Y2K – The Year 2000 Incident

With the 1st of January 2000 in the near future, the lives of many, if not everyone, was supposed to be altered by y2k. It was the day when our computers, on which our livelihood depended, were predicted to fail us. And that all the amenities of our daily life would fall apart, and we would be forced to survive without basic amenities like electricity.

Hence, on the 11th of December 1998, delegates from over 120 countries met at the Global Meeting of National Y2K Coordinators at the United Nations to discuss and avert the crisis. The discussion was on world-wide readiness, regional and sector cooperation, crisis planning and the testing on computers, response and information cooperation. They also identified the countries that had not done their share in getting ready for the crisis. They established an office in Washington, D.C. in March 1999. The World Bank took care of the funding and later in March 2000, the office was shut down.

Though there were several ways to approach the problem, the three main programming solutions that were widely used are:

  • Expansion of the dates: Here, the 2 digit years were expanded into 4 digit years in all the files, programs, and databases. This resulted in recording precise dates that were permanent and could be easily maintained. But this solution was expensive and required enormous amount of testing and alterations, and mostly affected all the systems.
  •  Repartitioning of the dates: This approach was opted for those databases whose size could not be changed cost-effectively otherwise. Here, the 6 digit codes of year/month/day were changed to 3 digit years (e.g. 1998 to 098, 2000 to 100) and 3 digit days.
  •  Windowing: In this approach, small patches of code were installed into the programs and hence, the 2 digit years could be left untouched unless needed for specific operations like date calculation or comparison. This alternative was simple to test and implement, was cost effective and would work for several decades too.

According to various sources, it has been revealed that the total cost of the work done to avert the Y2K crisis was over US$300 billion. IDC calculated that U.S. alone spent an estimated $134 billion in preparation of the crisis and another $13 billion was spent in fixing problems that occurred in 2000 and 2001. Globally, around $308 billion was approximately spent to ensure that there would be no major problems.


History Of The Y2K Computer Glitch

Y2k Motherboard computer

Photo: trekky andy

The story of the Y2K bug started being circulated since the 1980s as folklore among those interested in computers, and had been their subject of serious discussion since then. But it was not until the late 1990s that it caught the political attentions, and by that time, the chances of a low-cost approach to fulfil Y2K compliance had already gone by. The leading nation in responding to the Y2K problem, and in promoting preventive measures globally, was the United States.

The stories of the Y2K bug became known to almost every citizen of the developed nations in the years 1998 and 1999. The story went that since the early days of computing, the IT programmers sought to cut back on then scarce computer storage space by marking dates with 2 digits for the year instead of 4. It is believed that these programmers either failed to consider the implications of this process towards the end of the 20th century or assumed that these systems would become obsolete and be long gone by then.

Hence, by the time this problem was given a serious thought, it was mid-1990s, and coding with 2 digit dates had become ubiquitous, being used not only in conventional computer systems but in embedded systems too, like those in air navigation systems , automatic lifts and escalators, and so on.

Though the precise outcomes of these problems were beyond anyone’s imagination, widespread failures of the computer systems had been expected on the 1st of January 2000, and the cascading effect of these system failures was likely to cause, severe economic dislocation, at least at a lower level.

Some of the types of machines that were anticipated to be affected

  • Lighting systems
  • Vending machines
  • Entry systems
  • Lifts
  • Personal computers
  • Barcode systems
  • Vehicles
  • Traffic Signal Lights
  • Surveillance equipment
  • Clock-in machines
  • Process monitoring systems
  • Dating equipment
  • Switchboards
  • Production line equipment
  • Safes and time locks
  • Faxes
  • Navigation systems
  • Medical equipment

The general conclusion inferred was that, although the problem was huge in its scope, it could be resolved by some large-scale systematic programs specifically designed to ensure that by the 1st of January 2000 (aka y2k), all the computer systems were compliant. These programs involved the checking and rewriting of millions of lines of computer codes, and the scrapping and replacement of equipment worth billions of dollars.

