CHAPTER ONE: THE CENTURY DATE CHANGE PROBLEM
The Cause of the Problem
3. The cause of the century date change problem sounds
deceptively trivial. In the early days of computing-the 1960s
and 1970s-computer memory and disk space were expensive. Consequently
programmers developed shorthand ways for representing information.
One way in which this was done was to store years as two digits
rather than four so, for instance, '1967' became '67'. This saved
valuable memory for processing data and disk space for storing
it. Programmers at that time did not expect the systems they were
developing to remain in use for more than a few years. However
the two digit convention persisted; partly because it became common,
indeed standard, practice and partly because many of the systems
now in use are based on, or use components from, older systems.
Thus many of the systems which are today an integral part of our
daily lives use only two digits to represent the year. In these
systems, when the date changes from 1999 to 2000 the new year
will be represented as 00. The effects that this will have on
unmodified systems are difficult to predict, but could fall into
one of a number of categories, for instance:
- some will default to 1900, or some other incorrect
date, rather than to 2000;
- others will give unpredictable results when performing
arithmetical operations or comparisons on the basis of two digit
years, possibly with the loss or corruption of data;
- some systems may be able to cope but these are
not easily identified without thorough checking.
4. Century date change problems could occur in a
wide variety of systems, components and circumstances. Computers
from the most powerful mainframes to the humblest personal computer
(PC) may have problems. Electronic control systems-such as those
in heating systems, fax machines or video recorders-use microprocessor
chips which may have date problems built into them, even if they
have no apparent date or time dependency. Such so-called 'embedded
systems' are widely found in more complex, possibly safety-critical,
monitoring and control systems used in industry.
5. The majority of our witnesses, including many
from well-known organisations such as Shell UK, SmithKline Beecham,
Barclays Bank, Sainsbury's and the BBC, agreed that the century
date change posed a genuine and significant problem, although
there were slight differences in their assessments of scale and
extent. For instance,
Morgan Stanley told us that "to date, we have encountered
Year 2000 date problems in nearly all of our internally developed
systems ... we have also found that networks, telecommunications
infrastructure, and building systems are affected. In fact, the
central building management system in our ... office which controls
and monitors fire alarm, water detection and other safety systems
has defective embedded chips".
Hundreds of major organisations from both the public and private
sectors across the UK and abroad have tested their systems for
millennium compliance, have found them wanting, and have committed
substantial resources to remedial action. So while some systems,
including those without any manifest or embedded date capability,
will continue to function normally over the millennium, we
find the evidence that the century date change presents a genuine
risk of malfunction in automated systems which have a date function
The Nature of the Problem
6. Many of our witnesses agreed that, superficially,
the century date change presents a series of isolated technical
problems to which there are technical solutions: "all individual
technical date change problems are solvable".
However the majority, including BT, the Chancellor of the Duchy
of Lancaster, and Railtrack, also agreed that the century date
change is neither a single nor just a technical problem.
Computers have become ubiquitous-"we live in an automated
world and microchips have permeated nearly all areas of our personal
and business lives".
So while the causes of the problem are technical, the consequences
of a failure to correct systems could extend throughout the business,
economic and social spheres. Simultaneous and extended failures
in key systems could present a risk to personal health or well-being
as well as to future economic performance. The greater challenge,
therefore, is not the correcting or replacing of faulty software
and hardware but managing the process of implementation and completion
of remedial action with the resources available and within the
time remaining. As the
NHS Confederation told us the "Year 2000 is mainly a problem
of management. The technical changes tend to be fairly simple
but organising, implementing and paying for them is difficult".
7. Many witnesses pointed out that, even if an organisation
ensured that all its own systems were millennium ready, it would
still not be possible to guarantee that it was not affected by
century date change related problems. For instance, IBM told us
that they must "also ensure that their systems are not contaminated
by two-digit dates from computers linked to their own by public
or private network".
This information chain aspect of the problem not only affects
organisations where their networks are directly connected to others.
A date change related failure which causes one particular company
to have errors, for example in ordering, dispatching or paying
for goods or services, could have severe consequences to other,
millennium compliant, companies in the supply chain. This may
be a particular problem for organisations which hold minimal stock
and rely on 'just in time' deliveries as they may not have the
ability to withstand even minor delays in deliveries or collections.
