How much will Y2K cost you?

Guest columnist Dan Miklovic advises companies to cover their assets.

By Daniel Miklovics

As an OEM embedded systems provider, the year 2000 will impact your business even if you do not have a Y2K issue, and even if you do not have time-keeping capability or a date function in your system. Y2K is more than a technical issue now-it's the best thing to happen to lawyers since divorce.

While Gartner Group estimates the worldwide cost to fix all of the Y2K problems will top $600 billion, other estimates put the legal costs of Y2K even higher. After the second week of January in 2000, most Y2K spending will be winding down but legal ramifications may be accelerating as shareholders and customers sue to recover losses from non-compliant systems.

With the legal profession involved in Y2K, clients are being advised, "Cover your assets." We advise clients with questions-particularly on embedded systems where there's no source code and the operating system is unknown-to get supplier certification of Y2K compliance. Since major corporations have legal staffs, it doesn't take Einstein to guess who's drafting those letters.

As an embedded systems OEM, expect to be flooded with letters-friendly and severe-asking you to certify Y2K product compliance. One large industrial controls provider added clerical staff just to mail out the company's Y2K policy statements to those requesting compliance certificates. Its legal staff advised them not to certify compliance since its products have a degree of programmability and users could, in fact, self-program a Y2K non-compliance problem.

Companies that previously posted Web pages with Y2K compliance information are retreating to more cautious stances now that the legal profession has jumped in. A large service provider that had been building a lucrative Y2K practice for plant-floor systems has stopped taking on new business because the company has reached the maximum exposure its lawyers will permit.

So what is an embedded systems provider to do? Failure to respond to customer queries could mean a loss of business if the competition certifies Y2K compliance. Certification based on best guess isn't much better since many customers are asking for the process by which you prove compliance.

Gartner Group tells its clients to follow several basic guidelines. If the embedded system appears to be "date free" simply verify with the vendor that this is the case. If the system does not have a clock function, there is no place to enter the date, even in maintenance mode, and if there is no display capability that can even be programmed to display a date-related function, send the vendor a letter asking them to verify that is correct. Due diligence protects the end user later even if it seems redundant now.

Where the system does appear to have the potential for a Y2K problem, get documentation from the vendor certifying that the system is or is not Y2K compliant. If it is not then the customer must decide to develop a work-around plan or replace the technology.

If the vendor certifies that it is compliant, then for systems that do not have a life, limb, or property damage risk and where failure will not cause a non-recoverable business loss, accept the certification at face value if the vendor demonstrates a testing program in place equivalent or better than that described next.

If the vendor can not meet the criteria or if the system is mission critical or poses a health or safety risk then the customer must perform its own testing. The testing should minimally include verification that the transition can be handled both in powered and unpowered states, that the leap year function is correct in 2000 and 2004, and that the transition uses both forward and backward calculations at the boundary at both two months and one year after and before the boundary. All systems must be tested for a period that exceeds the longest time constant in the system, so if the embedded device has PID time constants reflecting 20-minute process lags, then the testing must run uninterrupted for at least one hour to ensure adequate time for calculation failures to surface. Finally, users should check day-date mapping, if present, at the transition and under leap conditions.

So be prepared. How you respond to that written request may determine whether you will make it to January 1, 2000, or how long after you will survive, even if your device doesn't have a real-time clock.

This issues guest column comes from Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group, a leading authority on information technology with expertise in research, analysis, consulting, and training worldwide. Daniel Miklovic is research director at Gartner Group and has followed Y2K's emergence as a critical manufacturing issue.

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