Y2K Investigated: Y2K explained in plain English

Originally published in the Fullerton College Hornet, Vol. 78, Issue 15; 17 Feb 1999

Exactly 317 days are left in the millennium. This could spell disaster for anything computer controlled that is not prepared for the turn of the millennium.

What is the Year 2000, or Y2K, problem and how did it come about?

It all started in the late ’50s, when computers took a snail’s pace even for simple algebra. A computer programming language called COBOL was developed and became highly successful.

To conserve the computer’s processing time and make calculations easier for the machine, only two digits were used to represent the year.

Programs based on COBOL were later written. Over the ensuing decades, computers became faster and more powerful, but the fact that COBOL only used a total of six digits in date calculations wasn’t addressed until 1989, when it was realized the impact that such a date calculation system could have.

Over the course of the last ten years, an unbelievable amount of money has been spent by governments and industry worldwide in an attempt to beat the clock in correcting the problem.

With only two digits representing the year, when Jan. 1, 2000, finally arrives, the computer, unless instructed otherwise by a “patch” program that gives new instructions for dates, will believe the year to be 1900 rather than 2000.

Because of this simple mistake, everything run by computers is at risk of data corruption.

Already, the effects of Y2K have begun to appear. Credit cards with expiration dates in 2000 have crashed computer systems not yet compliant.

Nuclear power plants, if not compliant by the end of the year, will have to be shut down to avoid core meltdowns due to errors in the timing mechanisms.

Like any other great problem, it looks simple at first glance but is a Pandora’s box when the attempt is made to identify all possible effects.

To deal with Y2K appropriately, assessment of the computer systems is an important first step. It’s nearly impossible to fix the problem when uncertain what needs to be done.

Next, learn everything possible about Y2K. Where did it come from? What can it do? What will happen if the problem remains unchecked?

The unsettling fact is, even the experts don’t agree what needs to be done.

Virtually everything today is computer-controlled and each system must be checked.

The effects of Y2K are uncertain. It could pass by with little more than a hiccup, or every computer system on the planet could come crashing to the ground.

Form a plan for what needs to be accomplished.

Set goals for Y2K readiness and stick to them. Then repair, replace or upgrade hardware and software that isn’t compliant.

Many companies have information about exchanging products on their web sites.

Keep up-to-date on the latest Y2K issues. New problems and solutions are being discovered all the time.

Now, test the computers to make sure the clocks will roll over from 1999 to 2000 without problem.

The system clock itself isn’t the only Y2K concern on a computer system. Many databases rely on dates in their calculations. Be certain they have been corrected as well.

Be sure to have a backup plan, just in case efforts to ready for Y2K fall short. In the event the deadline isn’t met, it’s important to have something to fall back on.

In the face of the rapidly approaching new year, hope for the best, however, plan for the worst. Remember, paper is Y2K compliant.

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