the-clock to monitor the situation and help customers with problems during the DST switch-over and for several days after March 11, Courbe says.

Ethan Simmons, co-founder of Boston-based IT services provider NetTeks Technology Consultants, says DST help requests have been coming in like gangbusters from clients lately.

“It’s complete chaos,” Simmons says. “Everyone’s still sort of picking it up. We’ve been telling our customers about this for a while now, and it’s only been [for] about a week where they’ve been coming to us and saying, ‘We want to get this done.’ All of a sudden, they realised that they never kept their systems patched.”

Simmons, who is attending a Cisco technology conference in San Jose along with officials from about 25 other IT services firms, says cell phones have been ringing madly among the attendees, with many callers seeking help on the DST issue. He pinned most of the blame for the last-minute rush on hardware and software vendors, saying that many have only recently begun releasing DST patches.

“Everyone’s been really late to the game and behind the eight ball on this one,” Simmons says. “It should have been better planned. This was known over a year ago, and it’s taken forever to get patches.”

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