To beat the Y2K bug

Print edition : September 25, 1999

Governments, corporates and small businesses the world over are scrambling to beat a millennial deadline and overcome the Year 2000 problem relating to computer systems. What is the state of preparedness of public sector undertakings in India?

ITS timing is predictable right down to the microsecond, but the precise consequences of the 'millennium bug', the computer glitch that may cause non-compliant computers and networks worldwide to malfunction on January 1, 2000, are as yet hard to fathom. Paranoid prophesies about an apocalyptic end to the world and rather more real fears of financial meltdowns and a collapse of public utilities have forced governments and corporations the world over to scramble to fix the Year 2000 problem - or the Y2K bug, as it is known.

In India, the Department of Electronics is spearheading a "Good Morning 2000" campaign targeted at Indian corporates, public sector undertakings, small businesses and the self-employed and with the aim of making India "Y2K OK". The campaign warns that fa ilure to fix the bug could cause "serious business disruptions" and offers a "Y2K infopack" and help in getting businesses Y2K compliant.

But with only some three months to go for the crunch date, what is the state of Y2K preparedness of Indian corporates, public sector undertakings and other businesses?

A few international Y2K rating agencies have sounded a warning about India's lack of Y2K preparedness; some of them have categorised India, China and Russia as "risk-prone areas". However, Union Electronics Secretary Ravindra Gupta dismissed such fears a nd claimed that India's preparedness was "almost complete". Gupta said that the Gartner Group, an internationally recognised Y2K certifying authority that has drawn up a five-level scale to measure Y2K preparedness (see box), had acknowledged that India had reached the fourth level.

A study by Frontline of the state of preparedness of a few large public sector undertakings (PSUs) in Bangalore shows that while all the companies studied are aware of the problem and have taken on projects with the aim of beating the millennial deadline and having systems in place to avert the anticipated glitches, awareness about the magnitude of the Y2K problem has not quite sunk in.

At the Master Control Facility of the Indian Space Research Organisation, near Hassan. ISRO declared Y2K compliance of all its computer-related systems on August 15, 1999. Not all public sector undertakings in Bangalore, however, have met the targeted deadlines for total compliance.-COURTESY: ISRO

Most of the companies plan to have their Y2K-compliant systems in place by end-September or, at the latest, by end-October. This does not give them much time to verify the systems, but in the race to meet the deadline and save themselves from a meltdown, optimism reigns. The companies do not foresee any major catastrophe, and officials who are in charge of Y2K projects say that all computer-based systems will definitely be up and running even after December 31. But as D-day approaches, many of those fin gers that have been tapping away lightly at keyboards in these undertakings are increasingly being kept crossed. Hope hopes to triumph over Y2K hype.

THE Y2K problem is expected to affect any computer or network which works with programs that have date-related functions. It arose because decades ago, when "digital real estate" was scarce and computer memory expensive, programmers who wished to save sp ace on the punch cards that served as data-storage systems used just six digits to denote the date: two for the day, two for the month and two for the year. Thus, 1969 was denoted as "69". Unless these programs are altered to provide for four-digit dates , the year 2000 will be denoted as "00"; to a machine reading the data, therefore, 2000 is indistinguishable from 1900. Today, a computer that calculates the age of someone born in 1950 would subtract 50 from '99 and arrive at 49. In 2000 it would subtra ct 50 from '00 and arrive at -50 - and assume that the person is not born yet!

Even a small problem in the system because of the date change could cause the whole computer system to crash or machines to malfunction. Apart from large networks, such as those used in the banking sector, which use dates for all transactions, date-relat ed chips can be found embedded anywhere - in elevators, modems, fax machines and home personal computers. However, not every microprocessor or embedded device will be bitten by the Y2K bug. For example, Motorola processors use four digits to denote the y ear, and will therefore be untouched by the problem; the same is the case with Macintosh-based operating systems.

