Y2K: A never-ending story

As millions celebrate the passing of the millennium, many IT workers will find themselves hunkered down with their computers.

As millions celebrate the passing of the millennium, many IT workers will find themselves hunkered down with their computers, making sure the year-2000 fixes they've implemented for their enterprise applications -- spanning everything from enterprise resource planning to word processing -- work, and disasters are averted.

While the general consensus is that the doomsday predictions of a year ago are likely to prove unwarranted, there are bound to be last-minute emergencies that crop up from the unlikeliest of places.

What could arguably be called the biggest application development project of all time has all but wound to a close now, and there seems to be little left but the waiting as the clock ticks down to zero.

For instance, said Frank Gillett, industry analyst at Forrester Research, in Boston, although most database software has been "checked with a fine tooth comb" by vendors and customers alike, there are still potential data-related year-2000 issues that IT managers will have to cope with when the calendar turns.

"The challenge here is not the individual products, but the interplay of a number of individual products," Gillett said.

In fact, year-2000 remediation work is likely to be with us for quite some time to come.

"The big fallacy that some people have fallen into is to think that the Y2K issue is over," said Luke Chung, president of FMS, in Vienna, Va., which offers year-2000 inspection and analysis tools for Microsoft products. "Nothing prevents you from writing a non-Y2K-compliant application into the next century."

For instance, Chung said, many purchase-order systems have the fiscal year embedded in their purchase order number code -- a year-2000 error in the design of the system that could come back to haunt companies that mistakenly think they've gotten over the hump.

Another potential problem is groupware and messaging services. A year-2000-related date glitch could result in some interesting inboxes on Jan. 1 because these services sort incoming e-mail by date.

But, many companies with non-compliant messaging systems shouldered the burden of upgrades and related system replacements to make sure their e-mail links would not be severed. Still, others have turned to outsourced messaging to ensure their systems would be up-to-date.

"For the most part, companies are ready," said Mark Levitt, research director of collaborative computing at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. "But there are smaller companies and companies outside of the U.S. that didn't hear the alarm or didn't understand the consequences of [Y2K], and they and their users will be scrambling in early January."

Meanwhile, most industry analysts are saying that the wireless data infrastructure will be unaffected by the rollover to the new century. However, that does not mean users of wireless devices will be unaffected. For example, while the Sun servers at a location may work just fine, the databases of information such as hotel directories or rental car locations that are stored on an 8-year-old PC could lock up, said Gerry Purdy, president of Mobile Insights, in Mountain View, Calif.

The most controversial issue during the year-2000 rollover will be security, which will have IT people working full time to thwart any virus creators or hackers who may view the year-2000 turnover as the perfect time to wreak havoc on systems or steal systems data. Security vendors are staffing 24-hour alert stations in the days leading up to and following the arrival of the new year.

Vincent Gullotto, director of the Anti-Virus Emergency Response Team (AVERT) Network Associates, Inc., said NAI will have four of its anti-virus labs staffed with researchers and analysts from Dec. 31 right through Jan. 4, conducting virus monitoring, consumer email verification and responses of any legitimate security threat.

"My intention is not to draw attention to something that's not a virus," said Gullotto. "We want people to know what's critical or crucial or something they need to be aware of, versus something that's ordinary."

Gullotto said NAI will keep an eye on firewalls and in particular, Remote Access Trojans, which are files people create that allow full access to a person's system or information.

All email submissions of suspected virus or hacker intrusion should be directed to avertingy2k@nai.com for immediate review by the AVERT team.

Steve Trilling, director of Research at Symantec AntiVirus Research Center (SARC), said if there are any Y2K security glitches, people should not expect them all to happen at one single moment.

"I think instinctively, people think the ball drops on the world at midnight in the United States, but in actually, it's a much slower going process," said Trilling. "People's concern should not go away once January 2nd hits."

Trilling said Symantec will have 50 virus researchers and technical support staff on around the clock starting at 6 a.m. on Dec. 31 to monitor, report and help customers out with any one of four potential virus classifications. Those disguised as a Y2K fix, those that make a computer seem as if it has a Y2K problem, those with a payload (trigger date) and viruses that print out some message about Y2K in greeting form, like Happy New Year.

Trilling said he believed dealing with Melissa and other never-before-seen virus incarnations in 1999 has already provided his staff, as well as the general public, insight into how to deal with unexpected virus outbreaks. "Having going through that experience we're confident we can do that again," he said.

Having started their year-2000 planning as far back as four years ago, many network management officials say now it's a point of leaving their network administrations in the hands of their year-2000 command centers beginning 18 hours before the Dec. 31 rollover period and ending five days later.

