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Silicon Crisis? How Info Tech Poses Risk for Electric Restructuring

Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 1998

wings. At about the same time that legislators, regulators, electric power industry executives, and critical technical personnel were having their attention riveted to the issue of deregulation and restructuring, regulators and executives in other industries were beginning to recognize the scope of another massive computer project - the correction or mitigation of the so-called Year-2000 Computer Problem.

As has been widely reported, this problem relates to the use in many older computer systems of two-digit dates. Some computer software will treat dates ending in "00" as occurring 99 years before dates ending in "99" rather than in the next year. Also, the built-in, read-only-memory software in many older PCs and PC-based computers embedded in power system equipment has been programmed to treat a clock/calendar date ending in "00" as erroneous and to change it to a date in January 1980. There are several other components of the Year 2000 computer problem. For example, 2000 is a leap year, under an arcane part of the rules for deciding leap years. Not all computer systems have been programmed to include Feb. 29, 2000 in their calendars.

Year 2000 exposure can occur in a variety of ways, and it is not necessary for the basic function of the computer to involve date-related processing. For example, some computers that perform critical, real-time tasks are programmed to exchange date and time information as a health check on each other and to initiate remedial action (such as shutting down equipment) if the information does not agree within acceptable limits.

Correction or mitigation of the Year 2000 computer problem in an organization requires a sequence of steps. The first step is to inventory all the computer systems owned by or affecting the operations of the organization. The second step is to assess the Year 2000 compliance of each system. For products purchased off-the-shelf or systems supporting the operation of suppliers, this is usually done by making written requests for Year 2000 compliance information. For custom-developed software, this step requires a line-by-line evaluation of the program, often aided by automated tools.

Later steps include planning what to do about non-compliant computer systems, executing the plans, and testing the resulting systems. Approaches that can be used with non-compliant hardware and software include modification to correct deficiencies, replacement with a Year-2000-compliant product, or preparation for loss of the capability. In all three cases, extensive testing is required to identify and correct new problems and unintended consequences introduced by the selected course of action. For this reason, the test phase is usually recommended to comprise at least half of the effort and schedule.

The Year 2000 problem for the electric power industry is complicated by a trend in equipment manufacturing. Over the past two decades, equipment manufacturers have achieved significant benefits by embedding digital computers into what previously were specially designed electronic and electromechanical devices. Embedded computers can handle the complex functions of a piece of equipment, while permitting the mass production of items that are actually much simpler and easier to produce. A wide range of complex products can then be assembled