Net on collision course with Y2K

The two largest issues in IT today, Y2K and the Internet, are on a collision course that could cause major headaches for surfers and e-business users alike. Among the issues are concerns about Unix DNS software, Bind, older versions of which may fail - triggering significant downstream effects.

The two largest issues in IT today, Y2K and the Internet, are on a collision course that could cause major headaches for surfers and e-business users alike.

“There are [Y2K] issues for the Internet and if people fail to address them there will be problems,” says University of Auckland’s Y2K project co-ordinator, John Holley.

In particular, Holley quotes the example of Internet domain name system servers. The DNS is the way Web site domain names are located and translated into Internet protocol addresses.

Each update of a Web site's domain information is given a higher serial number than older versions, allowing users to be directed to the site by Internet name servers. The problem arises when the sequence is broken and the next serial number is of a lesser value than the previous version, as it could be on January 1, 2000 (00 after 99).

“There have been issues raised recently about the Unix version of DNS called Bind,” says Holley. “Older versions of Bind may fail. That’s where the risk is coming from.”

Holley says this isn’t just an abstract problem but has already happened.

“We’ve had problems where someone high up the tree in the US has loaded incorrect data into one of the root servers. That basically brings the Internet to a halt. You can’t find pages to download. You can’t go anywhere.”

Holley says servers that don’t recognise the new numbers will cause problems that could cascade throughout the Internet, although it might take a couple of days before it becomes apparent in New Zealand.

“Because the Internet is a huge co-operative beast, if people have their DNS servers incorrectly set up, you have the potential for havoc.”

The issue isn’t so much DNS or Bind itself as the way the protocol is implemented.

“It’s effectively a fragile, cooperative effort. No one drives the standard for how this stuff should work.”

Holley says the biggest problem with DNS is also its greatest strength — DNS works on trust. “We trust other sites to be correct on their bits and pieces.”

Holley says the whole issue can be a problem for companies eager to launch e-commerce applications. “Companies want to get on the Web fast and hit the ground running. This is a problem for them and it slows them down.”

Holley is quick to stress that this problem is solvable and it’s more a matter of awareness than panic.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is looking at Y2K. Local providers are also working hard on the issue of Y2K. Both Telecom and Clear are working through the issues in a systematic manner and their ISPs are high on the list for compliance.

“It just isn’t in our best interests to fail at this,” says Clear communication manager Ross Inglis. Telecom spokesman Glen Sowry agrees, pointing out just how difficult it is to determine compliance in such a connected environment.

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