PCs are really only part of the problem. This expert shows you how to tackle the other component of your enterprise’s computer problems: embedded systems.

Get Your Embedded Systems Ready for Y2K

PCs are really only part of the problem. This expert shows you how to tackle the other component of your enterprise’s computer problems: embedded systems.

You probably think problems associated with the Year 2000 only involve traditional computers. The other component involves embedded systems, which for many may seem confusing and somewhat mysterious. But as the resident "computer expert," you may discover that you’ve been put in charge of this part of Y2K remediation for your organization as well. In this article, I explain ways to tackle this project.

To perform their functions, many embedded systems rely upon a date or time. A good example of this is elevators. Why do elevators use date functions? They’re programmed to be serviced on a given maintenance schedule. If maintenance isn’t performed according to schedule, they can stop functioning altogether. Thus, if the date inadvertently changes to 1900, the maintenance schedule is thrown out of whack. The likely result will be that the elevator will return to the first floor and discontinue working until the problem is corrected.

OK, you can just plan to take the stairs, right? Not so fast. To test for Y2K problems in a particular plant, Chrysler Corp. advanced its clocks ahead. Unfortunately, the security system shut down and wouldn’t let anyone in or out. Manufacturing plants, machine shops, farms, trucking industries, railroads, airlines, copy centers, water systems, local telephone providers, power companies, and many others are at considerable risk.

What Are the Implications for You?

Even if you don’t work in one if the industries just listed, you may still have devices that are at risk of malfunction or failure. Many devices in your company still must be verified for Y2K-compliance. While the following list should cover many of the more common areas, it’s by no means exhaustive. You’ll probably find additional devices in your environment as you perform your inventory.

  • Air conditioning systems
  • Automated door locks
  • Backup lighting systems
  • Building management systems
  • Burglar and fire alarms
  • Cash registers
  • CCTV systems
  • Elevators and escalators
  • Fire control systems
  • Generators
  • Heating and ventilating systems
  • Hubs and routers
  • Lighting systems
  • Photocopiers
  • Printers
  • Safes and vaults
  • Satellite systems
  • Security cameras and related video equipment
  • Sprinkler systems
  • Telephone systems
  • Uninterruptible power supplies
  • VCRs

Where is Your Y2K Project Now?

After working with several clients and finding areas that companies haven’t considered, my company developed a Y2K maturity model based upon its Network Operations Management framework. By using metrics to measure the maturity of the project, a company can measure how complete the project really is. Additionally, the project is then documented to show that a company has done due diligence in becoming Y2K-compliant. This may be invaluable for legal protection if your company is sued.

As you perform your project, be sure to have brainstorming sessions with all involved parties to ensure that all devices are assessed. At various stages in the project implement additional assessments to ensure that no stone is left unturned. Furthermore, the documentation you create may become important later if customers or partners claim that you failed to properly prepare for the Year 2000.

Let’s Get Some Work Done

Now that you have some idea about the devices involved, it’s time to roll up your sleeves. First, perform an inventory. The inventory should contain all relevant information for each device. Typically, this would include the manufacturer name, device name, model, and serial number. While this is all that’s required, you may also wish to include asset tag numbers and the location of the device. This information may be helpful if you need to work on a device later. In fact, if your company doesn’t have an inventory already, this step alone provides a great benefit. Your accountant—and your boss—will be thrilled. One area where you may have some difficulty with this process is in soliciting the help of others in your organization. You have to share your vision of Year 2000 compliance with others to get them adequately motivated; otherwise, you may have an even larger project on your hands than you had anticipated.

When you finish your inventory, it may be quite large. It’s probably best to provide some organization to your data. A database or spreadsheet can be very helpful. Although doing the data entry can be a little tedious, the structure it provides will make the effort well worth it. Some additional fields to add in your database are compliance status, method used to verify compliance, action required to bring device into compliance, and compliance date. For an example, see Figure 1.

Ashton Y2K Embedded.bmp (271992 bytes)
Figure 1. A Y2K inventory should include details about the embedded device, such as manufacturer, the existence of documentation, and its compliance status. Pulling it together is tedious but invaluable.

Two Methods for Verification

The next step is to verify Year 2000 compliance of each embedded systems device. This is where it can get challenging. You really end up with two choices. The first is to manually test each device. Your second option is to depend upon vendor certification.

Manually testing each device can be tricky. While changing the date on the fax machine is something most of us can handle, many embedded systems are much more complicated:

  • Each embedded system can contain other embedded systems (subsystems) within it.
  • There’s no standard software application or chip configuration on embedded systems. Each can be very different.
  • To access an embedded system a special interface may be required.
  • If you’re successful in manually changing the date on a device, it may actually malfunction and become disabled.
  • While you may be a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, that’s different from being a Year 2000 Instrumentation Engineer. In other words, how well do you read schematics? The skill set involved can be highly specialized.

I was once asked to manually reset the date of a campus boiler heating system for a large care facility. I don’t have any training on the intricacies of boiler controls. After some deliberation, I decided that the possibility of permanently disabling the boiler was a greater risk than seemed appropriate.

The second option for verification is to use vendor certification. With this method, you can create a paper trail documenting the compliance status of each device. There are really two ways of obtaining vendor certification. Perhaps the quickest method is to use the manufacturer’s Web site, many of which offer Y2K sections. A statement of compliance may be posted for each product in question.

Something else to pay close attention to is how each company defines "compliance." Be sure to read the statement to ensure it meets your needs. If no information is provided, at least you can collect contact information and get hold of the manufacturer directly.

The other primary way to request vendor certification is to mail a letter to the vendor. This process is more time-consuming and tedious. Automate the generation of letters and labels as much as possible. Of course, the problem you may encounter is trying to obtain responses from manufacturers that won’t return your letters. Likewise, those that do may take a long time to respond to your requests. In reality, you’ll probably end up using a combination of these methods.

Subsequent Phases

When you finally have a handle on what isn’t compliant, it’s time to prioritize the systems in need of repair or replacement. Obviously, your project will focus on critical systems first and then work its way toward devices that will merely cause an inconvenience if they don’t function (such as VCRs). The priorities will largely be determined by business needs.

In the "renovation phase," the methods for renovating of a non-compliant device can vary widely. The manufacturer can be helpful in determining if a device can be repaired or whether it must be replaced. For instance, a client is replacing its postage machine because the existing one is non-compliant. While small, it’s critical to their business. Another company we’ve worked with performs water testing. The device is non-compliant but it can’t be repaired or replaced. The type of device the client needs isn’t manufactured anymore. The only option is to discontinue performing that test.

When you repair or replace a device during the renovation phase, you should test it again during the "validation phase." If you’re relying on vendor certification, the vendor may have performed this for you previously. Finally, in the "implementation phase" you place the device back into your production environment.

A Y2K embedded systems project may be unlike anything you have done before. However, like most projects, it’s something that can be accomplished with proper planning and diligence.

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