Users struggle to get year 2000 software updates

Like other organisations with lots of legacy code, the city of Philadelphia is auditing its software systems to determine what it will take to make them read year 2000 dates.

In the meantime, the city is spelling out in all new contracts that third-party vendors must offer systems that don't confuse the year 2000 with the year 1900, says chiefinformation officer John Carrow.

The trouble is, it might be too little too late for the City of Brotherly Love.

Most software licences don't obligate software vendors to deliver year 2000 upgrades. And that's a big problem.

Some users can breathe easier now that industry heavyweights IBM, Computer Associates and Dun & Bradstreet Software have agreed to make their software compliant. But those at greatest risk are users with software from mom-and-pop shops that may lack the financial wherewithal to meet the millennium deadline.

"There's an impending feeling of doom here" about the ability of smaller vendors to meet the deadline, says Janis Sears, vice-president of IS at Canada Life Assurance in Toronto.

"Why should vendors be any different than us [user companies] in failing to appreciate the enormity of this problem and reacting to it late?" she says.

Users are taking a variety of approaches.

The Chase Manhattan Bank, which uses 350 third-party applications, is having its legal department add year 2000 compliance language to all new software licences. But there isn't much the New York-based bank has been able to do about existing licences. "Right now, we haven't had much success" with vendors on existing contracts, but every vendor has to be compliant it's just a matter of when," says Joan Payne, vice-president of technology, software and planning at Chase.

Roberts Express in Akron, Ohio, has a 1980-ish, minicomputer-based financial system "riddled with year 2000 problems," according to IS director Joe Greulich.

But Greulich says he never considered negotiating with the software vendor. "Our answer is to buy a new version or buy a new financial package," he says. Roberts' IS staff already has rewritten programs that handle core business functions, such as package delivery tracking, he says.

Some companies are looking to industry user groups for answers. For example, Canada Life Assurance has talked to other members of the Life Office Management Association about drafting a letter to major software vendors requesting compliance.

Canada Life is outlining a contingency strategy in the event some of its vendors never reach year 2000 compliance. The insurer is considering discarding some software or migrating to a distributed client/server architecture, Sears says. "I don't want to find out in 1999 that a vendor isn't going to be compliant," she says.

Users need to be aware of another potential problem.

Over the next three to four years, 20% of the industry's independent software vendors will go out of business, according to Kevin Schick, research director of applications development technology at Gartner Group in Stamford, Connecticut.

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