Morgan Stanley told us that "external product and service
providers represent one of the greatest areas of risk"
and, similarly SmithKline Beecham stated that "arguably the
biggest threat to our company comes from non-compliant suppliers,
customers and other business partners".
Thus the implications of non-millennium compliance are wider than
a single business. Companies cannot continue to trade if their
suppliers cannot provide the goods they need or customers are
unable to purchase their products. Left uncorrected, century date
change problems could affect the integrity of entire business
8. Such inter-dependencies between organisations
are not restricted to the UK.
Many organisations rely on suppliers, service providers, customers
or business partners in other countries: for instance, Marks and
Spencer told us "we deal with ... a long international supply
chain, on whom we are dependent for merchandise and services"
and EDS that its operations in the UK "could be seriously
affected by the failure of other countries to fix their problems".
Moreover, any organisation with business connections overseas
is likely to depend on international telecommunications and banking
systems which themselves have to be made millennium ready. As
the British Bankers' Association (BBA) stated "it is difficult
to exaggerate the scale of the impact on banks and through them
the UK economy if they and their customers and counterparties
... abroad are not Year 2000 compliant".
9. It is the combination of these factors-the
immutable deadline, the worldwide context and complex inter-dependencies-that
makes managing the century date change "a challenge without
When will Problems Occur?
10. Many information technology applications have
the capability to look forward, or calculate long-term projections,
well beyond the millennium and consequently some systems that
are not millennium compliant may fail before the century date
change itself. As IBM told us "really the issue of the Year
2000 is not the issue of the calender event; it is the question
of whether or not the computer system can process a date which
is beyond December 31, 1999".
There are already anecdotal examples of errors arising from inabilities
to manage the century date change such as instances of credit
card payments not being processed properly because the expiry
date on the card was beyond 31st December 1999.
According to a survey undertaken by PA Consulting, 86% of organisations
in the UK believe that they will experience some century date
change related errors before the Year 2000.
11. The difficulties that computer and embedded systems
may have with the century date change from 1999 to 2000 is certainly
the most easily recognised aspect of the Year 2000 problem but
there are other critical dates which could trigger system errors.
For instance, systems which handle the century date change perfectly
could be affected by problems associated with managing dates around
29th February 2000. Past century base years-such as 1800 and 1900-although
divisible by four, were not leap years but the millennium base
year is. So, whilst much of the speculation over the century date
change problem has focussed on what may or may not happen at midnight
on 31st December 1999, and it is indeed likely that some systems
will actually stop functioning normally at this time, in practice
the precise time of the 'millennium moment' may well go relatively
unnoticed (in computer terms at least). Other dates which witnesses
considered to be potentially critical are listed in annex A.
12. The British Standards Institute, in collaboration
with a number of other organisations, have developed a definition
for Year 2000 conformity (see annex B). This definition stipulates
that "Year 2000 conformity shall mean that neither performance
nor functionality is affected by dates prior to, during or after
the Year 2000".
We agree that the ideal would be for all systems to manage the
century date change properly-that is to be 'millennium compliant'.
It is, however, arguable whether it is necessary, or indeed possible,
to ensure that all existing systems meet such an exacting criterion.
In some cases it may be more effective to replace existing systems
which are not, or have not been proven to be, millennium compliant
with new systems that will manage the century date change correctly.
In other cases, where non-compliance is unlikely to affect performance
or where the system is only of minor significance, leaving non-compliant
systems in place may be acceptable. The key objective is that
individuals and organisations are adequately prepared for the
millennium-'millennium ready' rather than millennium compliant-and
equipped with compliant systems or prepared to manage the consequences
of non-compliance. The challenge that faces us, then, is to ensure
that computer and embedded systems function in a manner that allows
central Government, local government (including essential social
services), businesses and society to continue to function as normally
as possible now, over the millennium and afterwards.
Ev.p. 183. Back
Ev.p. 147. Back
227. See also eg. Ev.pp. 130 and 138-9. Back
p. 57. Back
Ev.p. 131. Back
8. See also Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology,
Computer Systems and the Millennium, POST Note 89, p. 2. Back
Consulting Group, Defusing the Millennium Time Bomb: An International
Survey of Awareness and Readiness, 1997, p. 5. Back
of the Year 2000 Conformity, prepared
by British Standards Institute, (Document ref: DISC PD2000-1). Back