July 6, 1997 in Nation/World

For Bugs In Spokane, Who Ya Gonna Call? Early Precautions Should Minimize Local Discomfort

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The Millennium Bug will take a bite out of some Spokane area businesses and government agencies, but the swelling should be relatively minor.

Most have applied “bug repellents.”

And for the consultants and other exterminators selling solutions to the problem, the bulging will occur in the wallet.

Jim Barry, for one, said debugging old software will account for as much as 30 percent of his business as midnight Dec. 31, 1999, approaches.

Activity will snowball, he said, as computer owners awaken to the chaos that could result when clocks imbedded in programs they have relied on for years suddenly hit the year 2000.

For many primitive computer programs, “00” could just as well mean 1900, and the confusion will begin.

One estimate on the cost of clearing up the year 2000 threat in Washington state runs to $1.4 billion. For Idaho, the figure is $271 million.

“You run into problems where people have written their own applications,” said Barry, president of Windstar Group.

He said the group’s 20 employees are working with users of mainframe computers, PCs and desktop computers to sniff out potential bugs.

The process can be labor-intensive and time-consuming, he said, noting that one client’s system could take more than 10 man-years to correct - if they ever get started.

Many businesses will discover that scrapping their existing systems - at a cost of perhaps $50,000 - will solve their problem more cheaply than a salvage operation, he said.

The hurdle with that alternative, Barry said, is transferring data from the old system to the new. “Some things just don’t translate very easily,” he said.

Barry will offer seminars later this year to familiarize businessmen with the challenges Year 2000 may pose.

“The longer you wait, the worse it’s going to get,” he said.

Olivetti North America alerted its customers earlier this year.

“It’s a huge issue in the banking industry,” said Olivetti spokesman Leni Selvaggio. He added that the advisory went to more than 300 institutions which have older versions of the company’s systems.

He said Olivetti can upgrade some older versions of its software, depending on its age and the hardware it was installed on.

Computers based on the 286-generation chips won’t accommodate current Olivetti programming, he said.

Officials at other software companies say they won’t have to break stride as they approach 2000.

Roy Franklin is vice president of Enhanced Software Products, which serves 70 credit unions from the Bahamas to Seattle.

He said the company, formerly the local office of Fiserv, laid out plans for bringing customer systems into compliance three years ago. Employees ran sample programs using 1999 dates, and again using 2000 dates, he said.

Only minor glitches were detected, and those should be resolved by the end of this year. “We’re way ahead of the curve,” Franklin said.

He said the computer software systems that may prove troublesome for their owners are “legacy” systems like dbase and FoxPro that no longer receive much support from their originators.

Jalan, which serves a much different client base, is also well-prepared for the millennium, said sales representative Dayle Yates.

The maker of software for prison and justice systems has been upgrading its different products for some time, and expects to finish the task early next year, she said.

“It’s going to be a real smooth transition,” Yates said, adding that the solutions are free to customers.

Users of ready-made software said most vendors have assured them their systems, if not already compliant with Year 2000, will be so in plenty of time.

For example, supervisors responsible for computer systems in the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane school districts said the changeover is largely completed.

“We’re getting updates all the time,” said Tom Hobson, director of administration information systems for Coeur d’Alene District 271.

He said timely upgrades were a precondition for contract renewals with district software vendors.

Dennis Schweikhardt, supervisor of the Instructional Technology Support Center for School District 81, said few if any programs for classroom use are date-sensitive.

Most administrative systems are ready for the next century, he said, a process that forced the district to weed out some computers incapable of handling the upgrades.

At the City of Spokane, Tom Tate, acting Director of Management Information Services, said about 25 systems handle everything from parking tickets to payroll.

Of those, he said, only the 1980s-vintage software responsible for utility billing needs substantial retuning.

About $100,000 could correct the problems, but the expenditure would be just a stop-gap for a system ancient by today’s standards, he said.

Tate said a better, but more expensive, long-term solution might be purchase of a system recently approved by the Spokane County commissioners that will enable the county to simply leapfrog the Year 2000 problem.

But the city may not be able to obtain and install a new system in time, he said.

Senior Airman Michael Dukes said the only glitch found so far at Fairchild Air Force Base afflicts the computer controlling the base sprinkler system.

None of the systems critical to the base’s mission is affected, he said, adding that the Air Force requires quarterly evaluations to assure nothing new crops up.

Washington State University and Washington Water Power Co. face more costly Year 2000 problems. Some of their systems run programming based on the now discarded COBOL language. Others are very customized.

WSU Director of Information Technology Ted Mueller estimated costs for system upgrades on the Pullman campus will exceed $1 million.

The expenditure is frustrating, he said, because the result will not increase computer functions. And the funds could have been spent on new hardware - if time allowed.

“You cannot finish late,” Mueller said. ‘Some nights we get pretty nervous.”

He blamed some of the anxiety on a shortage of COBOL programmers, who became scarce as the language fell from favor.

“We have COBOL programmers here who have more than doubled their salaries at other places,” Mueller said. “It’s sort of the last hurrah.”

He said about a dozen employees are working on the university’s four main systems at least part of the time. If, as scheduled, they finish the work by Jan. 1, 1999, officials will have a year to find any remaining bugs.

WWP also has a multitude of systems handling everything from customer service to elevators in the company’s East Mission headquarters.

Electronic Data Systems has responsibility for WWP financial systems, and does programming analysis on other software. The utility manages most other systems itself.

Bill Donner, supervisor for planning and technology at WWP, said a project leader has been selected to address Year 2000 issues.

Systems handling customer service and work management are already compliant, he said, but a major program for tracking materials management probably will be replaced.

Donner said EDS is sampling code in several programs to determine how much will have to be rewritten.

Worst-case estimate for complete readiness by 2000 is $4 million to $6 million, he said, but he expects total costs considerably less than that. Much of the cost is the testing itself, he said.

Donner said eight employees will work on the problem.

“It’s going to be a huge challenge for everybody,” he said.

, DataTimes MEMO: See related story under the headline: Bug bomb

See related story under the headline: Bug bomb


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