Y2K freeze

After spraying for bugs, you don't open the doors and windows. That's the advice the federal government has decided to follow with the Year 2000 bug.

Many agencies, having spent billions of dollars fixing mission-critical systems for the Year 20000 computer problem, have barred or severely restricted the purchase of hardware and software until March to avoid introducing any new Year 2000 bugs that may shut down their computer systems. The restrictions extend to March to avoid problems that could occur on Feb. 29 if noncompliant systems do not recognize 2000 as a leap year.

The list of agencies taking added precautions include such big IT spenders as the departments of Defense and Justice and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Even departments that stopped short of a total freeze, such as DOD, made it extremely difficult for subordinate agencies to purchase or install new IT software or hardware. John Hamre, deputy secretary of Defense, said DOD needs to ensure that until March 15 any new IT system configuration "does not add undue Y2K risk."

To back that up, Hamre slapped tough configuration controls on all of DOD, requiring changes to already-tested, Year 2000-compliant systems to be approved by its four-star commanders in chief, such as those who run the European and Pacific commands.

The Marines tightened the policy language more, mandating a "frozen software configuration load" from Oct. 1 through March 1. The Navy, in a message sent by chief information officer Dan Porter, told all commands that the "bottom line is that no changes to Y2K-compliant systems should be made unless absolutely necessary" until March 15.

The FAA, whose air traffic control systems could induce a nationwide New Year's hangover if they are bit by the Year 2000 bug, has instituted a freeze on all IT equipment purchases until March 31, according to a spokesman from the Transportation Department .

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority—which operates the Ronald Reagan Washington National and Dulles International airports that serve the nation's capital—likewise does not want to tinker with its Year 2000-compliant systems and has frozen new system software changes until after Feb. 29.The Health Care Financing Administration, the federal agency in charge of the Medicaid and Medicare programs, has established a moratorium on systems changes through April 1, said agency CIO Gary Christoph. "We've done so much testing and validation, and we're not going to do anything to upset that apple cart," he said.

A number of departments have found a middle ground between declaring an outright moratorium and placing no restrictions at all.

The Agriculture Department plans to allow its agencies to continue buying hardware and software, although agencies will not be allowed to install new system software until after the rollover. "One of the concerns is [that] if we put a hard freeze on acquisitions, it may prohibit people from buying patches coming out for Y2K," said Anne Reed, CIO at the USDA. "We're trying to urge people to be smart about it rather than by edict."

Nevertheless, the USDA's National Information Technology Center, which processes data for numerous federal agencies, placed a limited moratorium on system software changes for its mainframes.

George Molaski, CIO at the Transportation Department, gave individual DOT agencies wide latitude to institute a freeze.

But, Molaski said, he wants DOT agencies such as the Coast Guard to "make sure any changes you make [to IT systems] don't undo what's been done."

Deputy DOT CIO Eugene Taylor cautioned DOT systems managers to "carefully consider any modifications to a Y2K-complaint system," suggesting such changes be "deferred" until at least after the turn of the millennium.

Like DOT, the Justice Department did not issue a blanket freeze order to its agencies. But department officials have frozen software and hardware changes for the two data centers shared by the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has declared a moratorium on information technology additions or changes until March 31 but will allow a number of exceptions, said Ernesto Castro, the department's Year 2000 program manager.

VA systems managers can obtain a waiver to make emergency repairs or add simple hardware, such as a new desktop workstation. The moratorium also will not apply for systems that may need to be reconfigured to calculate cost of living increases for veterans' benefit payments or for systems that have to be reprogrammed to accommodate congressional mandates for new benefits.

-- Dan Caternicchia, Colleen O'Hara, Paula Shaki Trimble, L. Scott Tillett and Daniel Verton contributed to this article.

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Sample of Agencies' Y2K Freeze

* Health Care Financing Administration—Freeze on all system changes through April 1.

* Justice—Freeze on data centers' software.

* Federal Aviation Administration—Freeze on all hardware and software.

*Marine Corps—Freeze on all software only.

*Veterans Affairs—Freeze on all hardware and software.

Vendors don't feel chill - yet

Vendors selling to the federal market contacted by Federal Computer Week said for the most part they have not seen a slowdown in business because of freezes or restrictions on agency hardware and software changes.

Joel Lipkin, vice president of business development for Government Technology Services Inc., said that in terms of PC sales, "We're not seeing anybody slowing down or holding off because of Y2K. I think people are doing rational procurements. [They] recognize that the last thing you want to do is freeze your old systems just because it's almost January."

Pedro Ferro, marketing director of Dell Federal, also said the company has not seen much of a slowdown in PC sales. The company, however, has experienced "a little less in the enterprise business than we wanted to see," he said.

Although the slowdown has yet to occur, some companies are bracing for it. John Leahy, acting director of marketing for Sun Microsystems Federal Inc., said his company has "not seen a noticeable slowdown" even though "it's something we thought would occur."

But other companies are convinced that the freeze has had an impact.

"Business is much slower than normal for the week before Thanksgiving," said Alan Bechara, vice president of Comark Federal Systems. Still, Bechara said he believed the IT lockdown instituted by many agencies through March would have only a "modest" impact on his business.

Although the slowdown still may affect software and some hardware, PC sales should remain level, said Chip Mather, an analyst and senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. "A PC is not going to cause damage" to already-tested mission-critical systems, Mather said.

Mather said he believes that any slowdown in large-scale systems development projects is directly related to Year 2000 but not because of a purchasing freeze. Mather said such programs could be stalled because development funds may already have been siphoned off for Year 2000 fixes.

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