'Old' LAN gear poses year 2000 risk

Companies relying on internetworking equipment that's two or more years old risk LAN failures in the year 2000 that would deny end users access to mission-critical applications.

That's because the top four networking vendors aren't testing most "older" products and are advising users to upgrade software and replace devices that aren't year 2000-compliant.

Many have already purchased or plan to upgrade to Y2K-compliant equipment, so there isn't a lot of concern being voiced by users about the issue. But experts say about 10 per cent of US companies are at risk of suffering network troubles caused by the year 2000 bug.

"People expect the network to be up all the time and PCs to crash. But with Y2K, it doesn't matter if PCs are up if the network isn't -- because they won't be able to get to anything else," said Michelle Famiglietti, LAN/WAN analyst at Safety-Kleen in South Carolina.

Y2K errors in LAN components can cause everything from network congestion and degraded performance to total LAN failure, said Neil Rickard, an analyst specialising in that area at Gartner Group. "The impact can be devastating."

Internetworking equipment such as routers, switches and hubs have real-time clocks or use operating systems that - like their computer brethren - rely on two-digit dates that won't be able to discern between 1900 and 2000. But there are ways to address the problem.

Safety-Kleen, a waste services company, used a network discovery and Y2K-readiness assessment software package from Massachusetts-based NetSuite Development to inventory and determine the status of its internetworking equipment.

The company found that it needed to upgrade code on two Cisco routers. The code was free because the devices were covered under a software maintenance contract with Cisco, Famiglietti said.

Observers and users said many companies didn't start considering the impact of year 2000 on their networks until about a year ago. That's because companies first addressed Cobol mainframe applications, desktop PCs and related applications.

"It's true that many companies are just getting to their networks now because they were either busy with large-scale mainframe work or because the level of awareness of [the] implications for networks wasn't there," said a Y2K project manager at a Northeastern insurance company. "When we first started to ask vendors for help a year ago, they told us we were among the very first to ask about this issue."

Many companies didn't start exploring the issue until 18 months ago, said Carl Greiner, an analyst at Meta Group. "It's still not too late and is something companies absolutely have to focus on," he said.

For their part, Cisco, 3Com, Nortel and Cabletron have long posted the year 2000 status of both current and discontinued products on their Web sites. Users said that information has been extremely helpful.

Some users don't fault the Big Four for not testing discontinued products - some of which are only a few years old - and for requiring upgrades to Y2K-compliant software releases.

"I have no issue with what the vendors have done and think they've been pretty up-front on their product status," said Gregory Parham, executive director of the Y2K program office at the US Department of Agriculture in Washington.

Companies that upgrade or replace their equipment and software usually face a much smaller risk.

"Our policy is not to leave our network infrastructure in place for that long," said Steve Lopez, network manager at the National Board of Medical Examiners in Philadelphia.

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