Too little, far too late?

It’s never too late … or is it? There are just a few things that won’t wait. Like the arrival of the Year 2000. And what a lot of belated attention is at last being given to this fast-approaching deadline – heralding the instantaneous crash of computers around the world as the so-called Millennium bug […]

It’s never too late … or is it? There are just a few things that won’t wait. Like the arrival of the Year 2000. And what a lot of belated attention is at last being given to this fast-approaching deadline – heralding the instantaneous crash of computers around the world as the so-called Millennium bug (C&I/Sys.Build, March 1997, page 27) strikes indiscriminately at those who did not heed the many warnings.

The Government’s Taskforce 2000 initiative is campaigning vigorously. Industry conferences are springing up – like ‘Project 2000 Oil and Gas’, sponsored by C&I in Aberdeen next month (news, page 8). Vendors are issuing statements and pledges – like Intellution’s buy-back and industry consultation deal (Sys.Build, page 22).

Last month, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) added its not inconsiderable voice – announcing its commissioning of systems house, Real Time Engineering in Glasgow, to prepare a report and guidelines on the potential effects of real time and embedded system failures on industrial safety systems (see news, page 7).

And in the same month, David Atkinson, MP for Bournemouth East, introduced a Ten Minute Bill in the House of Commons (see Interview, page 15) which, if successful, will put a legal obligation on companies to take responsibility for their computer systems’ continued satisfactory operation beyond 31 December 1999.

The former is the helping hand. It’s aimed squarely and practically at assessing the scope and nature of potential problems – and providing assistance for industrial users of safety-related computer systems, particularly those small to medium size firms without adequate IT resource. And remember, its findings and advice are every bit as pertinent to high-availability, fault-tolerant, hot back-up and triplicated critical control systems. The Y2k impact there may not be on safety, but certainly on production – and huge financial loss.

Atkinson’s Bill, meanwhile, is the big stick. It strikes at the heart of the financial and business community, requiring boards of directors to report to shareholders on how they are handling the Millennium bug – and auditors to sign for it, or face legal action themselves from the shareholders.

And this legislation is far from alone. Ron Bell, head of the HSE’s Control Systems Unit, points to the existing legal requirement on manufacturers to inform customers of anything in their products which could cause a risk to health and safety. He says that this includes Year 2000 computer non-compliance.

Clearly, the scope for very expensive litigation around the Millennium is vast. But equally clearly, the consequences of Year 2000 failure go far beyond the Court room.

So it’s imperative to do something and to start right now. I used the word ‘belated’ because time is not merely running out – it’s already run out. Estimates of the man-hours required to assess systems and implement solutions run into many millions – far more than the capacity of the IT community to deliver. It’s going to be a mad scramble.

BRIAN TINHAM