In India, several PSUs rely on computerised networks for their daily activities, and date-related applications are used in almost every section - manufacturing, maintenance, inventory control, supplies, payroll and personnel records. Be it banking, aviat ion, heavy machinery or sophisticated electronics, the public sector plays an important role and touches the lives of tens of thousands of people every day. "PSUs are the nervous system of India: if they collapse we will be paralysed," says Dewang Mehta, president, National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), in a Y2K preparedness and status report published by the association recently. NASSCOM's report states that government departments and several public sector undertakings are st ill lacking in Y2K compliance preparations. However, Planning Commission member Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who heads a government-appointed, high-level Task Force that is reviewing the Y2K preparedness of several sectors, told newspersons recently that PSUs were better prepared than the private sector. The Task Force, which recently conducted a first round of in-depth reviews of 11 critical infrastructure sectors, reported that 90 per cent of the banking and financial sector was Y2K compliant.

At a national conference on "Preparing India to face Y2K", organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), it was announced that Y2K compliance would be attained by end-September in seven of the 11 infrastructure sectors identified by the govern ment - space, aviation, banking and finance, railways, atomic energy, petroleum and insurance. The remaining sectors, including power, defence, ports and telecom, will be ready by October.

Information technology professionals who are working to remedy the Y2K problem in the PSUs that Frontline surveyed say that verification of the debugging process requires several months of laborious testing of computer code. In some cases the code is so old that the companies which programmed it may no longer exist, so software engineers have first to understand the program before testing it.

The inability to predict exactly what might go wrong has added to the concern triggered by the unseen, unpredictable "enemy". The most critical areas within the companies, these professionals say, have been able to rid themselves of the millennium bug; e ven so, most people will not know - until the dawn of the new millennium or perhaps even months into the new year - whether the Year 2000 problem will affect them or not.

Clearly, however, the PSUs are not taking any chances. Armed with contingency and back-up plans, the companies say they are better prepared than they were, say, three months ago. Yet there is the lurking fear that they have perhaps left things a little t oo late or that they have failed to account for all contingencies.

NASSCOM believes that lack of enough information on and complacency about the millennium bug are the major reasons for slow progress on the Y2K front; others say that paucity of funds and a shortage of human resources have made the task of compliance con siderably more difficult.

Estimates for the cost of fixing the Y2K bug at the global level range from $50 billion to $600 billion. The National Informatics Centre (NIC), based in New Delhi, has projected that India will need a minimum of Rs.2,000 crores to combat the problem. NIC has asked government departments to direct PSUs to set apart at least 1-3 per cent of their budgets to find Y2K solutions and for contingency plans.

"It's not just the money we need; it's also the manpower," says Dr. S. Rangarajan, director of the INSAT Master Control Facility at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). "We have used almost 300 people for two months exclusively on our Year 2000 conversion projects."

ISRO, Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), ITI and Canara Bank were among the entities in Bangalore that Frontline surveyed. According to them, they are well prepared to face any eventuality that the millennium pr oblem might bring. However, in the opinion of Prof. N. Balakrishna, director, SuperComputer Research Centre at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, such a view reflects complacency and a failure to grasp the enormity of the problem.

"I don't think we realise the magnitude of the problem," says Balakrishna. He, however, concedes that because a large number of industries and institutions in India are not completely reliant on computers, the millennium bug might not affect them much. A ll the same, Rangarajan notes, "if we do not solve the problem completely, several big computer networks in the country could shut down and we could be facing a huge crisis."

ISRO has developed India's completely viable and self-reliant space programme. Having designed, built and launched satellites, ISRO has established the INSAT system, one of the largest domestic satellite systems in the world today. The National Stock Exc hange, telecom networks, satellite television broadcasters, banks and corporate houses, meteorologists and disaster management systems are among those that depend on ISRO satellites on a daily basis.

Unlike many companies which woke up a trifle late to the problem and are struggling to meet the deadline, ISRO began its "campaign", as Rangarajan calls it, almost two years ago. "We took on the project on a war-footing," Rangarajan says. An apex body co mprising a senior-level committee and review teams set guidelines, cleared a budget and enlisted technical support.

ISRO's network has almost 5,000 personal computers, 800 workstations and 300 embedded devices working with satellites, ground controls and launch vehicles, all of which could be affected. The critical areas which needed immediate attention, Rangarajan ex plains, were satellites, ground controls and launch vehicles. "We need to be able to send a command at the right time on a particular date and the satellite must be able to recognise it." Telephones and banking are among the critical services which may b e affected if a satellite has a problem. ISRO went through the long and tedious process of checking operating systems, "walking through" lines and lines of source code and then taking an inventory of all machines that needed upgrading.

