Three kinds of computers are at risk: personal computers, mainframes
and embedded-chip systems.
There are roughly 300 million personal computers worldwide.
While many of these do control critical process-control systems, most
are stand alone units that do not run critical infrastructure systems.
Consequently, they are the least of our worries.
Mainframe computers are another story. No, they haven’t gone
the way of the dinosaur; they are still the information processing
backbone of government and industry. In fact, mainframe processing power
has actually increased by about 20 percent per year over the last
decade. With more than 700 billion lines of computer code in current use
and more than 500 different computer languages, Y2K remediation on
mainframe computers has been and will remain a significant challenge.
Embedded-chip systems are Y2K’s “dirty little secret.” An
embedded chip is a computer chip with the software code actually burned
onto it. These chips are everywhere. They’re in satellites. They’re at
the bottom of the North Sea regulating the flow of petroleum. They’re in
traffic lights, and weapon systems, fax machines, and cell phones. There
are some 70 billion of these chips worldwide. The good news is that only
about 7 percent of them are date sensitive. The bad news is that we
don’t know which 7 percent without checking 100 percent of them. Even a
year ago this was an impossible task.
Seeing that these systems may cause significant trouble, what if we
just revert to manual systems — the way things used to be. In smaller
systems, it might be possible. But over the last three decades most of
the manual systems have been replaced with automated systems. The manual
technology is gone and so are the people who had the experience.
Take the railway system as one example. Manual switching yards are
defunct and the manual switches themselves are gone.
Or, consider Chase-Manhattan Bank, one of the largest banks in the
United States. This one bank processes a trillion dollars worth of
transactions per day. The only way this is possible is because of very
powerful mainframe computers. An army of accountants could only perform
a fraction of these transactions by hand. It doesn’t take a
genius to suppose what happens if their mainframes go.