Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
Y2K Rev. 2
By Mike Gould
It's like déjà vu all over again: computers vs. time itself. You may recall the little digital dust-up we all experienced back in 2000, the quasi-apocalyptic computer melt-down known as Y2K (short for Year 2K, K being scientific terminology for thousand). That incident was caused by historical left-overs: old-time computer codes that treated years as 2 digit entities and had problems with zeros. Year 99 was 1999, and year 00 was impossible. But Y2K was so last century; now we have DST 2007 to deal with.
Time Has Come Today
The theory was that these ancient protocols were deeply entrenched in all the computers that ran our power, defense systems, toothbrushes and reality itself. The fear was that these codes were so firmly embedded that even though hundreds of old-timey programmers spent thousands of man-months re-writing the affected codes, a few crucial ones and zeroes would be missed and Civilization As We Know It would come crashing down.
As it happened, civilization did crumble (Google: cole slaw wrestling) but computers had nothing to do with it. Those man-months did the trick and progress marched on. Right up until March 11, 2007. This was the onset of the new and improved Daylight Savings Time (DST) and once again, computers were caught with their chronological pants down.
Why This Happened
This time, the best Congress that money can buy got their oars in and the stream of time itself was roiled, boiled, and muddied. Why we got into DST in the first place involves Benjamin Franklin, World War II and farmers and is a bit far a field (ho ho) from our considerations here, but a link to a detailed explanation is at the bottom of this article. Wikipedia sums up the current issue thusly:
Starting in 2007, most of the United States and Canada observe DST from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November, shifting clocks typically at 02:00 local time. The 2007 U.S. change was part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005; previously, from 1987 through 2006, the start and end dates were the first Sunday in April and the last Sunday in October, and Congress retains the right to go back to the previous dates once an energy-consumption study is done.
Where Angels Fear to Tread
So that's one end of it; Man meddling with the Forces of Nature in order to save a few bucks, or crops, or whatever. So why is this a computer issue? Because computers have clocks in them, and those clocks all have the old DST time change date hard-wired into their innards, three weeks after the current change.
Once again, battalions of network admins, computer support people, and just plain Joes (and Janes) swung into action and spent the month of February feverishly patching systems and installing updates. (A software fix is usually called a "patch", as in patching up a hole in the code.) Had this not been done, inaccurate dating of files and file changes would have messed up a lot of applications and scripts.
At the UM where I work, this is even more serious due to reasons of authentication. We use an application called Kerberos which is time-sensitive. Whenever you log into Kerberized areas of the University, you are asked for your password and the time setting of your computer is checked against the master clock at the UM server. If you are more than three minutes off, you can't get in to check your email, update your website, or see your pay stub, etc.. Many businesses also run similar systems, so accurate time-keeping is important.
Obviously, this is also a big deal with calendar systems. Microsoft Exchange servers and clients needed to be updated, and there is an ongoing problem with the UM MeetingMaker calendaring service. MeetingMaker needs to be at version 7.0 for the update patch to work, and we are at version 6. We're not going to 7 until further testing is done, so UM faculty and staff are going to be having scheduling problems for three weeks.
PDA manufacturers such as Palm and Blackberry also had to release patches; I had to download software from Palm for my Pilot and install that. This was a relatively easy installation, as are most from the various providers. A list of available patches is available below.
So Why Didn't I Warn Everybody in Last Month's Article?
I forgot. I figured that since this was such big news, everybody knew about it, and those who didn't, well, their automated updaters built into their computers should have taken care of this transparently. All you sysadmins out there have been aware of this for months, and were no doubt ready to roll by changeover time. Anyone using Windows XP or OS 10.3 or above received the updates as part of their regularly-scheduled packages.
You do have your computer set for automatic updating, right? If not, please do so. Your computer - especially if it is a Windows box - is in dire peril if you do not, as the updating beefs up your security settings to fight off new menaces. Those with older systems will have to muddle along or update their system software. For a lot of people who do not deal with time-related authentication systems, this may not be that a big deal; you will just have an inaccurate clock for 3 weeks, or you can manually re-set it.
And sure enough, civilization did not grind to a halt the Monday after the change. None of my clients had problems, and hopefully, neither did you. If you are experiencing date-related issues, contact the appropriate site below.
But what will happen in November when we switch back? Hopefully, nothing; the updates we are running now should fix that as well. Unless Congress changes the dates again...
Microsoft on the problem:
Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.