Feds signal deepening Y2K crisis (Part 2)

Although many agencies assume new PCs will be Year 2000-compliant the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently discovered that an order of 600 high-end computers failed to pass its test and the group is now working with its contractor on an upgrade.

Most agencies are focused on testing older computers - 386s and early 486 models - but as NRC discovered new Pentium computers may be vulnerable to the Year 2000 bug.

NRC found a problem with new 200 MHz Pentium PCs that it bought in January under a contract with Sylvest Management Systems Corp. NRC personnel discovered a problem with an internal clock on the PCs' motherboards while testing the products for Year 2000 compliance.

The PCs passed an earlier test administered by NRC but the August test found that the systems' real-time clock was not Year 2000-compliant said Guy Wright chief of the end-users support-services branch at NRC. "A new test became available that exercised the real-time clock rather vigorously " Wright said.

NRC might have overcome the limitations of the internal clock by manually resetting the clock or running a corrective software algorithm. However the agency had required the PCs to be Year 2000-compliant without human intervention a stipulation that rules out manual correction by definition as well as common software fixes.

This requirement goes beyond the General Services Administration's recommended Year 2000 contract language observers said. Sylvest a subcontractor that manufactured the PCs and component suppliers are now working with NRC to address the issue.

Wright said NRC adopted its contract language because the agency wanted its guarantee of compliance as "iron clad as possible." He said the language was not driven by the criticality of the NRC's mission however. Wright said the PCs purchased under the Sylvest pact are for office applications although he added that some could possibly be used for scientific applications. Four hundred of the affected systems have already been delivered to NRC with 200 still pending.

Gregory P. Cirillo a partner with Williams Mullen Christian & Dobbins Washington D.C. said NRC's more stringent Year 2000 language is "not at all unreasonable." He recommends contract language that requires a vendor's system to continue to operate without intervention or degradation.

PC-related Year 2000-compliance issues are beginning to surface in the federal sector. The majority of the PCs evaluated at NASA's Lewis Research Center Cleveland failed Year 2000 tests [FCW Sept. 15] because the computers' Basic Input Output System (BIOS) was not compliant.

Robert A. Martin Mitre Corp.'s Year 2000 point person said the real-time clock and BIOS problem is more readily addressed than other Year 2000 issues because the problem is confined to one area. "Of all the problems this one is the most controllable " he said.

NRC's PCs failed compliance testing due to the real-time clock used. A real-time clock is a chip that synchronizes the activities of a PC and keeps track of time. Some applications directly access the real-time clock for date-related information. A PC's BIOS also taps the real-time clock when calculating dates.

The real-time clock was manufactured by Dallas Semiconductor Corp. Dallas and was included on a motherboard manufactured by EliteGroup Computer Systems Inc. Fremont Calif. The boards in turn were used in PCs manufactured for Sylvest by AR Group.

EliteGroup officials could not be reached for comment.

Dallas Semiconductor readily admits that the real-time clocks used in the NRC PCs are not compliant. The company has been manufacturing chips with and without a "century counter" that provides Year 2000 compliance said Jim Lott senior product manager for Dallas Semiconductor's timekeeping group.

The noncompliant clock which cost 60 cents less per chip is contained on the board manufactured by EliteGroup. Lott said the difference appears small but makes a big difference to volume manufacturers when they buy components.

Dallas Semiconductor in 10 days plans to start the initial production run of the Year 2000-compliant clocks to be used in the NRC PCs.

Sylvest has agreed to install the chips in NRC's PCs " said Jim Linnekin a program manager with Sylvest.

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