Springing Forward Leads to IT Worries

Early start to daylight-saving time forces system evaluations, updates

It isn’t quite the Year 2000 scare all over again. But the early switch to daylight-saving time in the U.S. this year is prompting concerns about a potential IT crisis that many companies have yet to resolve.

IT managers who have started addressing the situation said they plan to check all of their systems and applications that rely on time stamps to see whether they can handle the accelerated start of DST. If they can’t, the managers added, systems will either need to be updated via software patches or modified so they can continue working properly after the time change takes effect March 11.

Complicating the efforts is the fact that many IT vendors have yet to disclose whether and how their products might be affected. That has been one of the challenges facing Rudy Ebisch, assistant director of the infrastructure group at a large manufacturer of home and office products that he asked not be identified.

With nine major software platforms to deal with internally, Ebisch said he and his staff have been working for about a month to determine what they need to do to prepare for the DST change. Although some vendors have posted information about the issue on their Web sites, many others have remained mum, so Ebisch is now reaching out to them.

“I have 150 vendors,” he said. “They’re not going to contact me, so I’ll have to contact them. We’ve got to come up with a comprehensive list.”

As part of the internal evaluation, Ebisch’s staff has already found more than 100 older, unsupported applications based on versions of Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Java Runtime Environment that need to be patched to properly reflect the time changes. He has designated an IT staffer to evaluate the use of JRE in all applications and determine which versions are in place.

“There are a thousand things that are going to fall through the cracks,” Ebisch said. “Every day, someone brings up a new area we didn’t think about that has to be checked, and hopefully there’s a patch.”

Federal legislation signed into law in August 2005 moved the start of DST from the first Sunday in April to the second one in March and delayed the return of standard time in autumn by a week, to the first Sunday in November. The idea was that shifting the time change by a few weeks could reduce energy use.

Companies with operations in areas affected by the time change will also have to modify their systems to deal with businesses in parts of the U.S. and its territories that don’t change to DST, including Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and much of Arizona.

The time change could also create complications for multinational businesses. In addition, the 2005 law includes provisions that could allow the start of DST to be rolled back to the old schedule, meaning that any changes made this year must be reversible.

Rob Schwartz, manager of technical support at Boscov’s Department Store LLC in Reading, Pa., said he and about six staff members began DST remediation work four weeks ago and will look at the issue from every angle. With an assortment of servers running Windows, Linux and IBM’s AIX operating system, plus virtual servers, Schwartz estimated that his team will have to dedicate at least 600 hours to completing the DST work.

“It could easily take more than that,” he said. “It’s not trivial— there’s no question about that — so we have to look at every system.”

In addition, Schwartz said the IT department at Boscov’s had apparently not been keeping up with general software patches as it should have, which is also resulting in more work for him and his staff at the same time the DST issue is coming to a head.

“We really got caught,” Schwartz said. “We should have been more proactive.”

A Slow Start

Gartner Inc. released a report in mid-January urging companies to take the DST issue seriously. Will Cappelli, who co-wrote the report with two other Gartner analysts, said last week that the DST changes will be a “small to medium problem” for most companies. “It’s nowhere near as huge as Y2k potentially could have been,” he said. “The severity is not as profound.”

Recognition of that fact might explain why many companies have been sluggish about dealing with the time change, Cappelli said, adding that many of Gartner’s clients are just now beginning to evaluate their systems.

Clock Watching

Gartner says companies addressing the daylight-saving time situation should do the following:
•  Review all applications and their interactions with other applications to see if they comply with the DST change.•  Conduct tests after applying patches or manual fixes to verify that the proper times and dates are produced.•  Schedule IT workers to be available when DST takes effect early on March 11 so they can quickly repair any problems that may arise.•   Give the workers who will be on duty well-defined escalation procedures so they can deal with potential issues.•  Check with external service providers to make sure theyre patching or modifying their own systems.

“We really watched it as a slow trickle starting in late August, starting with many financial services firms,” he said. There was a noticeable jump in concern in December, and now efforts to apply fixes appear to be ramping up substantially, Cappelli said.

One common problem, he said, is that many companies are running operating systems that are no longer supported, such as Windows NT 4.0. He noted that those users will have to either “hand-hold” their systems through the DST shift or upgrade to newer operating systems — a step he doesn’t recommend at this point.

David Ferris, an analyst at Ferris Research in San Francisco, said the need for DST preparations shouldn’t invoke “a panic response” from IT departments. But, he added, the time change needs to be given proper attention, with a full regimen of evaluations, patches and testing before the deadline arrives.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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