Millennium bug reshapes tool market
- By Brian Robinson
- Jan 18, 1998
With federal agencies intensifying their efforts to find and fix Year 2000 software problems the tools market has expanded dramatically in the sheer number of tools available and in the range of capabilities they offer.
Just a year or so ago most of the tools were aimed at Cobol the standard programming language for many business applications. Additionally these tools offered only basic functionality— primarily for combing through software code and simply identifying instances where a two-digit date field would cause the program to read a Year 2000 date as 1900.
But with the increased numbers come new capabilities including support for more languages and computing platforms and new functionality for managing Year 2000 fixes including an emphasis on testing code that has been fixed.
The Information Technology Association of America has been publishing a Year 2000 directory of tool vendors for sev eral years and it has seen the listing grow from just 50 companies in 1996 to about 125 at the end of last year. And most of that increase has happened relatively recently according to ITAA spokesman Bob Cohen. "We are seeing a lot of new entrants into the marketplace " he said.
The impact of this ballooning market on federal IT decisions is hard to gauge observers said. Some agencies have chosen to rely primarily on home-grown solutions deploying off-the-shelf solutions in only limited areas. Ultimately according to some analysts the increasing urgency of the so-called "millennium bug" may dictate the extent to which agencies make use of the tool market.
A Question of Quality
From the beginning quality has been a problem with many tools according to analysts and agency sources.
Lou Marciccio the Year 2000 research director at The Gartner Group described the early tool offerings as "basically a bunch of garbage tools on top of regular maintenance tools."
That began changing about a year ago as customers began demanding more useful tools that applied to multiple languages and to platforms other than mainframes. And now tool companies are moving into integrated tool suites "because customers don't want to deal with so many choices [of tools] or the large number of different vendors " Marciccio said.
Additionally many government IT environments are so heterogeneous that solutions can vary tremendously for different parts of an entity said Nancy Peters vice president for Year 2000 strategic marketing at integrator CACI Inc. Arlington Va. "We have methodology aimed at managing the whole process " she said "so we go out to get the appropriate tools for the particular environment."
However some agencies said they still do not have too high an opinion of most commercial tools.
"The state of most tools particularly those that have been developed strictly for Year 2000 is still very immature " said Bonnie Fisher the Year 2000 proj-ect manager at the Transportatio n Department's Transportation Administrative Services Center. Her group has developed most of the tools it uses in-house and it has only bought two commercial tools "for evaluation purposes " she said.
"Basically we have found that when people have bought tools from vendors they have proven hard to use and have produced reams of paper but have not taken people much further along in the conversion process " Fisher said.
Julia McCreary Laws the Year 2000 project office section chief at the Internal Revenue Service said her agency had to make decisions in the summer of 1996 about what to do with its systems luckily it still found itself with a large number of programmers who could do Year 2000 remediation by hand. Nevertheless the IRS still chose a couple of commercial tools to help with IBM Assembler and Cobol problems.
"We bought the tools specifically to tackle those environments " Laws said "and they worked very well on the front end and helped us to identify problems." However she war ned such tools should not be considered a panacea. "Even with highly automated renovation I've heard a lot of objections [to such tools]."
Tools that address specific computing environments are producing the best results federal users said.
The Health Care Financing Administration for example is a major user of Computer Corporation of America's Model 204 mainframe DBMS which was first used extensively within the intelligence community before slowly migrating to other agencies. It comprises 60 to 70 percent of HCFA's entire code inventory. The agency is using tools from Sirius Software Inc. Cambridge Mass. to help with its code conversion.
The company's Sir2000 family of tools includes a user language tool a database analysis tool and a field migration facility that changes two-digit year date fields to four-digit fields while allowing database users to continue using two-digit fields on-screen— what might be called a "shadow" four-digit date field.
This database-centric approach i s different from many solutions that leave databases as they are and confine data changes to application logic or changing how the computer perceives a date the company said.
"There's probably not enough time to test solutions fully between now and 1999 so much of the focus is on trying to extend the time that users can use a two-digit year " said Sirius president Gary Gregory. The approach Sirius takes in converting to shadow four-digit fields he said allows people to prioritize and "strategically change" only those dates that need to be changed.
John Igoe senior computer specialist in HCFA's Office of Information Systems said HCFA uses the Sirius tool to change one piece of software at a time and then put it back into the production system. "We do the data first and make the software catch up " Igoe said. "That way if one piece of code blows up we can fix just that and not the whole system."
Into 2000 a Jasper Ga.-based company that focuses on IBM's AS/400 system takes a similar ap proach to easing the conversion process. Its tools search for and change two-digit year fields to four digits while leaving the two-digit screen field the same. The tools run on a PC attached to the AS/400 so all of the analysis and remediation can be done offline without disturbing the AS/400 production environment.
Because they run on a PC the tools also can be used in a Microsoft Corp. Windows environment thereby reducing the need for specialized programmers. That is a big advantage Into 2000 spokesman Lee Muldur said "because there are few [AS/400] programmers out there." Into 2000 claims its tools will automatically fix up to 90 percent of an AS/400 Year 2000 problem depending on "how clean" the original code is.
Longtime participants in the federal market meanwhile continue to lead the pack with a range of mature tools that have been developed over long association with their customers.
Viasoft Inc. for example has a solution it calls Enterprise 2000 that is broken down into two components: ESW 2000 which integrates the company's Existing Systems Workbench with a variety of other tools for those organizations that prefer to do their own code conversion in-house and Fast Path 2000 which marries ESW 2000 with
Viasoft's Professional Services and is for those who require more extensive outside help.
