The Year 2000 Bomb

"The irony is that none of these issues are new or unique: they've been relevant for every mission-critical computer system we've ever built.

"But with Y2K, they matter. They really, really matter."

- Ed Yourdon

I'm a programmer. I started my career in programming in the late 1970's. Like every other programmer of that era, my boss and I assumed that the programs we wrote would be obsolete and long discarded by the year 2000, which seemed a lifetime away in the future.

We were wrong.

There are now hundreds of millions of lines of computer program code throughout the world with a problem.

The problem is simple: two missing digits from every date field in the vast majority of computer programs written prior to the mid-80's.

The implications of these two missing digits are potentially catastrophic.

How it happened

In the 60's and 70's, computers were new technology, gradually coming into widespread use in business. Computers were very expensive - particularly memory; in 1975 a computer with 64 kilobytes of memory was a serious computer.

Data was entered and often saved on 80 and 96 column punch cards. Later, hard disks came into use. These were also very expensive; a 20 megabyte hard drive cost thousands of dollars.

We needed to save memory and storage space. Every character on a punch card was precious. Every character on a hard drive cost money. We could not afford to waste anything on unnecessary data - including the first two digits of every year. Our programs assumed it was always the 20th century - the first two digits of every date were '19' - because the next century was decades away, and we couldn't spare the space to save unnecessary characters.

These programs were thought to be transient, and new programs would take their place long before the end of the century.

This assumption was incorrect.

Instead, in thousands of companies throughout the world, the original programs were added to, expanded, made increasingly complex over the years. But the date fields were, in most cases, never expanded to four digits.

Vast bodies of computer programs, many of which are vital to the functioning of our socioeconomic systems, still can handle only dates starting with '19'. When confronted with dates starting with '20', these programs will malfunction. Some of these malfunctions could bring down systems vital to the survival of our current way of life.

There aren't enough programmers and there isn't enough time to fix all of these programs.

But is it certain this such a big deal?

There's no question that there is a problem (actually, there are millions of them). The only questions are:

  1. Will the problems all be fixed by the turn of the century?
  2. If the problems are not fixed, what will their impact be on our civilization?

The banking system

To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, the only government agency which is Y2K compliant as of early 1999 is Social Security. They have 30 million lines of code, and it took them 7 years to fix it.

Chase Manhattan Bank has 400 million lines of code, and Citibank has 200 million lines of code. They both started fixing their code in late 1995.

These two banks are ahead of the pack. Thousands of smaller banks, and banks in other countries, have not yet started fixing their Y2K problems, or started only recently. They are not going to make it, and almost certainly neither are Chase or Citibank.

When the year rolls over to 2000, any of these banks' programs which haven't been fixed are going to break. Banks will not be able to transfer money in or out of their customers' accounts.

Some banks will have fixed their Y2K problems. But when Y2K-compliant systems try to exchange data with non-compliant systems, they will corrupt each others' data.

On January 1, 2000, the banking system could shut down or become severely disabled.

The electrical power system

As with the banking system (and most other areas of business and government) much of the code which runs the power generation system is 20 to 30 years old. Some of the source code is lost. Some of the compilers are lost.

Even if all the code and compilers were present, there is not enough time remaining to fix it.

Note that once all the code is hopefully fixed, it takes six months of parallel testing to ensure that it's working. If any bugs surface, you have to fix them and start the six months' testing cycle again.

On January 1, 2000, the power grid could shut down.

Other industries

We could go on into other industries. The auto industry is a particularly vulnerable one. Another is the airlines; the FAA has already admitted that their systems won't work after December 31, 1999.

Perhaps the most crucial, along with banking and electricity, is the telecommunications industry - telephones, radio, television, the Internet.

Without telecommunications, power, and banking services, the transportation, medical, manufacturing, and food production industries cannot function.

You get the picture.

The consequences

In my mind, there is no question that all of the problems will not be fixed. It would take a miracle - a million miracles - for all or even most of the critical systems in the world to continue function properly after the turn of the century.

That leaves the second question: If the problems are not fixed, what will their impact be on our civilization?

It doesn't take very much contemplation of the scenario of a medim sized to large city without power, food, or the means to transfer money (i.e. to pay workers) to realize that this would be a disaster.

So how come we're just now realizing this is such a big problem?

I've known about this issue for years, but, like almost everyone, assumed that a fix was in the works.

I never really thought much about the broader implications until I read a pamphlet by Gary North. (You can get an email containing the gist of that pamphlet here.)

You might want to read at least the first couple of pages on Gary North's site. However, Gary North is promoting a doomstay perception to further his extreme right-wing religious-oriented political agenda, so you might want to read some opposing views.

You might also want to check out ZD Net's suggestions for preparedness, and the Y2K Today,, and Y2K Watch sites. Another site with many Y2K-related links is here.

And finally, read what computer software guru Ed Yourdon has to say about safe havens and his plans for the coming New Year holiday.

Dr. Yourdon is a well known author and authority on computer and information systems. Implicit in this document is Dr. Yourdon's assessment of the implications of the Y2K issue. Read more about Dr. Yourdon's views on the Y2K problem on his Web site.

You might also want to read a rebuttal to Dr. Yourdon's views on power systems by Dick Mills.

Finally, you might like to review the results of a survey of people working in the Y2K field, and some of their comments. The participants were asked to estimate the disruption they expected on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the most severe. One of the more optimistic participants chose 2, and commented,

I believe there will be numerous scattered outages and service interruptions. There will be severe problems in some hospitals, parts of the various grids - power, telephone, various pipelines, traffic management, etc - embedded systems are most of the problem.. Hackers and weather have the potential to make things worse. Transition from the current administration to whatever follows presents the problem of discontinuities in federal agency management. Outside the US the potential for chaos is much higher - problems caused by Y2K, Euro, winter, political change and instability, Asian and Russian economics,...

One of the more pessimistic participants said,

The major reason why I would now select the rating "9" over "8" is the persistent notion that food/fuel supply lines for major urban areas have perhaps 10 days to two weeks before they go "dry". I believe that Y2K disruptions will endure more than 2 weeks. Therefore, I have to select "9".

Please don't reject the problem out of hand as just another silly turn of the century panic. Rather, consider the issues carefully.

Bah! This is just silly end-of-the-millennium hysteria!

If, after you've read some of this information and thought about the various issues, if you have proof of a way out of this problem, please let me know! I would be glad for any solid proof that I don't have to be so concerned.

But please don't send me speculation ("they'll find a way of fixing this") or unsubstantiated denial ("this is just another turn-of-the-century panic" or "some people like to feel they are important by spreading doomsday warnings"). Don't waste my time or yours.

Please send proof. Send copies of letters from the major banks, power companies, government agencies, and other pillars of our socioeconomic complex confirming that they have already begun testing their Y2K-compliant software and firmware updates, that these updated systems can cope with interactions with non-compliant systems, and that they are truly prepared for the turn of the century.

Without such proof, I'll remain convinced that our present way of life is at risk.

Ok, you've got me worried. What do I do?

Until I get convincing proof to the contrary, I will carry out personal preparations for the potentially serious or devastating problems that might occur at the turn of the century.

If you feel that it might be prudent to begin preparations, too, here are some places to start for how-to information:

But don't dawdle.