PCs reignite Y2K debate

PCs reignite Y2K debate

The Y2K pendulum has swung into action again after new allegations surfaced last week to suggest many PCs sold in Australia do not meet Standards Australia Year 2000 compliance criteria.

Last month, Melbourne IT services specialist PC Resq lodged a complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), charging major PC manufacturers with the failure to meet the SAA/SNZ MP 77 HB 121 Level 3 compliance standard.

The standard ensures a PC's operating system, basic input/output system (BIOS) and real-time clock (RTC) are all ready for the century rollover and is claimed to be higher than the US-developed NSTL standard and crucial to mission-critical applications.

The complaint has ignited a heated debate, prompting several resellers to voice their concerns about the "inflammatory" nature of the PC Resq claims, which according to John Graham, chief executive officer of Melbourne-based systems integrator Educad, "are not relevant to 99 per cent of PC users.

"This whole thing is a bit alarmist, especially since the Standards Australia document [the complaint refers to] is a bit muddy. It purports to be a hardware standard, yet it makes references to software, thus creating confusion," Graham asserted.

"Now, these things need to be discussed, but I believe that the NSTL standard is more than adequate when it comes to dealing with the Y2K compliance," he said.

But while NSTL certification may be sufficient for home and small office users, Patrick Simonis, managing director of SimCom, the developer of the All Clear 2000 solution, is adamant that the practice of keeping the compliance facts hidden from customers must not be condoned.

"Customers are paying good money for their PCs and they're entitled to get a machine that's performing 100 per cent," Simonis explained.

"RTC is a key component of PCs and the simple fact is that NSTL doesn't check RTC-compliance, which means that an NSTL-certified machine is not 100 per cent."

In contrast, Graham believes PC vendors have been "quite meticulous" in testing their hardware for the Y2K compliance and the real issue that needs to be addressed is the obscure standards of software compliance.

"It is appalling that software houses are still issuing Y2K patches, but people are reluctant to talk about it, because the whole issue is a potential legal minefield," he said.

However, PC Resq, which distributes a full four-digit, real-time clock compliance solution, maintains the hardware problem is dangerously misunderstood.

Adrian Horin, a PC Resq consultant, quotes the Standards Australia and National Software Testing Laboratories (NTSL) that has acknowledged: "Level 3 compliance is required where the computer is used for critical 24-hour operations [ie, the computer cannot be rebooted upon century rollover], the software programs access the RTC directly to obtain the date and where non-compliance may cause significant risk of loss or personal injury.

"All the major multi-user operating systems, such as Windows NT, OS2, Unix and Linux, read their time and date directly from the RTC, not the BIOS," Horin pointed out. "It is only in the last couple of months that major motherboard manufacturers have started shipping product in volume with four-digit RTCs."

Of the 12 million computers that are out there in Australia at the moment, Horin believes we would be lucky if 10,000 of them actually have compliant RTCs, as the manufacturers' answer to the RTC compliance problem has been to rely on the BIOS to supply the fix.

"But if the BIOS is providing the fix and the operating system is not read- ing the BIOS, it makes a nonsense of Y2K compliance," he asserted. SimCom's Simonis agrees: "Any hardware problem should be fixed at the hardware level, not at the software level; it's as simple as that."

And while ACCC spokesperson Lyn Enright says "the commission is still looking at the issue" and PC manufacturers maintain their silence, Horin warns that "the repercussions of not getting Y2K compliance absolutely right could be quite profound.

"There are mission-critical systems in corporations, government agencies and hospitals that just cannot afford to get it wrong," he said.

"We've got to make a decision on this, we have to fix it and that's what we should be doing," Simonis added.

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