PCs are really only part of the problem. This expert
shows you how to tackle the other component of your enterprises
computer problems: embedded systems.
Get Your Embedded Systems Ready for Y2K
PCs are really only part of the problem. This expert
shows you how to tackle the other component of your enterprise’s
computer problems: embedded systems.
- By Michael Ashton
- February 01, 1999
You probably think problems associated with the Year
2000 only involve traditional computers. The other component
involves embedded systems, which for many may seem confusing
and somewhat mysterious. But as the resident "computer
expert," you may discover that youve been put
in charge of this part of Y2K remediation for your organization
as well. In this article, I explain ways to tackle this
To perform their functions, many embedded systems rely
upon a date or time. A good example of this is elevators.
Why do elevators use date functions? Theyre programmed
to be serviced on a given maintenance schedule. If maintenance
isnt performed according to schedule, they can stop
functioning altogether. Thus, if the date inadvertently
changes to 1900, the maintenance schedule is thrown out
of whack. The likely result will be that the elevator
will return to the first floor and discontinue working
until the problem is corrected.
OK, you can just plan to take the stairs, right? Not
so fast. To test for Y2K problems in a particular plant,
Chrysler Corp. advanced its clocks ahead. Unfortunately,
the security system shut down and wouldnt let anyone
in or out. Manufacturing plants, machine shops, farms,
trucking industries, railroads, airlines, copy centers,
water systems, local telephone providers, power companies,
and many others are at considerable risk.
What Are the Implications for You?
Even if you dont work in one if the industries
just listed, you may still have devices that are at risk
of malfunction or failure. Many devices in your company
still must be verified for Y2K-compliance. While the following
list should cover many of the more common areas, its
by no means exhaustive. Youll probably find additional
devices in your environment as you perform your inventory.
- Air conditioning systems
- Automated door locks
- Backup lighting systems
- Building management systems
- Burglar and fire alarms
- Cash registers
- CCTV systems
- Elevators and escalators
- Fire control systems
- Heating and ventilating systems
- Hubs and routers
- Lighting systems
- Safes and vaults
- Satellite systems
- Security cameras and related video equipment
- Sprinkler systems
- Telephone systems
- Uninterruptible power supplies
Where is Your Y2K Project Now?
After working with several clients and finding areas
that companies havent considered, my company developed
a Y2K maturity model based upon its Network Operations
Management framework. By using metrics to measure the
maturity of the project, a company can measure how complete
the project really is. Additionally, the project is then
documented to show that a company has done due diligence
in becoming Y2K-compliant. This may be invaluable for
legal protection if your company is sued.
As you perform your project, be sure to have brainstorming
sessions with all involved parties to ensure that all
devices are assessed. At various stages in the project
implement additional assessments to ensure that no stone
is left unturned. Furthermore, the documentation you create
may become important later if customers or partners claim
that you failed to properly prepare for the Year 2000.
Lets Get Some Work Done
Now that you have some idea about the devices involved,
its time to roll up your sleeves. First, perform
an inventory. The inventory should contain all relevant
information for each device. Typically, this would include
the manufacturer name, device name, model, and serial
number. While this is all thats required, you may
also wish to include asset tag numbers and the location
of the device. This information may be helpful if you
need to work on a device later. In fact, if your company
doesnt have an inventory already, this step alone
provides a great benefit. Your accountantand your
bosswill be thrilled. One area where you may have
some difficulty with this process is in soliciting the
help of others in your organization. You have to share
your vision of Year 2000 compliance with others to get
them adequately motivated; otherwise, you may have an
even larger project on your hands than you had anticipated.
When you finish your inventory, it may be quite large.
Its probably best to provide some organization to
your data. A database or spreadsheet can be very helpful.
Although doing the data entry can be a little tedious,
the structure it provides will make the effort well worth
it. Some additional fields to add in your database are
compliance status, method used to verify compliance, action
required to bring device into compliance, and compliance
date. For an example, see Figure 1.
|Figure 1. A Y2K inventory should
include details about the embedded device, such as
manufacturer, the existence of documentation, and
its compliance status. Pulling it together is tedious
Two Methods for Verification
The next step is to verify Year 2000 compliance of each
embedded systems device. This is where it can get challenging.
You really end up with two choices. The first is to manually
test each device. Your second option is to depend upon
Manually testing each device can be tricky. While changing
the date on the fax machine is something most of us can
handle, many embedded systems are much more complicated:
- Each embedded system can contain other embedded
systems (subsystems) within it.
- Theres no standard software application or
chip configuration on embedded systems. Each can be
- To access an embedded system a special interface
may be required.
- If youre successful in manually changing
the date on a device, it may actually malfunction
and become disabled.
- While you may be a Microsoft Certified Systems
Engineer, thats different from being a Year
2000 Instrumentation Engineer. In other words, how
well do you read schematics? The skill set involved
can be highly specialized.
I was once asked to manually reset the date of a campus
boiler heating system for a large care facility. I dont
have any training on the intricacies of boiler controls.
After some deliberation, I decided that the possibility
of permanently disabling the boiler was a greater risk
than seemed appropriate.
The second option for verification is to use vendor certification.
With this method, you can create a paper trail documenting
the compliance status of each device. There are really
two ways of obtaining vendor certification. Perhaps the
quickest method is to use the manufacturers Web
site, many of which offer Y2K sections. A statement of
compliance may be posted for each product in question.
Something else to pay close attention to is how each
company defines "compliance." Be sure to read
the statement to ensure it meets your needs. If no information
is provided, at least you can collect contact information
and get hold of the manufacturer directly.
The other primary way to request vendor certification
is to mail a letter to the vendor. This process is more
time-consuming and tedious. Automate the generation of
letters and labels as much as possible. Of course, the
problem you may encounter is trying to obtain responses
from manufacturers that wont return your letters.
Likewise, those that do may take a long time to respond
to your requests. In reality, youll probably end
up using a combination of these methods.
When you finally have a handle on what isnt compliant,
its time to prioritize the systems in need of repair
or replacement. Obviously, your project will focus on
critical systems first and then work its way toward devices
that will merely cause an inconvenience if they dont
function (such as VCRs). The priorities will largely be
determined by business needs.
In the "renovation phase," the methods for
renovating of a non-compliant device can vary widely.
The manufacturer can be helpful in determining if a device
can be repaired or whether it must be replaced. For instance,
a client is replacing its postage machine because the
existing one is non-compliant. While small, its
critical to their business. Another company weve
worked with performs water testing. The device is non-compliant
but it cant be repaired or replaced. The type of
device the client needs isnt manufactured anymore.
The only option is to discontinue performing that test.
When you repair or replace a device during the renovation
phase, you should test it again during the "validation
phase." If youre relying on vendor certification,
the vendor may have performed this for you previously.
Finally, in the "implementation phase" you place
the device back into your production environment.
A Y2K embedded systems project may be unlike anything
you have done before. However, like most projects, its
something that can be accomplished with proper planning