Betty Otter-Nickerson, vice president of Operations for Product Management and Development and Y2K corporate officer for BMC Software, Inc., said BMC management teams from 79 locations from around the world have been briefed of the "contingency plan."

Otter-Nickerson said that BMC has set up its Y2K "war room" in Houston, and rom there, will be monitoring events as they happen around the world beginning with New Zealand at 6 a.m.

Otter-Nickerson has even leased satellite telephones and acquired back-up generators should communication lines be brought down.

She said customers can log onto BMC's website, www.bmc.com, for periodic updates to the phenomenom and Y2K's impact as it happens and also report any type of problem to the command centers, or call with any questions.

To make the event a bit easier on BMC's global staff, Otter-Nickerson has ensured employees receive a free dinner that night, party bags and even participate in regional raffles.

"We hope we're just going to be relaxing and watching football," said Betty Otter-Nickerson, vice president of operations for product management and development and a Y2K corporate officer at BMC Software, of Jan. 1.

Chris Crowell, vice president of engineering for Aprisma, said preparing for Y2K entailed more of an OS exercise rather than any changes in products at Aprisma.

He said the real key to network management smoothness during the Y2K weekend will be if customers upgraded their software as vendors have suggested over the last year.

"That's really where the biggest problem is," said Crowell. "If the customers themselves have not paid attention to it, then they might see themselves having some problems. All the vendors have been getting the products and upgrades there. Now the responsibility goes back to the customer."

Although networking hardware vendors say they aren't sweating the year-2000 date rollover, companies are preparing to help customers face unknown challenges that may arise.

For example, 3Com's year-2000 command center is housed in a building with a backup power supply from twin diesel generators parked outside. The command center will have extra staff during New Year's weekend.

According to Spokesperson. Brian D. Johnson, 3com is most concerned about supporting its small business and international customers, especially where the two areas overlap.

However, the fact that most data networking hardware is relatively new is a key advantage in the y2K rollover.

"Most [companies] tend to throw out the old switches and routers in 3 to 5 years," said Dave Passmore, research director at NetReference in Sterling, Va.

According to Chris Nicoll, Director of infrastructure analysis at Current Analysis, major problems with networking hardware are unlikely but issues could arise with remote access equipment, such as access routers.

But companies have been preparing for as long as five years in some cases and have either fixed or replaced any susceptible gear.

3Com's remote access products have been thoroughly checked and certified for compliance, according to Johnson.

But, as with all infrastructure equipment, networking hardware may be susceptible to year-2000 problems related to interoperability. Possible weak links, say analysts, could crop up with legacy PBX equipment, for example.

"You are somewhat at the mercy of carriers, even if your switches are given a clean bill of health," said Dave Passmore, research director at NetReference, in Sterling, Va.

At Lucent Technologies, each major business group deployed a Y2K program to scrutinize product lines for compliance. Likewise, Cisco Systems started a Y2K remediation program in January of 1997 to test and certify all products for readiness. All older Cisco products manufactured prior to 1995 can either be brought up to Y2K compliance with free patches downloadable from Cisco's Web site or can be turned in for a discount on other equipment, according to Cisco officials.

One advantage that nascent industries, such as application service providers (ASPs), have in dealing with year-2000 issues is that the companies were already aware of potential year-2000 problems as they began their businesses.

Analysts are thinking that most ASPs chose wisely.

"ASP service is only as good as the application they are offering," says Amy Mizoras, ASP analyst at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass. "But I would think they have been very smart in considering their partners considering many of them formed their businesses in 1998 and even more recently. They came to fruition during this whole Y2K awareness movement.In some cases, ASPs could have used their Y2K compliance as a selling point to customers, given how quickly the solutions can be implemented, said Mizoras."

Still, ASPs may get their share of phone calls Jan. 1 because of their role as the single point of contact for many customers. And due to the nature of outsourcing, one weak link in a complex chain of technology will result in interrupted service to the customer, and for that the ASP will have to answer.

"ASPs are made up of a number of different entities," said Amy Mizoras, ASP analyst at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass. "If one link fails, the ability to deliver the service will be hindered."

While Y2K preparations hampered spending on other IT projects, causing a slight decline in new purchases of enterprise-level servers and storage solutions, consumer confidence kept PC sales aloft at home and in Asia.

According to IDC, Y2K projects had the greatest negative impact on spending for server hardware and network upgrades, but only 7 percent of the companies in the IDC survey indicated they would cut IT spending after Y2K.

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