The machines used by the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), systems at the Sriharikota launch-pad and all the networks across the country and in bases in Mauritius and Indonesia have been also extensively tested, Rangarajan says. Even now it may not be possible to predict what may happen, he adds, but each and every critical device and computer-based equipment has been tested, re-tested and certified Year 2000 compliant. By declaring compliancy on August 15, 1999, ISRO has met all its targeted deadl ines.

IF ITI does not accelerate the pace of its Y2K compliance, a variety of utilities and services - from complicated telephone networks to systems that prepare regular bimonthly phone bills - could go haywire, if the bug is as bad as is made out to be. Earl ier this year, an NIC report stated that the telecom industry was lagging behind on the Y2K front. ITI began bracing itself against the bug only early this year. It has as yet not completed the verification process, but officials say that the systems wil l be ready on time.

With a turnover of Rs.1,300 crores, ITI has contributed to the setting up of about 70 per cent of India's telecom infrastructure. Founded as a telecom manufacturing and research entity, ITI supplies digital switching systems, transmission equipment and m icrowave fibre optics, among other equipment, to the telecom industry. Out of India's total installed switching capacity of 2.60 crore lines, ITI has so far provided 1.91 crore lines. It also provides a variety of telecommunication services, including VS AT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) services, video conferencing and satellite communications.

According to ITI information systems executive director K.A. Seshu, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) gave clear directives to achieve a level of compliancy. "Although we do not expect a catastrophe, we cannot leave anything to chance," Seshu sa ys. "Several telecom networks across the country are dependent entirely on us for daily transmission. Besides, our own billing and accounting system is in jeopardy if we do not become compliant." He estimates that ITI has spent about Rs.1.5 crores in upg rading machines and carrying out internal and external audits.

ITI uses more than 1,000 personal computers, of which about 290 have been identified as being those involved in critical functions. Some IBM mainframe and data processing computers are among the equipment that are yet to be made compliant, says Seshu. As part of the upgradation efforts, the OCB 283 exchange and the Alcatel E10B exchange were revamped, and mock runs (which were successful) were conducted, says Seshu.

Even though ITI appears to be dragging its feet over completing the Y2K-compliance verification process, contingency plans are in place. Under one such plan, ITI, along with Alcatel Modi Networks Ltd, will monitor an exchange each in Delhi, Bangalore, Mu mbai and Calcutta for 72 hours beginning noon on December 31, 1999. Since Indian time is nearly four and a half hours ahead of French time, Alcatel of France will benefit from ITI's experiences of what happens when the date changes.

Such sharing of information is not uncommon. In fact, technology suppliers are expected to provide fixes for the products they have sold. They are legally bound to share with their customers solutions that they have found.

WITH the clock ticking away, officials at BEL are giving top priority to getting their systems Y2K ready. "It's very important that we become compliant because our machines are used in critical operations such as aviation," says H. Ramakrishna, chief sci entist, Central Research Laboratory, BEL.

With an annual turnover of approximately Rs.1,400 crores, BEL is India's only manufacturer of radars, sensors, sonars and antennae equipment for defence surveillance requirements. The company also makes communication, lasers and display devices, and opti cal and night-vision devices for defence. Approximately 90 per cent of the equipment required by Doordarshan and All India Radio is made by BEL.

To combat the Y2K problem, an impact analysis was conducted, inventories were taken and equipment were classified on the basis of the degree of compliance. An external audit will be completed in September. According to Ramakrishna, contingency plans have also been prepared to meet the Y2K problem.

ACCORDING to the NIC report, the aviation sector is in the lead in testing its machines, components and systems for Y2K compliance. HAL is also targeting completion in September.

A Rs.2,000-crore company, HAL is the country's premier defence aerospace manufacturer. The company designs, builds and maintains light combat, advance fighter and combat aircraft, helicopters, commercial aircraft, jet engines, aircraft systems, equipment and avionics; it also manufactures ground control equipment for defence and commercial use.

