January 15, 1999

Institution’s computer systems on schedule to avoid year 2000 glitch

Institution's computer systems on schedule to avoid year 2000 glitch

Efforts to ensure that New Year's eve 1999 will be just another night on the job for Vanderbilt University Medical Center's computer systems are progressing on schedule.

That night, when 1999 becomes 2000, is when an electronic Armageddon of sorts could take place as the world's computers ‹ programmed without the ability to recognize years that don't begin with the numbers 1 and 9 ‹ could go haywire.

Correcting the much-publicized year 2000, or Y2K, programming error is crucial to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of system-wide disruptions of computer networks that could plague a facility as large and varied as VUMC.

"This is a problem that will have global consequences for companies, institutions and governments that are not prepared for it," said Bob Blencoe, director of Remote Site Information Technology at VUMC.

The VUMC Informatics Center began planning for the dreaded date nearly two years ago. Through a large-scale effort dubbed the Y2K initiative, work is being done to ensure that the medical center's computers will continue to function normally.

"The correction for the year 2000 problem is not that difficult for any single computer or piece of software. The difficulties and threats lie in the sheer number of computers and electronic devices at work in the medical center," said Blencoe.

Under the Y2K initiative, two project coordinators were assigned from each organizational unit in the medical center to work with the Medical Center's year 2000 advisory group. One covers the organizational and business aspects of the problem, the other the technical issues.

Some of the computers in the medical center will require replacement while others can be fixed using software or chip upgrades. Late last year the task force set a goal for implementing all replacements or upgrades by the end of 1998. So far, that work is progressing on schedule, Blencoe said.

"In the next year we will be testing our systems and planning for unforseen Y2K issues that are bound to crop up. The reason we want this done by the end of the year is that it is imperative that all these computers be tested extensively before Jan. 1, 2000," said Blencoe.

Core systems, such as MARS, EPIC, Medipac, Wiz, and others, are being made year 2000 compliant by Information Management and the Informatics Center.

Not all potential year 2000 problems are computer related. Other electronic devices that are date sensitive may be impacted, such as security systems, heating and cooling systems, and fax machines.

"We are pretty well on track to fix the problem before the year 2000. The main emphasis now is for everyone to stay alert for potential problems," Blencoe said.

Also being examined are VUMC's many relationships with vendors. All vendors that do business with VUMC will be required to give documented assurances that there will be no interruption of vital services for the medical center, said Blencoe.

The roots of the year 2000 problem go back to the early 1970s, when computer programmers were just beginning to write the code ‹ the electronic language ‹ that would eventually come to control today's machines.

At that time a computer's storage capacity was measured in kilobytes, not gigabytes, so the problem was lack of adequate storage space for critical information.

To help save some of this precious memory, programmers reduced the date fields in computers to only the last two digits and programmed the computer language to assume that the first two digits of every succeeding year would be 1 and 9.

The programmers never dreamed that the code they were writing then would still be in use nearly 30 years later.

For more information on the Y2K representative in your area, call Bob Blencoe at 936-3807.