Is 1/1/2000 a Hot Date for Networks, Too?

As AS/400 and RS/6000 managers begin to get their arms around Year 2000 issues in their systems, experts warn of another date-related challenge many may be overlooking -- network equipment. Y2K deficiencies may stem from date-deficient code running in bridges, hubs, routers, gateways, and controllers -- particularly in equipment manufactured before 1996.

Come 1/1/2000, many network managers could potentially be blinded to what's going on in their networks, explains Richard Moukperian, hardware development executive with IBM Networking Hardware Division (Research Triangle Park, N.C.). "Networks will probably still operate, and data will still pass through networks," he says. "However, you may lose your ability to get in touch with network devices."

Network devices depend on software, much of which was written with two-digit year fields and therefore may have Year 2000 compatibility problems. The problem arises with log data from the time/date stamp running in the software of many network devices, says Moukperian. "You may not be able to log statistics, or the devices that give you current information won't be able to give you history. Essentially, they will have a nonsensical date stamp on it."

Other scenarios include firewalls denying access to legitimate users, and network management systems not collecting event data. In a worse-case scenario, the network backbone may fail, an event, which could disable the entire network, says Ellen Carney, director and principal analyst at Dataquest (San Jose, Calif.).

However, awareness and sense of urgency are low, Carney adds. A recent Dataquest survey of 250 companies finds that about half believed they were Year 2000 compliant in the network now, she relates. "Very few are going to do anything next year, and almost 50% of the ones that aren't compliant said they weren't going to do anything by the Year 2000," she says.

As far as addressing the problem, network assessment is something that cannot be automated as easily as applications assessments and conversions, network specialists agree. IS professionals will need to inventory all devices they have, and check the models against vendor information.

One such tool, Network/2000 from NetSuite Development Corp. (Wayland, Mass.), provides an assessment of the Year 2000 compatibility of network equipment. NetSuite's software probes import network topology information from Computer Associates' Unicenter TNG and Hewlett-Packard's OpenView. Even specialized tools such as NetSuite's Network2000 rely on information from network vendors' Web sites. "The first step is to figure out what's on your network to begin with," says Merel Newmark, business development manager for NetSuite. "People don't know what's on their networks. Few companies have accurate and up-to-date network documentation." If information isn't available, and the device is more than two years old, assume there's going to be a date problem, Carney adds.

IS managers need to talk to their suppliers and "get assurances that the devices are either Year 2000-ready, or what impacts they will see on those devices, and if there are impacts, how they could mitigate those circumstances," says Moukperian of IBM. "Mitigation should not always be just buying new pieces of equipment. This is an issue that should be taken seriously, and analyzed very thoroughly. Don't brush over it lightly."

Leading networking vendors -- IBM, Bay Networks (Santa Clara, Calif.), BMC Software (Houston, Tex.), Cabletron Systems (Rochester, N.H.), Cisco Systems (San Jose, Calif.) and 3Com (San Francisco) -- maintain Web sites with information about compliance updates. Only two major vendors -- Fore Systems (Pittsburgh, Pa.) and Ascend Communications Inc. (Alameda, Calif.) -- claim they will have no problems with the date change.

Of course, many companies also have equipment from companies that have gone out of business or have been acquired, says Moukperian. In many cases, vendors will not even be testing older equipment, and advise upgrades.

IBM has announced that it will support discontinued products for seven years. Most IBM products are Year 2000-ready at this time, according to Moukperian. "We're testing standalone devices for Year 2000, as well as trying to anticipate downstream effects. It's not a single vendor environment for a lot of networks. What effect would non-IBM servers have on the network? Within the network itself, it could be a network with one of our switches, and a hub or switch with one of our competitors. What does non-compliance do to our switch if we're upstream from it?"