Computer research prepares for future

David Hyland

A potential computer timebomb is ticking down on campus.
There are only 694 days and counting until the turn of the century. And on New Year’s Day, a glitch could reset University computers’ internal calendars back to 1900.
School officials said they’re working to exterminate the bug.
For two years, a team within the University’s Office of Information Technology has been plugging away to protect the University’s computer systems. But while most eyes have been on the larger systems, the smaller personal computers and electronic equipment of the faculty and students could also fall prey to problems.
Ken Hanna, assistant director for Academic and Distributive Computing Services, heads the University’s conversion project.
“It’s an awareness campaign,” Hanna said.
The project focuses on fixing any problems with the University’s large mainframe computer systems as well as the systems within each of the individual colleges.
Over the past year, University Business Analyst Laura Cullen watched the team overhaul the computers for Business Services.
When Cullen and her co-workers recognized their computer system could fall prey to the bug, they contacted Hanna.
Repairs were implemented on the entire system at the cost of $400,000. Over the latter part of the year, more than 30 people conducted transactions to help test the new system, Cullen said.
Most of the money for the correction of the financial system came from funding for the Enterprise Project. The project involves the complete replacement of the human resources and the student services computer systems.
If the central systems had not been replaced, it would have cost the University between $7 million and $14 million, said Steve Cawley, assistant vice president for information technology operations.
Hanna is determining the scope of the glitch in each college. The eventual cost for any repairs is the responsibility of that college, Hanna said.
“None of them are that major,” Cawley said, “there’s just probably a lot of them.”
Because the main systems are the top priority of the repair teams, all other individual computers or research equipment could slip through the cracks.
Hanna said faculty and students should examine any electronic equipment to see if it uses a date at all. In addition, research data for decade-long studies are particularly at risk.
“It’s not just a mainframe problem, it’s not just a computer problem, it’s in fact an electronic problem,” said Hanna.
For example, the two-digit spaces allocated for years on a spreadsheet program may need to be adjusted, Hanna said.
But on the smaller programs, adjustment might not be necessary. Buying a new program would be cheaper than paying for repairs to a model that could soon become obsolete.
The project, however, has no program to directly help students. Hanna said he expects increased publicity next year will spur most students to check and fix any problems.
“Students need to be aware that there is an issue,” Hanna said.
While Cawley expects the problem to be solved by July of 1999, when the last central system is overhauled, he said they’d likely address the problem until the turn of the century.