One more air traffic system tested, 75 to go

The US Federal Aviation Administration recently claimed 40 of its aging IBM mainframe computers have been successfully tested and are year 2000-ready, but the mainframe vendor and an industry analyst are skeptical.

After months of being criticised for falling behind on year 2000 work, the agency recently said the IBM 3083s at 20 air traffic control centres were tested for three months and found to handle the date change. Those water-cooled mainframes are used to relay data from radar to the screens of air traffic controllers and represent just one of the FAA's 225 mission-critical air traffic control systems. IBM advised the FAA to replace the mainframes last October, warning that the skills and tools to do a complete year 2000 test weren't available.

IBM refused to endorse the FAA's tests. "We're not in a position to pass judgment on their tests because IBM was not involved in their testing," IBM spokesman Mark Nelson said. "IBM's position is that [the 3083s] should be replaced because of age and scarcity of parts. ... They're not year 2000-compliant."

Coline Rankine, an analyst at Giga Information Group questioned the FAA tests of the 3083s. "It's possible that they do understand where the year 2000 exposures are, but their test doesn't give me a warm fuzzy [feeling]," Rankine said. "I am not going to take a flight that week, and I'm serious."

Despite IBM's warning last October, the FAA decided to conduct its own tests of the mainframes, even as its upgrade effort was under way to replace all the machines before year 2000, according to Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the FAA.

Two retired IBM programmers hired by the FAA and several agency employees checked about 5 million lines of microcode to see if the date change would force a shutdown of the mainframe's cooling pumps, Takemoto said.

They found that the microcode processes years as a number between one and 31, assuming 1975 (the year the mainframes went online) as Year 1. That means the system would fail Jan. 1, 2007, not 2000.

Whether that finding proves accurate or not, IBM is on a schedule to replace all the 3083s with IBM 9672 mainframes by June 1999, Nelson said.

Rankine said the 3083 problems could go beyond the 32-year counter. "The concern is the software in the operating system," Rankine added.

Takemoto said the saving grace of the FAA will be its backup systems. "Believe it or not," he said, the FAA has backups for all 225 air traffic control systems, one of which is for the 3083s, and all the backups are compliant.

The FAA has set June 1999 as the target date for having its systems ready. Overall, the FAA has 655 systems; 433 are considered mission-critical, including the 225 that govern air traffic control systems. Of those 225, 75 still require renovation, Takemoto said.

The FAA's timetable was roundly criticised by Congress in the spring, and the agency has been the butt of some gibing by John A. Koskinen, director of the president's Year 2000 Conversion Council. In a speech to bankers in New York in June, Koskinen said, "The FAA has become the poster child for year 2000 problems" because of the dire predictions by doomsayers of planes falling from the sky.

But in an act of faith in the agency and in contrast to the views of analysts such as Rankine, Koskinen has repeatedly said he believes the FAA's backup systems will be year 2000-compliant and he will even take a flight to New York on 1 January 2000.

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