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MIT Team to Deal With Year 2000 Bug

By Sanjay Basu
Staff Reporter

With just 431 days remaining in the 1990s, MIThas organized a team of computer experts to deal with the rapidly-approaching year 2000 computer problem.

The year 2000 bug is caused by computer programs designed to give dates in the 1900's, often storing the year as two numbers. When the year 2000 arrives, these programs may reset to the year 1900 instead. The year 2000 problem has the potential to severely hinder computers controlling everything from power plants to banking systems.

Out of concern for the year 2000's impact at MIT, administrators appointed Rocklyn Clark '80 to head the year 2000 Delivery Team, a division of Information Systems.

The delivery team is currently communicating with several departments in order to find remedies for the year 2000bug.

"Some of these [computer] systems will work fine after 1999 with few or no fixes,"Clarke said. "Everything has to be checked, however. We're seeking out anything that uses microprocessors. I want MIT to get through this well."

Team assesses extent of bug

Last fall, the assessment team conducted interviews to determine how different departments are handling the year 2000problem. While many people are actively working to find solutions to the problem, some departments have yet to consider the issue.

Information Systems, the Personnel Office, the Payroll Office and Student Services, along with the Controller's Accounting Office, have already begun replacing their systems with year 2000 compliant programs.

"It's not a fascinating technical problem,"Clarke said. "There are operating systems and application programs which contain software which are over 20 years old. The original authors of the sections are no longer available to help interpret their work to the programmers who have inherited them."

The year 2000team is primarily focusing on safety-related systems like fire alarms and emergency lighting. The William R. Dickson '56 Cogeneration Plant and the Institute's 5ESS telephone system are also being studied.

Problems discovered

The Year 2000 Assessment Team found that a number of other problems are facing MIT.

Long-term lab experiments, for example, may shut down because experiments appear to have continued for a negative number of years.

Data calculations might also be affected by the year 2000: Data from the year 1900 might be overwritten by new data.

Though commercial software creators have attempted to remedy the problem, programs as recent as Windows NT and Javascript can still have problems.

Dates on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, for example, can reset from 1900 to 2000.

Team will finish over summer

I/S plans to finish their assessment of the Institute this summer, when they will publish an inventory of the various concerns they have uncovered. The year 2000 team will then estimate the efforts and costs needed to solve the Institute's problems and begin working with administrators and staff in various departments.

"Once these [concerns] have been identified, we want to provide them with any information they may need to fix the problem," Clarke said.

"Everyone knows MIT has a leadership role in something like this. I'm not a year 2000expert, so I don't have all of the answers," Clarke said. "We have an excellent year 2000team, however, so when people ask what MIT is doing, I can describe our efforts with confidence."