Reporter 418, 6 April 1998

‘Millennium timebomb’ - be prepared and DON’T PANIC

Champagne corks pop, Big Ben bongs, and as the first day of the year 2000 begins the world grinds to a halt. Not in celebration, but as a result of the simultaneous failure of all systems controlled by computers or microprocessors.

The lights will go out as power supplies fail. Burglar alarms will start a deafening chorus. Traffic lights and railway signals will fail. And doomsday machines will unleash a nuclear holocaust.

At least, that is the nightmare scenario conjured up by many of the prophets who foretell of the ‘Millennium timebomb’. The truth is rather more mundane, and the Year 2000 problem is not insoluble. But it does require attention.

Many computer systems that process dates using only two digits for the year assume that such a date always refers to the 20th century. That assumption will lose its validity at midnight on 31 December next year. Only the processing of dates is a problem; the systems at risk are those using a date to take decisions, such as whether or not your library access has expired.

To ensure that the University’s systems do not go haywire in the first few seconds of the year 2000, the University has established a Year 2000 Team led by Pro-Vice-Chancellor for IT and Facilities, Professor Chris Taylor. Dr David Holdsworth, of the University Computing Service, has been appointed Year 2000 Project Manager, and he will be assisted by Geoff Lidster.

The University has already put in place a replacement programme for its major administrative systems, ensuring that the new systems will be, in the jargon of the IT industry, ‘year 2000 compliant’. Attention is now turning to computer systems within departments, and to the myriad pieces of equipment which contain embedded computers – such as fax machines, answerphones, photocopiers, and even car park barriers.

Questionnaires to departments have already gathered useful information on the software systems currently in use, although the response was only about 20 per cent. To help all computer users, a Year 2000 Web page is being continually updated as information flows in about the compliance of various items of software (

A programme of establishing contact with each department, centre, unit and group has now been initiated, to ensure that the smooth running of the University’s operations will not be interrupted.

Meanwhile, purchasing officers within departments have been asked to stamp external order forms with a new clause binding suppliers to provide Year 2000 compliant products. Contingency planning is also under way to cope with any major interruption in power supplies, although the major utilities are working towards Year 2000 compliance within their own systems.

The message is – DON’T PANIC, just take the issue seriously.

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