Guest Column: Y2K lockdown

Whether or not the new year actually brings a widespread electronic meltdown, some corporate year-2000 plans may cause much more harm than good. Even if you don't fall into the group I'm about to describe, there are lessons to be learned from this experience.

The idea behind a "Y2K lockdown" of applications and systems is essentially to freeze the critical parts of your IT infrastructure once you have achieved year-2000 compliance -- or at least reached a point in the process at which you don't want to introduce any more variables. If you don't take on any new applications, update the code, or begin new initiatives, the argument goes, you reduce the potential unknowns.

There are some non-IT reasons for a lockdown, as well. According to Giga Information Group, the business side of the house is often behind a freeze -- to limit legal risks or comply with financial reporting regulations.

The actual number of companies choosing a lockdown strategy is unknown. However, according to industry reports, some companies implemented a freeze as early as June of this year, but most of those employing lockdowns are just putting them into effect now and expect to keep them in place until sometime in the first quarter of 2000.

So where's the harm?

Although there's nothing wrong with some healthy paranoia, a true lockdown is often not even possible. In larger environments with systems of every description, in multiple locations, representing millions (or billions) of lines of code, there just isn't enough time or money to test for 100 percent year-2000 compliance. Plus, factors that include required maintenance, software bugs, viruses, and hardware failures may make changes necessary. And, depending on your environment, end-users may introduce changes regardless of your lockdown decree.

What's more, the longer a lockdown continues, the longer the list of upgrades, fixes, and new technology that needs to be bought and implemented -- which means a huge hit on budgets and resources early next year.

There's one more reason to think twice before instituting a lockdown: competition. Surveys and analysis reports show that companies will make significant IT investments over the next 12 to 18 months to build up their electronic-commerce capabilities in order to improve their business processes, customer relationships, and supply-chain interaction. If you're not among them, you could be left behind.

So, if not a lockdown, what's the answer?

This issue is all about risk and resource management. You need to make logical choices about which systems should be isolated and what constitutes an acceptable risk. After all, you don't want to find yourself next February with pristine systems and no customers.

A more realistic alternative to a lockdown is to institute -- and live by -- configuration management. This involves defining and implementing processes and tools designed to avoid problems introduced by systems maintenance and operating issues. It requires strict adherence to rules about how changes are authorised and implemented. It means documenting and tracking code changes that may never have been documented before.

Regardless of how you address the lockdown issue, don't forget to deal with the demands of the marketplace, which should lead you to the next step: a comprehensive electronic-business plan. This plan is one in which you set business priorities, identify risks, and lay out a course of action. It's also the road map for implementing system changes and upgrades that support your online strategy.

There's no time to lose. The end of the year is upon us, and the e-business juggernaut is picking up speed. Don't wait for some point in the future when you think it's "safe" to implement changes. Follow your plan, weigh the risks, and take action now ... because the real risk is losing your competitive edge.

Janet Wylie is president and CEO of Intelicent, in Fairfax, Virginia.

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