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Last Update: November 24, 1999.

An Introduction to the Technical Side of the Y2K problem.

Topics covered in this page -

Introduction to the Y2K Problem

We live in a world where computerized information systems manage, help and control much of our society, our resources, even our lives. This ranges from the alarm clock that wakes us up in the morning, the home thermostat, the cellular telephones, the television and VCR, automobile, hotel door locks, and children's toys. In other words, we trust them to handle a lot of tasks, and even though we may not say it out loud, we expect those services to be performed continually and reliably on an ongoing basis without supervision.

But with the coming of a new century, we are realizing that there may be a few failure modes in these faithful servants. specifically, we see that some of the computer programming that went into so many of these devices may not have always handled the end of the century calculation very well where January 1, 2000 is treated as January 1, 1900. This is the simple "Y2K Problem."

Now that we recognize that there are human elements in the computer programs that can cause one problem, we also see that there are several other dates where various electronic information systems may have been programmed poorly. Many of these "trip dates" must be considered when evaluating whether the system is truly "Y2K Compliant."

There are several aspects of the Y2K problem that must be considered. The "simple" technical one is that all electronic information systems must be reviewed and, if needed, upgraded to correctly handle the end of the century situation and related dates to ensure continuity of services.

But there is also the social aspect - we have become so comfortable with these silent servants that many of us don't really know what to do if the servants take a vacation. This is called the social Y2K problem.

In other words, everyone providing a service that uses any kind of electronic information system must make a thorough review of whether they have support adequate to support their mission over not just the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, but all trip dates throughout the period.

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The Technical Side of the Y2K Problem

The technical side of Y2k problem is that many computers were programmed to store dates with only two digits to represent the year. For example, 1987 was stored as "87." The original reason for this strategy was to save space since memory was a very expensive part of computer systems back then.

That strategy worked well as long as the year never got past 1999. But past that point, the program would begin assuming that "00" is the year 1900. And the user is stuck with a system that doesn't work.

The larger problem is that this same basic "we need to save memory" attitude has been used in a lot computer system programming. And this gets us back to the trip dates that we must be aware of and check out in detail.

For a detailed example, see the list of critical or "trip" dates where an information system must be checked to ensure its accuracy.

In other words, be on the lookout for erroneous results around any and all of these dates.

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Computer Operating Systems Discussion

The first area to look at in a computer is the BIOS (Basic Input-Output System). It is sometimes called the ROM BIOS because it is stored in a Read-Only Memory (ROM) chip on the motherboard. This is software that starts up the computer and eventually installs the rest of the operating system. Most BIOS's made before 1995 did not have support for the year 2000; These systems must be checked!

Two major manufacturers of BIOS modules are Award and AMI.

An Award BIOS is supposed to be 100% year 2000 compliant to year 2079 if it has a date code of 31 May 1995 or after. (for more information see AWARD's website at: )

An AMI BIOS is supposed to be 100% year 2000 compliant to year 2099 if it has a date code of 15 July 1995 or after. (for more information see AMI's website at: )

Any BIOS that is dated before these datecodes is not guaranteed to be compliant.

A "BIOS-extender" program is available for some systems which handles the dates past the year 1999. Also, plugin cards are available for some computers to upgrade them to support Y2K calculations. See the BIOS explanation page for much more detail when it becomes available.

Once the BIOS issue has been settled, there are many different common computer operating systems, each if which is set up differently. These systems must be considered individually when evaluating Y2K impacts. The following pages will have specific information about the operating system that supports your applications -

Now that you have ensured that the operating system is Y2K compliant, each and every application program must be examined to make sure it supports the extended dates. This means all database programs, spreadsheets, and in general, every program that deals with or calculates a date.

Another small, but important consideration, is to remember that all this electronic equipment gets its power from the AC power system. With predictions of possible power grid disruptions, there can be more power line transients (short duration high voltage spikes) than usual; review and make sure that all equipment is protected by a surge suppressor and that the surge suppressor that was purchased within the last five years.

For more specific management-oriented planning details, see Preparation Considerations for Non-Profit groups for details on how to review your organization.

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[1] "9999" or "99" sometimes denotes "end of input" in some computer programs. It is also a value that many data operations staff have traditionally used to indicate when data or a file may eventually be discarded and overwritten.

[2] The Julian date is a system of consecutive numbers used internally in many computer programs to calculate dates. See Julian and Gregorian Day Numbers for a very technical explanation of these numbering systems.

For a very general background, see "A Brief History of Our Calendar" for a short summary of the development of our calendar over the years.

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Revised '27-Jun-2002,10:20:22'
URL of this page:'Y2KBINTT.HTM' ; Version '78'.
BCN/Y2K Center Coordinator: E. Stiltner