To the Y2K Ramparts!

As the focus on the millennium--bug problem moves from the data center to the boardroom, a growing number of companies -- including Sears and Prudential -- are establishing year 2000 war rooms to monitor crisis--management activities.

In these command centers, senior management and millennium project teams will try to keep tabs on the progress of year 2000 tasks such as testing milestones and supplier--readiness through next year.

In some cases, the war rooms, furnished with videoconferencing equipment and computer--generated maps, will also help project teams monitor regional power outages and other localized operations affected during the millennium rollover.

But assigning people to run year 2000 command centers can have a downside, in that it pulls them away from their normal tasks, said Phil Murphy, an analyst at Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "There's a yin and yang to that," he said.

Still, the command center idea is especially appealing to multinational companies seeking to monitor operations across the globe during the century change, Murphy said.

For example, Textron Inc., an aircraft and industrial manufacturer in Providence, Rhode Island, is considering setting up a command center. One reason is to anticipate the year 2000 impact on its U.S. operations after observing the impact of the rollover -- which will occur earlier in various time zones -- in places such as Australia, said Sandy Gieber, year 2000 program manager at Textron's Cessna Aircraft Co. unit in Wichita, Kansas.

The concept of a central command post is hardly new to companies such as Sears, Roebuck and Co. The Hoffman Estates, Illinois--based retailer sets up a war room each year just before the five--week holiday shopping crunch to check systems performance, inventory levels and other operations at its 3,500 department stores, warehouses, credit facilities and other locations, said Keith Watkins, vice president of information systems services at Sears.

But this time around, Sears' command center will monitor a project that will last for more than a year.

During the millennium rollover, if the Columbus, Ohio, area, for example, loses power, telecommunications or water supplies or suffers some other disruption, Sears will be able to track that from command sites in Schaumburg, Illinois., and Dallas, Watkins said.

In the event that regional outages knock out local, long--distance or cellular phone service, Sears is considering equipping its command staffs with walkie--talkies or ham radios. Watkins said he expects the Hoffman Estates command center to be staffed by "no more" than 10 IT and business managers, with personnel monitoring the situation from warehouses, stores and their homes.

While Sears finishes designing and building a year 2000 war room at its headquarters over the next three months, the company is using Watkins' office as a temporary command post. "It's a war cubicle," he joked.

Watkins said the command center, which is still in the design stage, will likely resemble a conference room fed by phone lines, with a corkboard wall holding maps and contingency procedures.

Irene Dec, year 2000 project director at Prudential Insurance Company of America in Newark, New Jersey, originally had planned to escape to a Caribbean island for four weeks beginning in late December 1999. "But if the phones don't work, and I don't know what's happening [at Prudential during the millennium change], it [will] drive me crazy," she said.

So instead, she will remain in Prudential's operations command center in New Jersey to monitor the company's millennium rollover. CIO Bill Friel and other executives will be able to log on to Prudential's secured intranet site to check the status of facilities throughout the world, Dec said.

(Senior editor Barb Cole--Gomolski contributed to this report.)Sidebar: Flying Shrapnel an Margin CallsThe National Association of Securities Dealers Inc. (NASD), which runs the Nasdaq Stock Market, already has a "crisis room" in its Trumbull, Connecticut, data center.

The room, which looks like a mini television studio, has two--way videoconferencing links to offices in New York, Washington and Rockville, Maryland. That lets executives such as NASD President Frank Zarb talk face--to--face with crisis managers and "see" what's happening during a market crash or another event, said Gregor S. Bailar, CIO and executive vice president at NASD.

Year 2000 project team members will be able to view graphic readouts on mainframe CPU utilization rates, transaction processing rates and other systems performance metrics.

During the year 2000 rollover, Zarb and other top brass at NASD will also be able to dial in to a secured Web site using software authentication tools and hardware security "tokens" to view systems performance rates after the ball drops in Times Square, Bailar said.

But Bailar said he suspects that Zarb and other NASD executives will opt for receiving a phone call for a status report "instead of having them wheedle through CPU graphs on our Web site" on New Year's Eve, he said.

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