When programs for many mainframe computers were written decades ago, they recorded the year in all dates as a two-digit number, assuming it would be preceded by "19." That will cause problems for hundreds of thousands of computer programs after Dec. 31, 1999, says Jerry D. Smith, director of administrative computing operations at Purdue.
Nearly every university, government agency and major corporation will face this issue before the turn of the century. "This is a major and expensive problem," Smith says. "I know some other universities have already spent several hundred thousand dollars just to examine the extent of the problem. That does not even begin to pay for correcting the situation."
A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on government management, information and technology reported July 30 that fixing the computer systems of the federal government could cost at least $30 billion.
Research universities like Purdue could spend tens of millions of dollars if they decided to replace all their affected computer programs, says Bonnie J. Wharton, project manager in Purdue's Management Information office.
The issue affects all the business-related mainframe programs at Purdue, Smith says. "We were looking at a major overhaul or replacement of our COBOL-language programs because of this problem. Just in our operations, we were dealing with more than 100 subsystems, 13,000 programs and 7 million lines of code. We could not afford to purchase all new programming, and we had to find a cost-effective way to modify the programs we had."
About three years ago, several staff members were assigned that task. Smith says they developed a process that uses software to examine the COBOL programs, the most common language for business computer programs, and identify the sections of the computer code that need to be modified. A programmer then makes the changes to the code, but does not have to change any of the pre-existing data. Although the process was developed and tested on COBOL programs, the concepts could be adapted to other programming languages, Smith says.
"As we started analyzing and converting our systems, we realized that we were not the only ones facing this problem," Smith says. "We realized that we had something that could be distributed as a solution to other public and private organizations."
The process developed at Purdue is one of the first "year 2000" correction products to be distributed commercially, Smith says. The process is being marketed by a high-tech start-up company, Venture 2M Inc., of Jacksonville, Fla.
Wharton says that although about 100 firms are starting to market "year 2000" services, only a half dozen or so are providing solutions. "Most of the companies are just providing evaluation tools to identify the extent of the problem," she says. "Then the company has to decide how to fix the problem."
Jerry Brubaker, vice president for marketing at Venture 2M, says the company will focus on the ease of use for COBOL programmers. "The key advantage to the solution is that it does not require a programmer to change records, files, input, historical or archival data," Brubaker says. "A programmer does not even have to change data fields in the application. Programmers will spend a minimum of time identifying and correcting the problem areas within their subsystems. With this process, a company with 100 programs in a subsystem could make the conversion in about 150 hours."
The process already has fixed more than half of Purdue's administrative mainframe programs and has been offered to most of the other Big Ten universities. Indiana University has started using the process to convert its systems. Venture 2M is working out an agreement to sublicense the process to other resellers and also is installing the process in its customers' mainframes.
Sources: Jerry D. Smith, (765) 494-1291; e-mail: email@example.com
Jerry Brubaker, (904) 731-1622
Bonnie J. Wharton (765) 494-1877; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Writer: J. Michael Willis, (765) 494-0371; e-mail: email@example.com
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