With forethought and plain old good timing, Syracuse University is ready
to rumble with the millennium bug
two letters and a number that have certainly caught the world's attention. Reactions to the impending year 2000 computer bug range from steadfast faith that all problems will be fixed, to dire predictions that, come January 1, society as we know it will end in the ultimate computer crash.
The truth lies somewhere in between, says Ben Ware, Syracuse University's vice president for research and computing. The federal government claims it's prepared, and no critical industry is expected to fail, at least in the United States, he says. "I see it as a spread-out nuisance. It's not a catastrophe that's going to happen in one day and bring us to our knees. We've already seen Y2K problems in systems that do time-based calculations into the future, and we'll continue to see problems for a couple of years."
At SU, however, a combination of foresight and fortuity has minimized potential problems. Planning began in 1993, when the University took a hard look at modernizing its computing infrastructure. "The Y2K problem was, of course, a big issue," Ware says, "because we knew we had about 2 million lines of code (instructions that make a computer run) on our mainframe that were not Y2K compliant. At that point we had to decide what kinds of investments we would make to address that problem." After extensive consultation with computer experts, other universities, Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw and his cabinet, and SU deans, Ware's office settled on replacing most of the mainframe systems with modern client-server systems. Mainframes are large computers with enough processing power to handle hundreds of users simultaneously; client-server networks feature desktop PCs-the clients-doing most of the processing themselves, accessing servers for files and other resources. The latter technology allows faster, more versatile access to information. And the new programs are Y2K compliant.
The Y2K quandary lies within most computer systems' inability to correctly interpret the year 2000. In the days when computers relied on punch cards rather than hard disks for data storage, programmers saved valuable space by truncating years to their last two digits. The practice continued in the seventies and eighties, when disk space was at a premium, and even into the nineties, when data storage was cheap and plentiful. This method works fine, of course, until the digits turn over to 00, which the computer interprets as the year 1900. The cascading effects of failed date-related operations cause anything from such minor annoyances as files that won't open to complete system shutdowns. Only in recent years have computer systems and software become Y2K compliant. Even Macintosh systems, which have always used four-digit years, may not escape the bug in a number of compatible programs.
"Although the Y2K problem is a serious threat worldwide, we saw it as an opportunity," Ware says. "The old model of writing your own software on a mainframe is not a good one. These programs get bigger and bigger every year. And after 20 or 30 years, the systems become outmoded, there's no good documentation on them, and their flexibility deteriorates. Eventually they just break and you have to replace them." These days, no one writes new systems in mainframe computer languages, he says. "If you're going to replace mainframe code, you pretty much have to use client-server code."
Ware says it would have been too costly to make the existing mainframe code Y2K compliant, and would not have added any new functions. Apart from added features, he says, the new client-server systems are regularly updated by the companies that create them. "Upgrades are designed to keep up with modern operating systems and hardware, so this obsolescence problem doesn't take place," he says.
Three of the University's most important systems have been replaced. "The first was the development system," Ware says. "Now our development staff has much better access to alumni and donor information; they can track things better, and input is much easier. It's a clear improvement over the previous system, which we wrote ourselves." The second new system made listings of all the SU library's holdings available on the World Wide Web, Ware says, "so now you can access our catalog from anywhere in the world." Finally, a new student records system put in place last spring allowed for the University's first web- based student registration. "The technology's still pretty new and there are always glitches," Ware says. "But we did more registrations in a given day than we could have under the old model. And it was much easier for students."
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