Who will be on guard at the Y2K front line?

No sooner had I committed last week's column to paper, or rather to electrons, than I received an email from Ross Stewart at Y2K specialists Wilson White about the same topic - September 9 troubles.

No sooner had I committed last week’s column to paper, or rather to electrons, than I received an email from Ross Stewart at Y2K specialists Wilson White about the same topic — September 9 troubles. Ross is always quick to let you know if he disagrees with your point of view, but as my column hadn’t even been published when I got his comments, I was doubly impressed. Ross says he doesn’t think September 9 will be the problem date I think it will. "In over 30 years in IT, I have never encountered anyone who coded 9999 as an [end-of-field] marker or similar. We always used all nines or 999999 or fairly commonly 991231, but never just four digits of nine’s." A good point and I guess we’ll see what happens in the very near future. Speaking of which, I’m going to need your help. I, like so many of you out there, will be working on December 31. I’ll be installed somewhere with a laptop, a cellphone or two and a flask of coffee waiting for the lights to go out. What I need from your company is the name and details for the contact person who will be on duty on the night itself. I’ll be calling around to see how everyone’s going, so it would be good to build up a list of contact people well in advance. Anyway, as we’ve discovered, there are plenty of things to talk about that should be going on apart from Y2K. Thin client, or network computing, or server-based computing is one that seems to be gathering momentum quietly in the background. Is it just me or are there two types of technology? There’s the latest and greatest, hot and sexy, gotta-have stuff that everyone reads about in the mainstream media like Web sites or ERP and then there’s the stuff that people just use, that ticks away in the background and isn’t fancy and doesn’t get on television. Thin client seems to have moved from the buzzword of last year into being one of those serious technologies that just gets on with things. For the uninitiated, server-based computing has been championed by Citrix Systems, first with its WinFrame product for Microsoft and then with its MetaFrame product, which allows users on different platforms to be part of the same system. It looks like a throwback to the days of mainframe computing, only this time it has a Windows GUI front end. I can see why people think that, but it goes beyond trying to recreate the old-world standard. Thin client moves all the processing, and I do mean all, to the server. At the user’s end of things there’s a keyboard, mouse and screen. The only thing travelling backward and forward between user and server are the keystrokes, mouse clicks and the screen refreshes — no data to download, no spinning hourglass to make you grip that mouse just a little too tightly, nothing. Everything is done at the server, which means if you want to roll out a new application, you do it once. If you want to enforce a policy of not importing files into the system, you can. If you want to set a corporate screen saver, lock down a user’s application list, store data centrally and avoid the Wintel upgrade cycle, you can. Last year I spoke with the CIO of FedEx, who told me how he’d managed to avoid buying three rounds of PCs for his tens of thousands of users. Instead of buying Pentium-90s, then upgrading to MMX 166s three years later, followed by Pentium II 300s a couple of years after that, he’d kept the same hardware on the desktop and upgraded his server farm to keep up with demand, saving millions of dollars. There are some issues with thin client — heavy graphics use is a problem and I do think bandwidth needs to be handled well — but in general you can tell how much of a cost saving there is to be made by the types of people who are using it. You’ll find thin-client systems in schools around the country, medical facilities like Southern Cross, Lakeland Health and Taranaki Health and, still holding its own according to Citrix, Countrywide Bank — now part of National Bank’s chain. When National Bank parent company Lloyds TSB Group bought Countrywide, I was told all IT would be switched over to the National Bank standard and the Citrix thin-client set-up would be removed. Apparently that hasn’t happened. Maybe National Bank has seen the light. Paul Brislen is Computerworld’s Y2K  reporter. He can be reached at paul_brislen@idg.co.nz, or phone: 0-9-377 902.

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