Enterprise Networks: Year 2000 Problems Are Out There

When certifying their information systems for Year 2000 compliance, many enterprises sometimes overlook crucial, but unseen, components of their IT infrastructure: the hubs, routers and switches that serve as the backbone of mission critical networks. Add to this the fact that leading networking vendors are hedging on their support for older hardware devices, and the potential for trouble on Jan. 1, 2000, increases.

Because most routers and switches employ real-time embedded operating systems or embedded date-time functionality, many are as susceptible to Year 2000 problems as the visible hardware server systems or software applications. And when the clock rolls over on Jan. 1, 2000, no one can adequately predict how these network devices will behave.

Analysts expect misbehaving routers, switches and hubs to disrupt the execution of time-sensitive network management tools as well as network-centric applications that rely on time-stamping or scheduling.

The problem is further compounded by the policies of major networking players with regard to the problem of "legacy" devices: If they’re no longer selling it, these vendors maintain, they’re not going to certify it for Y2K.

According to Rob Enderle, a senior analyst at Giga Information Group (www.gigaweb.com), this position on the part of established networking vendors is not surprising.

"It’s a case of just not having sufficient resources to go back in and analyze the software and firmware that’s on [older] devices and make the necessary corrections," Enderle explains, adding that the typically high turnover rate among the developers employed by these vendors could be a factor as well. "For these devices that are no longer in production, and haven’t been in some time, the people who wrote the code are no longer with the company. So the cost to go in and develop the updates with new people is itself probably prohibitive."

Networking giant Cisco Systems Inc., for example, indicates that it will not test products that it won’t be selling or supporting after 1999. Nortel Networks’ (www.nortelnetworks.com) Year 2000 policy is even more explicit. The company indicates that it will no longer test or certify any products for compliance that were manufactured or sold prior to Jan. 1, 1997. 3Com Corp. has discontinued entire product lines as well as specific products within other product lines. None of these discontinued products will be tested or certified for Year 2000 compliance.

While networking vendors have discontinued older products potentially fraught with Year 2000 liabilities en masse, these vendors also maintain that newer products will require only software updates or microcode patches to ensure reliable operation after Jan. 1, 2000. And while vendors are abandoning older systems, they aren’t hanging the users of "legacy" network devices out to dry. Most of the big networking players have trade-in or incentive programs to facilitate customer upgrades to newer, Year 2000-compliant routers, switches and hubs.

Cisco has a Technology Migration Program that makes it possible for users to exchange older equipment for vendor credit toward an upgrade. Not to be outdone, Nortel Networks unveiled a trade-in program that offers up to $700 per port for some noncompliant products.

"Because these vendors realize that probably the customers want to update their equipment anyway, their sense is that rather than making them invest new money in upgrading old hardware, they’re getting customers to move to new, compatible hardware devices," Enderle opines. "Consequently, vendors and customers alike can maximize their resources across the board."