Column: Applauding Openness on Y2K

OK, now that the fateful tick of the clock has passed, fess up. How confident were you really that your systems would be glitch-free and that you'd make it through the rollover without incident? How certain were you that everyone had done everything that needed to be done to make serious Y2K-associated problems all but impossible?

In the days leading up to the rollover, I spoke with a number of IS managers and vendors in Hong Kong whose confidence bordered on complacency. I have no idea how much of that was stoicism, blind optimism, genuine certitude, wishful thinking, well-founded confidence, BS or some combination thereof, but I suspect that at least a few of them were more apprehensive than they were willing to admit. And now that the rollover has proved to be such a non-event, it's going to be easy for those who dismissed the whole thing with the wave of a hand to say, "I told you so."

Yet the fact remains that nobody really knew what was going to happen. An informed and reasoned assessment made evident the silliness of those predictions about some sort of global catastrophe, but it would have been equally silly to just assume that we would fare as well as we have so far.

I like the way Hewlett-Packard Hong Kong Managing Director Jack Lee put it as the clock was ticking down: "We believe we have done all we could and are very prepared. The resources are there, the processes are there and the contingency plans are there. But Don, the following best summarizes what chills my spine:

The more we know, the more we know we don't know. And we don't know what (it is that) we don't know."

He was right. No matter what you say now, we just didn't know.

And that's why I'm so impressed with the people at Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Ltd. (HACTL).

In response to a request I had submitted to HACTL Managing Director Anthony Wong, I was welcomed to spend New Year's Eve inside the primary computer center at HACTL, one of the most critical operations in Hong Kong. To appreciate just how critical this particular operation is, all you have to do is remember back to July 1998 when systems failures associated with the relocation of HACTL to the new airport at Chek Lap Kok created absolute chaos in the cargo handling space and had a knock-on effect that did widespread damage throughout the local economy.

That fiasco caused HACTL to take a beating from several quarters, including the media, so few could have blamed the company for being particularly sensitive when Y2K time rolled around. All it needed was another computer-related disaster to have to deal with. Talk about a public relations nightmare.

So I was quite impressed when I got the call from Marcus Mok, the general manager of HACTL's Information Services Department, inviting me to witness the rollover at one of the world's largest air cargo handlers firsthand. Allowing a journalist into the inner sanctum of the organization's computer operations, especially under the circumstances and at such a sensitive time, was pretty cool.

When I arrived at HACTL at about 10:00 on the evening of December 31, it was immediately apparent that this wasn't just another night at SuperTerminal 1.

One of the car parks had been cleared for use as a cargo staging area in the event of a systems breakdown that would create the kind of backlog that HACTL experienced during the Chek Lap Kok relocation.

I was greeted by Mok, who escorted me to the primary computer room. On the way, he pointed to the tarmac outside the terminal where cargo containers had been strewn haphazardly during the relocation debacle. It was obvious that that experience was indelibly etched in the psyches of Mok and his colleagues.

To say they were prepared for the worst this time would be an understatement; he also showed me a room that had been set aside for a press conference in the event of a meltdown, and we happened to pass a gaggle of casual workers who had been hired to help move cargo if the handling systems broke down.

I was led through the secure entranceway of the primary computer room, where approximately 30 programmers and systems analysts were preparing to run a health check of the systems after the rollover. The person in charge was Senior Computer Operations Officer C.K. Ki, who was reviewing the checklist that had been posted on a large whiteboard in the middle of the room. Also overseeing the operation was Eric Wong, the project leader who was responsible for coordinating Y2K activities for the Information Services Department. As busy as they were, both Ki and Wong put themselves at my disposal to answer any questions I had. They gave me a badge that allowed me to move around the area freely; nothing was put off limits, and I had unfettered access to anything I wanted to see and anyone I wanted to talk to.

At 10:30 p.m. the team brought down HACTL's two critical systems -- the Community System for Air Cargo (COSAC) and the Logistics Control System (LCS) -- in order to perform backups and to prepare the cargo inventory reports, and brought them back up at 11:40 p.m. for the rollover. As might be expected, the systems were not accessible to users during the rollover.

Both systems are based on Software AG's Adabas database, and operate on IBM RS/6000s and a range of Enterprise servers and Ultra workstations from Sun Microsystems. A representative from Software AG's Hong Kong office was in the room to monitor the proceedings.

When the clock struck 12, the 30 technicians went into action to perform the health check on the two systems, which rolled over without incident. COSAC, the cargo inventory system which is accessed directly by the airlines, freight forwarding agents and the government's Customs and Excise Department, was handed over to users on schedule at approximately 1:15 a.m. LCS, which manages warehouse activity, was released to users zone by zone throughout the warehouse from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., with most deadlines met ahead of schedule.

By any measure, then, the rollover was a success at HACTL, as it was virtually everywhere else. But that's only part of the story.

What made HACTL unique was that it had the guts to go out on a limb -- to back up its assurances of Y2K-preparedness with a willingness to bare all and let the chips fall where they may. In over nine years of covering Hong Kong's IT community for this publication, I haven't seen a more encouraging example of the kind of openness and transparency that we all want Hong Kong to be known for. Speaking for myself, I can't think of a more positive, heartening way to have entered the new millennium.

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