HAL has an extensive computer network; officials say that the critical machinery are compliant but that some of the application software in other equipment and computer networks are yet to be verified. The delay, they claim, is owing to the fact that som e equipment and machinery procured by the company has not been certified by the vendors. HAL has conducted an impact analysis, inventory collection and computer code walk-throughs.

STRICT directives from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and fears over the enormity of the situation have propelled the banking sector to make rapid progress in Y2K compliance. The NASSCOM report stated that as on July 31, about 92 per cent of the public sector banks in India were Y2K compliant; this number was expected to rise to 97 per cent by September 30.

Canara Bank, one of the larger public banks with a deposit base of Rs.42,000 crores and a total income of Rs.5,000 crores, claims that it is fully prepared for the millennial changeover. Deputy general manager, information systems, R. Muralikrishna, says that the state of readiness has improved dramatically in recent months. "We had sleepless nights four months ago, but with our systems now in place the tension has eased," he says. Software engineers had to work over weekends after banking hours. "We co uldn't shut down the bank to become compliant." As a large part of banking transactions are date-related, it took endless hours to go through computer codes. "We think we are safe, but we can never say what may happen," he cautions. In a worst-case scena rio, records of savings accounts may be wiped out, loans or mortgages to be paid may show negative figures. However, bank officials are confident that nothing so catastrophic will occur.

At a branch of a nationalised bank in Chennai. Computer systems in banks use numerous date-related functions, and fears of an enormous crisis if the Year 2000 problem is not addressed have propelled the banking sector to make rapid progress in Y2K com pliance.-S. THANTHONI

Even so, contingency plans have been drawn up. Extra cash will be kept ready to deal with unusually large withdrawals on December 31. Print-outs will be taken and back-ups made of all transactions from December 28, 1999 to January 1, 2000. Procedures of manual operations are being brushed up, and Y2K workshops for employees are being held. Bank officials will work through the night of December 31, 1999, and security will be stepped up. Towards the end of the year, mock drills will be carried out routine ly.

Muralikrishna feels that if the RBI wants all systems to be fully ready at the earliest, it must declare January 1, 2000, a Saturday, a bank holiday in order to enable banks to correct systems if there are problems. However, the RBI has announced that Ja nuary 1 will be a full working day so that systems could be tested and all problems rectified by Monday, January 3.

(The draft of a Year 2000 Ordinance formulated by the Y2K Task Force headed by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, states that the offices of all user organisations, whether in the government, public or private sector, must remain open on January 1 and 2 (Saturday a nd Sunday) and that all Information Technology products should be tested for Y2K compliance.)

AT least a few of the PSUs have not exactly been fast off the block in responding to the situation. Nitin Wagh of Merant Solutions Private Limited, a Year 2000 verification and validation company says: "Many public sector companies are only now coming to us for quotations." Even those companies that had completed testing their critical machines and equipment, says Wagh, had not quite tested their accounting, payroll, supply and provident fund data bases. In his view, none of the companies can be said to be fully compliant. "In fact," he says, "there is no such thing as 100 per cent eradication. Anything can go wrong anywhere." Furthermore, only after securing outside vendor certification can a company claim to have become "fully compliant".

In addition to identifying, analysing and fixing the applications which need to become compliant, Merant provides a detailed record and audit trail of the compliance effort. "It is not difficult to become Y2K compliant," Wagh says. "Testing tools are now highly efficient and unless one opts for date expansion (that is, changing the date from '99 to 1999 in the entire operation program), not much manpower is required." To heighten awareness about the magnitude of the crisis, Merant has volunteered to con duct a verification of 25,000 lines of code for free.

THE countdown is on, but no one knows precisely what will happen at the appointed time. Countless cities are planning millennial bashes for the occasion, but not everyone is in the party mode: in some industrialised countries of the West, there are repor ts that entire communities and families are preparing for digital apocalypse - to dig caves and bunker themselves underground with stockpiles of foodstuffs. Clearly, some of those responses are alarmist, but if at least some of the panic has prompted gov ernments and corporations to get their systems in order in time, some good will have come of it.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor