Far from the madding code

Dec. 21, 2004
Embedded systems are already causing problems.

While companies are pouring over tens of millions of lines of software code, looking for places where a "00" in the date field might cause havoc, a separate but equally urgent Y2K challenge is looming in the microprocessors tucked into every type of factory equipment imaginable. Many of these embedded systems have date fields, and many were designed with no thought at all to the new millennium. In fact, problems are already occurring. "There was a pharmaceutical company that had systems that could automatically discard expired products," says Capers Jones, chairman of Software Productivity Research Inc., Burlington, Mass. "One machine was stamping 00 on new products, and further down the line the machines that read the date were fooled by that and were dumping brand-new product." There is almost no way to test embedded systems. "If you have the code that is working inside the processor," says author and analyst Rich Bergeon, "you may be able to give it to your programmers and have them study it to see if there will be date problems." Thats a technique known as "desk checking," but its a longshot. Not only do companies rarely have the code used in embedded systems, but in many cases they cant be sure who made the chips. Equipment manufacturers buy many microprocessors from different vendors depending on price and may not be able to say what exactly is inside that Acme 4000 humming away on the factory floor. Add to that the fact that the equipment manufacturer may be out of business or that the equipment has been bought and resold so many times that the manufacturer no longer feels any responsibility for it, and any wish to test embedded systems becomes a fantasy. "About half our customers dont know what will happen with their embedded systems when the calendar changes to the year 2000," says Jennifer McNeill, president of Cipher Systems Ltd., a Y2K consulting organization in Calgary, Alta. Not that its all bleak. "We use a lot of equipment from Fischer and Honeywell," says Azamul Kahrim, Y2K project manager for Syncrude Canada Ltd., an oil producer in Fort McMurray, Alta., "and they have been very good in informing us about which systems may be affected, and in supplying fixes." Still, Kahrim agrees with Fina Oil & Chemicals Y2K project manager Jack Sanders that the problem of software fixes pales in comparison with the challenge of testing embedded systems. "We know its impossible to know everything about every embedded system," Kahrim says, "so were looking at each function, asking ourselves what the impact of a failure would be, and prioritizing." And what will Syncrude do when it faces systems it cant test? "We are adopting the three Rs," Kahrim says. "Repair, replace, or retire it." He says there has been no need to swap out old equipment in favor of machinery known to be Y2K compliant, but doesnt rule out the possibility that as 2000 draws closer Syncrudes budget for new equipment will have to rise. Finas Sanders says that, while his company got a late start in assessing any problems that could arise from embedded systems, his organization is now moving quickly, with the help of his competitors. "We work with other members of the American Petroleum Institute," he says. "Everyone is very good about sharing information on this topic. Competitive issues really disappear when youre all trying to make sure your supply chain doesnt collapse." The good news about Y2K issues, including embedded systems, is that information is abundant. "Theres a sense that were all in this together," Sanders says. The bad news is that, as McNeill says, "With machines having replaced people, these chips are everywhere."

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