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All systems were tested, and contingency plans are in place for Jan. 1. For many members of the Penn community, this New Year's Eve is a time to break out the champagne and put on their dancing shoes. But for some Penn administrators, it is a time to cross their fingers and hope that life at the University continues without any technical snags. Electronic systems at Penn and across the world will soon come face to face with the Year 2000 bug, commonly referred to as "Y2K," -- a confrontation that some experts say will wreak havoc on any system with an electronic data chip in it. The crux of the Y2K problem is that many older computers have embedded technology that recognizes only two-digit codes for years, as they were programmed back in the 1960s. So while "99" indicates the year 1999, this year's transition to "00" would be read as the year 1900, not 2000. "If it's got a chip in it, it might have a date function," Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing James O'Donnell said. "And if it's got a date function, that could impact the way the system operates." But while many of Penn's major systems -- including payroll, student records, Penn InTouch and student financial systems -- are susceptible to the Y2K bug, officials expect to be able to both avoid most problems and deal with those that develop. For nearly a decade, a University-wide team of computer specialists and administrators have been working diligently -- spending close to $5 million on the University and $18 million on the Health System -- to ensure that when the clock strikes midnight on January 1, the University's computing systems continue operating properly. "We're as confident as it's really possible to be at this point," O'Donnell said. Officials began addressing the Y2K concerns of its major systems as early as 1992, fixing the student records system by 1994, two years before the Class of 2000's matriculation. But much of Penn's Y2K preparation has taken place during the past two years, as older computer systems have either been replaced or upgraded to make them "Y2K compliant." "We are bending over backwards to be careful," said Michael Kearney one of ISC's top Y2K coordinators, adding that "testing has been a major part" of the project. Since December 1998, officials have been testing the University's computers by making copies of its information systems and running them experimentally in a year 2000 setting to make sure they will work when the actual day comes, Kearney said. In addition to protecting various electronic records, another major University concern is making sure heating and lighting systems are not disrupted in the new millenium. According to Juan Suarez, Penn's Y2K facilities coordinator, the systems governing Penn's lighting and heating systems have all been fixed. "We inventoried and validated and tested every piece of equipment that has embedded or electronic components," Suarez said. But even though the University's own systems might be ready for Y2K, they depend on outside public utility companies to supply basic services like heat, electricity, water and telephone lines. O'Donnell said Penn officials have been working with area utility providers -- including PECO Energy -- to ensure that the services they provide Penn will not be impacted come midnight January 1. And just in case, back-up generators, emergency lighting and heating systems and an extra staff of computing officials will all be in place for the New Year's weekend. The testing phase is now complete for most major systems, the bugs worked out, and the University prepared to take the new year head on. According to Kearney, the problems most likely to occur at Penn will be "small, annoying things" like "dates being printed wrong on reports." But while major system failure is highly unlikely, administrators are not taking any chances. In addition to upgrading and testing systems, they have been creating contingency plans in case there are any major problems in the year 2000. O'Donnell likened the contingency planning aspect of the Y2K problems to preparing for "the worst winter storm you've ever had." Housing services has asked all students staying in University residences over New Year's weekend to register with their house deans and take precautionary steps like keeping extra flashlights and blankets on hand for the weekend. In addition, the University's core information systems will all be backed up and shut down at noon on December 31 to minimize any risk of system failure as the clock strikes midnight. "We want to make sure that the systems aren't actually operating at midnight," Kearney said. The systems will then be brought up "in a controlled and managed way" on January 1 and 2. But despite the threat of a Y2K disaster, the University will resume regular operations on January 3.

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