Doom And IT Boom

it tech y2k wiring

photo Marcin Wichary

The Y2K problem was an issue for both digital and non-digital documentation and storage of data situations, which had resulted due to the practice of using abbreviations for a four-digit years to two digits. This problem could cause a complete failure and affect the date comparisons to generate incorrect results. To avert this crisis, most of the companies and organizations from around the world got their computer systems checked, corrected and upgraded before 1st of January 2000 rolled in. And this is when the importance and the role of the IT industry was hugely felt. Hence, Y2K put the IT business on the map. For the first time, companies realized just how significant IT was to their daily business operations. From the year 1998, when remediation work for Y2K began on a serious note, the significance of IT across the organization was better understood, especially at the highest levels of the company. The Y2K bug also represented an unprecedented opportunity to modernize for the IT industry. It put fear in the minds of the CEOs and gave the opportunity to the IT folks to demand blank checks for updating everything then.

Before the Y2K bug came to existence, the general mentality had been ‘to fix when broken only’ for cost reasons and thus, many outdated and antiquated systems were kept functional. But because of the Y2K bug, these systems finally were let go. To the IT industry, it felt like once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clean up, standardize and update the systems, with no one keeping a tab on the money being spent. Hence, Y2K was a cathartic time and one of the best things that ever happened to the IT industry.

Also, the Y2K saga prompted the IT professionals to think more strategically. It raised their awareness of how something as simple as a 2 digit year code could make an impact down the road. And that led to better understanding and planning of what might happen in the future that could be averted now. After Y2K, the IT professionals became much more thorough in testing programs, for every conceivable contingency, before installing them. The extent of the problem touched every division of the organizations and in every country globally. This meant that, while providing remedy for the Y2K bug, the IT industry got an excellent opportunity to build relationships with every branch of the business, as well as with other areas of the organizations. And those connections paid off in the later years in terms of future projects.

When the millennium came at last, IT was ready. Many of the IT professionals had to forgo their New Year’s bashes and had to be available either on call or standing by at work as the 1st of January 2000 rolled in. It was because of the hard work of these IT professionals that when at the stroke of midnight, the much awaited millennium year, 1st of January 2000, arrived, the computers hardly registered a blip and no major reported y2k computer failures took place.


Y2K Damage

y2k damage, did it cause damage

Katie Killary

At the stroke of midnight, the much awaited millennium year, 1st of January 2000, arrived with the computers hardly registering a glitch. But that does not mean that there were no problems at all. The hard work that had been put in to avert it was overkill after all or was it? In fact, the hard workers believe that it was because of them that there were no major failures.

However, minor glitches did actually occur, in and around the world, due to the Y2K bug. And they did not necessarily happen at the stroke of midnight, but in the days and months that followed.

The kind of problems differed from case to case. In some cases, programs showed up only when invoked, others caused erroneous results and data; in some the machines stopped functioning and in others, it malfunctioned.

According to various sources, some of the problems that were reported worldwide are:

  • In Australia, the bus-ticket validation machines failed to operate in 2 of its states.
  • In Sheffield, UK, wrong test results of Down’s syndrome were sent to 154 pregnant women which led to 2 abortions and birth of 4 babies with the syndrome despite being considered in the low-risk group.
  • In Onagawa, Japan, the alarm of a nuclear power plant started buzzing at about 2 minutes after midnight.
  • Also at the same time in Japan, a telecommunications carrier, found flaws in the date management part of their company’s network.
  • In Ishikawa, Japan, the radiation-monitoring devices failed at midnight but the officials assured the public it did not pose a threat to their safety.
  • NTT Mobile Communications Network, Japan’s largest cellular operator, reported that some models of their mobile telephones were deleting new messages rather than the older ones when the memory was full.
  • The national weather forecasting service in France confirmed that the date on a webpage of a map with Saturday’s weather forecast appeared as “01/01/19100″. This was also confirmed by few other websites including att.net, which was a general-purpose portal site then, primarily catering the AT&T World Net customers from US.
  • In the U.S. Naval Observatory, the master clock that keeps the country’s official time, showed the date as 1st January, 19100 on its official website.
  • In Delaware, US, 150 slot machines at the race tracks stopped working.
  • In Malaysia, there were reports of failure of medical equipment like defibrillators and heart monitors.

Thus, the Y2K bug did cause problems though not widespread as expected. But these problems were enough to make everyone realise that the Y2K bug was there for real and could have brought life to a standstill if preventive measures were not taken in advance.