When the specter of the Millennium Bug-also called the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem-began to rear its ugly head, many corporations spent big money trying to make their computers Y2K-compliant. Other companies decided to take the "let's-wait-and-see" tack.

In the long run, this slower course may prove the better one for many contractors and facilities. Some earlier solutions were off the mark, but new solutions have since been charted. So, with only 12 months to go, now's the time to take action.

If you haven't done anything about Y2K yet, you are not alone; 40% of American firms are also dragging their feet. Many companies, large and small, have been slow to address Y2K compliance until real problems are identified, and real solutions are offered.

Electrical utilities realized only last year that programmable controllers, which have replaced virtually all mechanical relays in control rooms, may malfunction or even freeze up when 2000 arrives. This year, utilities realized the problem wasn't so bad after all because the majority of power-delivery equipment is still electromechanical, not electronic. (See boxed copy on page 24.)

But what about electrical contracting firms depending on PCs, mini-computers, and mainframes for billing, estimating, and accounting? If the sole result of the Y2K problem was a computer crashing and dying, that would be regrettable-but not irreparable. Unfortunately, some computer systems might appear to run fine while they are producing incorrect information.

Roots of the problem

The Y2K problem stems from computer programmers' efforts to save memory. In the 1970s programmers represented years with the last two digits (rather than all four) to conserve memory, which was very expensive then. Programmers developed a format of MMDDYY, as in 12/14/98. This six-digit date format eventually became a computer industry standard that was never changed, even as new software was developed and cheaper, faster systems were built. Unfortunately, these programs interpret the year 2000 as 1900. Any program with a date-billing, payroll, inventory, bank accounts-could crash or give meaningless answers on January 1, 2000, or before.

"There's no question that things will fail," said Judith List, who runs the Year 2000 effort for Bellcore, which develops communications software. "Bellcore recommends you focus on the mission-critical systems first." In theory, any single instance of the Year 2000 bug is relatively easy to repair. But the number of computer programs that use dates make fixing the programs-a process known as "remediation"-a Herculean task.

The Y2K domino effect

The Y2K problem is larger than most people think. It's not just mainframe software that's affected; hardware also suffers from Y2K consequences. After all, a chip device-a microprocessor-is just solidified software, and these devices are built into many everyday items-from automated assembly lines to cellular telephones. Embedded systems for monitoring and control are used in places as diverse as automated manufacturing, building operations centers, and burglar alarms.

Some electronic devices in plants and buildings monitor periodic maintenance. When the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve 1999, these devices might think it's been 99 years since their last maintenance, calculate that's too long for safe motor operation, and shut down.

"Our biggest concern is that we miss an integrated circuit buried down inside somewhere that could have a cascade effect," says a process control manager at Phillips Petroleum Co.

Bad fixes are another big concern with Y2K remediation. That's why it's important to have full confidence in anyone outside your organization who is going to get under the hood of your computer systems. Think about your receivables and payables or the history you use to forecast your business being all messed up. The system won't understand the dates in that history file and could possibly purge the data. So, you could be losing data and not know it's happening.

This is one bug whose effects may only be known when it bites. But, for now, companies need to try to kill the bug before it bites. This means identifying problems and coming up with solutions.

The prime source for information about equipment is from the manufacturer, or the vendor who sold or leased it. The people hardest hit will be those with custom software from companies no longer in business. The manufacturer and/or vendor should have options mapped out for coping with the situation.

It's also helpful to visit some of the many Web sites set up specifically to address the Y2K problem. Some of them, such as www.RightTime.com, have useful tests or other tools to use. These sites are quite helpful, but use some caution because many of these tests simulate what will actually occur when your PC clock reaches the year 2000. You could lose data, corrupt data, or cause time-sensitive applications to permanently shut down. Be sure you close any such programs first, and make a full system backup before you run any tests or use any tool you download from the Internet.

These tests will help many firms determine if they have a problem with the year 2000. However, for an electrical distributor, checking software and making fixes is an impossible solution, says David Weinstein, operations vice president for Kennedy Electric Supply Corp., Jamaica, N.Y.

"The reason it's impossible is that in programming, 40% of your time is in writing the software, and 60% of your time is in debugging what you just did," he says. "To assume that you can de-bug it, you need an equivalent amount of computer processing power to debug what you just wrote. That means if your computer, like most of ours, is running at 70% to 80% of capacity, you would need another computer altogether just to test what you just did."

Weinstein, who used to work as programmer, made up a survey categorizing all areas of Kennedy Electric Supply with exposure to year-2000 risk. He sent the survey to all the company's vendors, service providers, and contracting customers-anyone who interfaces with the firm in the course of a business day.

"I don't want to come in on (the first work day, year 2000) and find that my phone isn't working, that my WorldCom long-distance provider isn't working," said Weinstein. "What I want to know from my vendor is are you going to be there, and if you're not, I need to know that so I can anticipate it and make alternative arrangements with people who will be there. I don't want to find my electrical construction materials sitting in Oklahoma while my customers wait for them."

Compliance is a two-way street for most companies. One of Kennedy Electric Supply's customers sent the distributor a letter asking the company to fill out a form guaranteeing anything they sold would be Y2K compliant.

A start-up company in Pittsburgh, Pa., Infoliant Corp., is selling its Year 2000 Network Advisor service to firms that don't have the time to go through hundreds of vendor Web sites to hunt for Y2K information. Infoliant has pulled together publicly available Year 2000-compliance information for 15,000 products-from PCs and applications to servers, routers and switches-into a single Lotus Notes database. A customer accesses the compliance reports over the Internet using a Web browser. The reports include recommendations from applying simple software patches to replacing older network gear vendors no longer support. Customers appreciate the easy-to-manipulate user interface because conserving time (and money) is a key goal. It is very possible for some of the suppliers' updated information to be missed by people making their own Web search, but Infoliant personnel do continuous and careful screening. Network Advisor costs $2795 for up to 200 Web inquiries, and $4959 for up to thousand inquiries.

Web-site solutions

There are many Web sites with useful advice on dealing with Year-2000 problems.

www.ibm.com/ibm/year2000-This IBM site provides general information on Year 2000 and its position on product readiness, and steps to take to prepare.

www.netscapeworld.com/netscapeworld/nw-12-1996/nw-12-year2000.html-Provides a set of tests for Webmasters and Web developers to tell for certain if they will be celebrating or working on December 31, 1999.

www.aiag.org-The Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) is a not-for-profit trade association of North American vehicle manufacturers and suppliers. Site provides assistance in planning test activities for systems, equipment, products and services.

www.y2ktool.com-Presented by Virtual Dynamics Corp., this site enables you to subscribe to Y2K Tool, which the site touts as a Y2K strategic resource, a Millennium Bug mastery tool, and a Y2K survival kit. Definitely worth checking out just for the links to other Y2K sites.

www.sba.gov/y2k -Year 2000 help for small business firms from the Small Business Administration.

www.lycos.com/wguide/wire/wire_582652_45559_2_0.html-The Lycos site for links to Year-2000 Web sites.

www.mbs-program.com-A good place to find Y2K vendors, articles and other resources to help you handle the Millemmium Bug.

* www.RightTime.com-A resource to fix PC BIOS problem