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1997-11-26 08:55:41


Ed Yourdon on the Domino Effect



Programmer Ed Yourdon, co-author of TIME BOMB 2000, author of two dozen books on programming, has described the Domino Effect as well as anyone has. The modern world is interconnected. Holding it together is the price system. Holding the price system together is the banking system. Holding the banking system together are mainframe computers -- noncompliant mainframe computers.

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So here's the question: Do you believe the year-2000 problem is going to be really serious? Do you think it could shut down telephone service, banking systems, and airline systems for a few days, or a few weeks, or even a few months? I've been thinking about all of this during the last several months, and I'm becoming increasingly worried about the "ripple effect" problems that will be difficult to anticipate, and almost impossible to avoid. It won't be the end of civilization, but the year-2000 problem could indeed trigger a depression on the scale of the Great Depression in the U.S. during the 1930s. For example, consider XYZBank, which has 300 million lines of legacy code. Assume that XYZ has the time and resources to convert 200 million lines, and it has done a triage to ensure that the mission-critical systems are converted. That leaves 100 million lines of unconverted code that won't run at all, or will spew out gibberish. Since this unconverted code is associated with noncritical systems, it won't have a fatal impact on XYZ though it could incur a nontrivial cost. My real concern is that the applications XYZ considers noncritical might be very critical to some of XYZ's customers, partners, suppliers, etc. So it's quite possible that XYZ's failure to convert some of its software will cause little, tiny ABCWidget Company to go bankrupt, which causes slightly larger DEF Corp. to fold, and so on.

Meanwhile, XYZ can't operate entirely alone; without electricity, phone service, and water, the offices can't function; without transportation services, none of its employees can come into work, and none of its customers can visit the bank to transact business. Let's assume for a moment that these basic utilities do continue operating properly after January 1. But what if the Federal Reserve Bank, S.W.I.F.T., and all the other banks that XYZ interacts with are having problems? What if XYZ's ability to print monthly bank statements depends on PQRPaper Corp. supplying laser-printing paper on a "just in time" basis? And what if PQR has a staff of three overworked programmers who maintain an ancient legacy system written in assembly language? If PQR stops shipping paper, then XYZ stops sending bank statements. Not forever, perhaps just for a month or two, but that's enough to cause a lot of confusion.


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