The Y2k Debate: Marketing Ploy or Armageddon?

There has been much said about the Y2k problem in recent years, I am working on the problem myself as a lot of good IT people are. The opinions range from 'You can't have enough bibles and ammo' to 'Its all a conspiracy to sell more computer equipment and services.' Being in the IT industry (I am a QA and change control specialist) I can tell you now that the truth lies within the middle ground of these two opinions. What is missing in this debate is fact. Most of the rumours and opinions floating around are there because finding out exactly what is going to happen is extremely difficult in the world today. With that in mind, I thought I would share what I know of this problem with the world in an attempt to help people cut through the confusion.

In an attempt to produce a balanced critique, I will split my comments about the Y2k phenomenon into two parts, being the risks and the strengths of our ability to cope with this problem. I will also include some links where relevant so that interested people can find information relevant to the discussion. Before we get into this, perhaps we should spend some time on exactly what everyone is concerned about.

Scope of Y2k

We have all heard the usual blurb of boiler plate that 'Long ago storage space was scarce and programmers came up with a really neat way of saving space while storing dates...' I am not going to rehash that, What I want to cover is the impact of this simple problem. It doesn't just affect computers, it touches on anything that has in integrated circuit in it, from flow control systems at water companies to your home VCR. It doesn't just cover the date 1 Jan 2000, but rather the term Y2k has now been used to cover the broader issue of critical dates in existing systems, not the least of which is the GPS Week rollover, due to happen around 22 Aug 1999.

Even for systems that are directly impacted by 1 Jan 2000, their fail date vary widely. Most programs that deal with financial records will encounter Y2k at the beginning of the 1999/2000 financial year, which varies around the world. Here in Australia it is 1 July to 30 June, meaning that some applications may stop working six months before the dreaded date. Airline booking systems use a 330 day look ahead system, so they have met the problem already. On 1 Jan 1999 there were isolated failures around the world of systems that had a one year look ahead. Is it an omen? No, but it does highlight what could happen if we are not prepared.

I hear the critics calling out "...but our systems don't work properly now! Why is this different?" Well, it isn't except for two factors. The first is that for the first time in history the effect of this bug will be ubiquitous. It will impact all countries in the world within a 24hr period and everything we use that has a computer chip in it is at risk. Maybe not a large risk, but a risk nonetheless.

The second factor is that no-one really knows for sure what will happen. When preparing for a storm, most people know how bad the storm is going to be. They have been through storms before and know what and how to prepare. This time it's best guess for all of us, including me. What makes us edgy as a species that has always been fascinated with knowing what lies ahead. I would burst in with a discussion on why we are fascinated with horoscopes, clairvoyance, etc. but that is another discussion. One of the reasons that we do not know is that we are relying on everyone else fixing their own backyard. In some cases that simply won't happen.

I read an article the other day that said we have the perfect environment for doom sayers of Y2k at the moment. If the world falls apart, they can say 'I told you so." If it doesn't, they can say 'It's a good thing you listened to me.' I think that is a little pessimistic, we don't hear the meteorologists on the news saying 'A young couple didn't listen to us in North Queensland and that cyclone killed them because they weren't ready'. The IT people discussing this problem right now should be viewed in the same context. This is not doom saying, it is information. Anyone who does not wish to listen to my opinion has the right to ignore it.

So, from here let us look at the facts in some measure of objectivity. I have included both sides of my argument as links, so that the reader may determine the order in which they are read. After reading them I have a conclusions page which shall sum up the information for you and show where I stand.

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