Computer Associates International Inc.
Islandia N.Y. announced at the beginning of this month the general availability of its CA-Fix/2000 tool which provides for automated fixes of Cobol-based Year 2000 problems. The company claims that CA-Fix/2000 as a component of the company's CA Discover 2000 solution can correct an entire application in a single pass.
However the trick in all of this according to Mike Miller senior vice president with CA Federal is to get organizations started. "Six months from now there will be an increased sense of urgency about this " he said "but for now there is still a slowness in attitudes over Year 2000."
Emphasis on Testin g
The newer generation of tools has a much heavier emphasis on testing Year 2000 fixes which many observers view as the most important element because testing represents up to half of the total cost and effort of Year 2000 projects.
Many of the better and more mature tools on the market are the result of the experience that vendors have had with managing larger and more diverse development and maintenance programs. Year 2000 in this sense is simply a subset of the skills needed for these programs albeit with a particular twist of its own.
"We never before had to be bothered about when we tested the result of these maintenance programs " said Brian Anderson a product manager with Compuware Corp. Farmington Hill Mich. "but now it's critical. In this sense Year 2000 is unique because it's such a huge regression testing effort."
Regression testing— what Anderson called the "classic way" to test huge volumes of data— is the testing of systems after programmers have finished their busin ess. "It defines a baseline " Anderson said. "You know what the correct answer is and in the testing you find the differences of the tested product from that answer."
It also means testing for dates beyond the Year 2000 so tools must include the ability to simulate many dates both before and after the Year 2000.
Compuware tackles this "time-dimensional" testing through a suite of tools that include File-AID/Data Ager XPEDITER/Xchange and QAHiperstation. File-AID/Data Ager intelligently ages data contained in tapes files databases and control input thereby allowing programmers to simulate a Year 2000 situation. XPEDITER/Xchange essentially does the same thing for system dates and times. Then QAHiperstation fully automates the most repetitive and time-consuming tasks for VTAM-based application testing.
Princeton Softech Princeton N.J. takes a similar tack with its Ager 2000 tool. Using what the company calls "semantic" data aging Princeton claims its tool intelligently ages data accord ing to an organization's individual business rules so programmers do not have to debug test data before they get around to the programs themselves.
Ager 2000 is aimed at mainframe-based Multiple Virtual Storage operating system files and databases and it directly updates the Virtual Sequential Access Method file management system or sequential files. Used with database import/export facilities it can also be used to create aged test data for many other mainframe database systems.
EMC Corp. one of the world's biggest enterprise mainframe storage companies is pushing more of a hardware-oriented solution for Year 2000 testing.
"When you go into the testing environment there's really only one way to make up time " according to James Baker Year 2000 program manager for EMC. "That's to do the conversion operation and then test and set up conversion as a requirement of proving Year 2000 compliance. We are the I/O in that test environment because disk capacity is usually full or near to being full ."
EMC's system sets up a "mirror" of the production data on a remote disk array system on which all of the remediation and testing is done before the solution is integrated back into the production environment. As the system is constantly updating the mirror system testing is always carried out on live data. Copies of existing volumes also can be divided among several teams that are working on Year 2000 problems.
The company is in the early stages of implementing this Year 2000 solution said Bruce Triner vice president of government systems but it already has about a dozen federal customers.
In one of its solutions IBM takes a slightly different approach to data duplication using a software product called SnapShot. Rather than mirroring a full set of data IBM storage system software maps a volume of stored data to produce "pointers " or memory addresses to different elements of that volume and then invokes SnapShot to produce a copy of the volume.
Because it uses pointers the dupl ication takes 15 seconds or less compared with the 20 minutes or so that it would take through ordinary copying proc-esses according to IBM. Tests of code fixes can be made on the copied volume and if a bug is found other copies of the volume can be produced over and over using the same pointers without affecting the production system.
A Matter of Survival
Some observers feel there could be a change in attitude about the Year 2000 this year. Organizations that have not yet begun fixing their problems will be looking for anything that will allow them to survive into the next millennium.
"I feel people will be getting more frantic for patching tools as Year 2000 gets closer to actuality " CACI's Peters said. "It won't be down to 'How can I fix this?' but 'How can I survive it?' "
Not everyone is convinced. Gartner's Marciccio for example sees the talk of coming panic as hype that has been largely whipped up by vendors that no longer have a market for their analysis tools now that m any of the companies they previously sold to are moving into the testing phase.
Others however definitely see panic ahead. Peter de Jager an independent analyst who has been writing about Year 2000 issues since the early 1990s thinks even organizations that have already begun the process could be forced into more urgent action.
"Because of the short time left to fix things testing will have to be cut back to the bare minimum " he said "and that will cause its own problems and delays. Companies and organizations will be forced into triage even though they may not want to do it that way."
Even so de Jager agrees that the urgency in Year 2000 projects this year will shape the market. In particular he expects that customers will prefer to go with those vendors that have already proven themselves in the market. "I think new tools vendors will find it very difficult to get attention simply because of the lack of evaluation time available " he said.
Six months from now he said compan ies and government agencies will finally realize they have a problem and "some very serious and intense people" will wind up working on it. It will be down to a simple choice he said "between survival and nonsurvival."
-- Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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At a Glance
Status: Year 2000 tools have expanded beyond Cobol. They now address many more platforms and languages and more often come in integrated packages.
Issues: User requirements are increasingly complex as testing becomes a much more important factor in Year 2000 programs.
Outlook: Uncertain. With the growing urgency for Year 2000 fixes "triage" needs could govern the demand for tools.