Washington, DC — As the Associated Press reported, the most common method employed to fix computers vulnerable to Year 2000 failures is only a short-term remedy, and even proponents of the method acknowledge it will require other expensive repairs or replacements within a generation.
The temporary fix, which uses a twist of logic to trick computers, is highly controversial among insiders because it’s intended to work for only a few decades — typically 30 years. One expert describes computers already fixed with the technique as “little ticking time bombs waiting to go off.”
The Clinton administration and industry insiders estimate the method is being used to patch 80 percent of computers in the worldwide repair effort expected to cost $300 billion.
So why is the technique, referred to as “windowing,” used at all?
Simple: It saves money because it’s quicker and easier, even if it only works for a certain window of time. The permanent fix, called “expansion,” requires a tedious line-by-line repair of all the dates expressed in two-digit years rather than four digits.
Experts hope “windowing” will prove adequate until these computers are replaced — or until programmers can devote enough time and money to effect permanent repairs.
In certain cases, corporate executives and government bureaucrats approved using the method knowing that problems won’t resurface until after they retire or change jobs.
“It’s a Band-Aid, the way building a house out of wood and fiberboard is,” said Jim Duggan, a researcher with the Gartner Group consulting company of Stamford, Conn. “You hope you’ll be somewhere else before it falls down.”
“It gets them off the hook,” agreed Michael P. Harden, president of Century Technology Services Inc. consultants of Fairfax, Va. “I don’t think some people expect to be in those same jobs. Fix it now, get everybody off your back — and in five or 10 years if there’s a problem, you won’t be around to have to deal with it.”
Marvin Thornton led repair efforts inside one of the nation’s largest banks, $40 billion Southtrust Corp. in Birmingham, Ala. He fought hard against using windowing to fix his bank’s computers but complained that some contractors insisted on the technique.
“It’s really aggravating,” said Thornton. “They’ve taken the quick and dirty path and not really fixed the problem.”
The federal government, which expects to spend $6.4 billion and has ordered its most important computers fixed by the end of March, does not officially discourage agencies from using windowing. But it warns of consequences.
“It’s like the Fram oil filter guy: You can pay me now or you can pay me later,” said Keith Rhodes, a technical director at the General Accounting Office, which monitors repair efforts at federal agencies. “It’s not solving your problem. It’s delaying the inevitable.”
Some government agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, have generally shunned the method. The Internal Revenue Service allows it only rarely. The State Department is employing it on roughly half its most important computers, but also plans to replace those systems within five years.
Other agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, freely acknowledge using the technique. The agency’s top Y2K expert, Ray Long, says he doesn’t consider it a problem or even just a short-term solution.
With windowing, programmers instruct software to guess the century for dates that fall within a specific “window” of time, such as the next three decades. The computer interprets the year based on a future so-called hinge date, or pivot, that programmers choose arbitrarily.
For example, a software program with a pivot of “30” will interpret years “00” through “29” as 21st century dates, but will assume years “30” through “99” are during the 1900s. Some programmers use pivots of “50” or “70” to buy even more time, but their choices are limited by a variety of technical factors. A pivot of “70,” for example, might cause problems for computers trying to process birthdates earlier than 1969.
Once the pivot date is past, those computers will need to be replaced or patched again as they begin contaminating data by making wrong assumptions about the century.
Windowing is filled with other risks, too. Different programs assigned different pivots can cause havoc when companies or governments try to share information, unless they take complex precautions.
Testing typically takes longer, too. Windowing problems might not appear until January, when computers start guessing which century to use, said Noah Ross, a consultant and vice president for Cap Gemini Group. In contrast, if the permanent “expansion” fix is done incorrectly, the problem often is immediately obvious.
“It’s an issue of pragmatism,” explained Ed Yourdon, a consultant. “Anybody who had to go through that choice was very much aware of the tradeoffs. We’d like to do it the right way … and we don’t have time, so even though it’s a quick and dirty approach, we have no alternative. Too bad.”
“It’s a compromise,” agreed Duggan. “People with time and money took the high road and did full expansion.”
Most people using windowing realize it’s not a permanent solution, said Jack Gribben, spokesman for President Clinton’s Year 2000 council. “The window closes, so to speak, and you’re back at square one.”