0001111000111100011110001111000111100011110001111000111100011110001111000111100011110001111000111100011110001111Penn officials try to avert computer catastrophe in the next century Students coming back to Penn from winter break next year may find the University to be a very different place from the one they left just a few weeks earlier. With 382 days until the January 1, 2000 -- and the dreaded date when many experts expect a decades-old computer glitch to cause a global computer meltdown -- administrators are trying to ensure that elevators will be running, payroll checks will keep coming and medical equipment will continue operating. The crux of the problem -- commonly referred to as "the Year 2000 bug" or "Y2K" -- is that many older computers recognize only two-digit codes for years, as they were programmed to back in the 1960s. So while "99" indicates the year 1999, when the clock strikes midnight next New Year's Eve, the transition to "00" would be read as the year 1900, not 2000. As a result of the technical snafu, supermarket computer systems could throw out fresh groceries, believing them to be 99-year-old relics; telephone companies could bill customers hundreds of thousands of dollars for century-long calls begun in one year and completed in the next; and date-sensitive computer equipment in transportation systems, utilities services and even microwaves could crash. Reliant as it is upon computer systems for everything from student records to payroll, the University is far from immune from these potentialities. But administrators are promising that the bug will affect Penn minimally and that officials will be able to both avoid problems and deal with those that do develop. "We'll continue to be vigilant about this," Executive Vice President John Fry said. "We will not rest at all until we're through with most of what we have to do. This doesn't end January 1, 2000." "Mission Critical" According to Associate Vice President for Information Systems and Computing Robin Beck, Penn's top Y2K official, the University first began addressing the Y2K concerns of its "mission critical" systems and structures -- those components whose proper function is essential to the operations of the University -- back in 1992. Beck said that the target date for complete Y2K readiness is December 31, 1998 -- in order to allow for a full year of testing before the big day hits. The total price tag for the project is expected to be between $3.5 million and $5 million, excluding the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Many of the University's Y2K-readiness projects were completed several years ago. The student records system was fixed in 1994 -- two years in advance of the Class of 2000's matriculation -- while payroll, purchasing and gift processing systems vital to the University's business end have also been updated. To handle the specific concerns of each school and office, "Y2K coordinators" have been appointed for each of the University's decentralized departments. "You'll find mission-critical components at every level of the University," Beck said. Remedying the upcoming Y2K bug has been relatively painless for the University, officials said. Rather than trying to repair the system, many computers have been replaced -- especially those that were slated for retirement anyway. Additionally, few programs Penn uses are based on COBOL -- the ancient programming language responsible for many Y2K errors -- while new versions of the Unix operating system that run most University computer systems were made Y2K-complaint this year. With remediation of faulty programs nearly complete, most of calendar year 1999 will be spent testing the new systems and how they interact with one another. "You keep on putting all of the pieces together until the entire system is Y2K-compliant," Beck said. Ready or Not While University officials are confident that every precaution will be taken by the time 2000 rolls around, they admit that no one can really be sure of what consequences will come to pass. "We're expecting to be fully compliant by the end of this month, but we're not 100 percent sure," said Juan Suarez, the Y2K coordinator for Facilities Services. Part of the problem is that as ready as University officials expect their own internal systems to be, they are reliant on the readiness of external groups -- such as banks, utilities providers, telephone service providers and the city, state and federal governments. To that end, the University and local companies and educational institutions have been in close contact when planning their Y2K efforts. "That type of outreach is key to the project as a whole," said PECO Energy spokesperson Michael Wood, whose company is spending upwards of $75 million to assess 250,000 systems and fix more than a thousand problem areas by next summer. "The big challenge is contingency planning, and that's looking at every conceivable 'what if' and coming up with a plan." Like the University, most of the larger businesses Penn deals with have long-standing plans for dealing with the Y2K problem and say they are well on the way to being compliant. Many smaller businesses, on the other hand, will likely face tough challenges with their systems as January 1, 2000, approaches. While so-called "Y2K survivalists" across the country have made headlines by stockpiling food and water in remote areas, the Health System -- which will spend upwards of $3 million correcting Y2K problems -- is taking a more low-key approach to planning for the worst. According to Russell Opland, an analyst in the UPHS' Y2K planning office, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania will have two to four weeks' worth of fuel to power emergency generators should PECO fail. But University officials are cautiously optimistic that the worst can be averted. "This is a large, complex project for everyone involved," Beck said. "There's still a lot of unknowns, [but] I feel Penn will be ready for whatever surprises come along." Daily Pennsylvanian staff writers Naomi Blivaiss, Alexandra Minkovich and Eric Tucker contributed to this articleComments powered by Disqus
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