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Boston U. computer technicians experience uneventful Y2K

Updated 12:00 PM ET January 11, 2000

By Ray Henry, The Daily Free Press, Boston U.

(U-WIRE) BOSTON -- This New Year's Eve, as millions of revelers waited anxiously for the Times Square ball to drop, members of Boston University's Y2K task force held a vigil of their own -- monitoring BU's computer systems. For five years the team had been preparing for a crisis.

But, midnight came and nothing happened.

"It was not particularly exciting when it all came down to it," said Jim Stone, director of consulting services at the Office of Information Technology. "There was nothing very serious." At 12:15 a.m. on Jan. 1, Stone talked with the taskforce and senior management members over a conference call. The specialists reported that all university computer systems were functioning properly.

"Everyone enjoyed their New Year's," Stone said. "It was nice to talk to all my associates."

As the morning progressed, Stone felt BU computers were generally unaffected by glitches.

The Y2K problem originated in the early days of computer programming when memory and storage space were expensive. In an effort to save system resources, computer programmers abbreviated dates by omitting the first two digits of a year.

However, as early as the late 1970s, computer specialists began to fear the abbreviated dates would lead systems to confuse the years 1900 and 2000 on Jan. 1. Debating the magnitude of the problem, analysts prepared for the a variety of glitches -- from misprinted dates to the failure of power grids.

There were "one or two" Y2K bug problems with computers in various BU departments, Stone said. However, the bug only affected a few individual terminals, machines not critical to university operations. Also, several students came to the OIT with Y2K-related computer problems, Stone said. He noted that the conflicts were solved by upgrading program patches. "There was nothing very serious," Stone said.

Although there were no major problems, Stone still feels the five-year, $3 million effort was justified.

"If nobody did anything, there would have been a lot of bigger problems," he said. "Many, many things were discovered in those five years."

William Stewart, head of the Y2K taskforce, noted the successful New Year's rollover, but is still prepared to deal with Y2K bugs.

Glitches may still emerge in software or systems that have not yet been activated. "We haven't closed the book," he said. "We're not getting cocky."

Since 2000 is a leap year, some computer programmers are concerned that systems may misread the date Feb. 29. But OIT has already checked for this conflict, Stewart said, and doubts the leap year will be an issue for the university's computers.

Stewart also strongly believes the Y2K preparations were justified.

"I think that caution was wise and the people who prepared for it did a good job," he said.

The taskforce's job was difficult and important, said John Porter, vice-president of information systems and technology. "It was a tremendous amount of work," Porter said. "We wouldn't be running today if we hadn't done all that work."

The workload included reviewing five million lines of computer programming code. Typically, Porter said, it costs roughly $1 in expenses to alter a line of code. Therefore, Porter feels the $3 million effort was reasonable.

"It's pretty economical in the scale of things; a lot more economical than having a problem," he said.

Half of the $3 million was spent on salaries and consultant fees to pay outside agencies to assist in the Y2K tests, Porter said.

OIT salaried employees would have been on payroll even if the Y2K bug did not exist. During the preparations, they were not paid more, but had their tasks redirected towards preparation efforts.

"Not all of it is really an expense," Porter said. The other half of the budget was spent on purchasing hardware to test the university's computer systems.

"It's an expense, but it will be used in the future for production," he said.

(C) 2000 The Daily Free Press via U-WIRE

-- Lee Maloney (, January 17, 2000

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