THE MILLENNIUM BUG: A NEW TEST TO LEARN IF EDI SYSTEMS MESH

Byline: Kim Ann Zimmermann

PHILADELPHIA — It’s a problem that could cost retailers billions of dollars to correct, but now a generic Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) message is being developed to enable stores, as well as their trading partners, to test whether their EDI systems are compliant with the year 2000.
The electronic test message is being constructed by the National Retail Federation’s Survival 2000 committee and is expectwed to be available early next year. While it won’t solve the problem, it should be a tool to help retailers get a quicker handle on determining whether they will be confronted by one brought on by the turn of the century.
NRF plans to develop a draft of the test EDI message by the end of November and release the final version in January 1998, according to Cathy Hotka, NRF’s vice president of information technology. Hotka gave details of the plan at a press briefing at the RISCon technology conference here earlier this month, which is sponsored by the NRF.
“The situation is that a lot of retailers cannot go back to doing business on paper,” said Hotka. “Our goal is to develop a ‘vanilla’ EDI message that will alert the retailer and the supplier if their systems cannot deal with the year 2000.”
It’s going to cost companies using computer systems an estimated $300 billion to $600 billion to correct year 2000 complications, according to the Gartner Group, an information technology consulting firm in Stamford, Conn.
Retailers are particularly vulnerable to the problems associated with the year 2000. In addition to assessing the year 2000 compliance of computer systems, retailers are looking at equipment such as elevators, air-conditioning units and conveyor belts that are computer-driven, but don’t normally come under the scrutiny of the information systems department.
Echoing concerns voiced by many retailers, Vivian M. Stephenson, senior vice president and chief information officer for Dayton Hudson, said insuring year 2000 compliance among all partners within the supply chain is a “high visibility” objective.
“It is a big issue because we deal with a substantial number of vendors,” she said, during a panel discussion on year 2000 computer issues, at RISCon. “We’ve put a program in place for checking the compliance of all of our suppliers,” Stephenson said. Dayton Hudson is now doing a “full court press” to look at year 2000 compliance for systems that typically fall outside the radar screen of the information systems department, Stephenson said.
“Any system with an embedded computer chip needs to be looked at.”
Dayton Hudson has spent about $14 million on year 2000 compliance and related systems upgrades over the past two years, she said.
The retailer, which is reengineering many of its core systems, realized the scope of the problem in the fall of 1996 while fixing systems for the company’s Target division to handle additional store numbers.
“We were fixing a minor glitch in our systems for Target, but in looking at that problem, the year 2000 issue got our attention pretty quickly,” said Paul Singer, vice president of systems development for DHC Information Services, Dayton Hudson’s information systems arm. Singer also gave a presentation on year 2000 issues at the technology conference.
Noting that Target’s systems have been tested for year 2000 compliance, he added, “We’re in pretty good shape because those systems will be the basis for our other systems” in other retail divisions.
During 1998, Dayton Hudson will be migrating the system used for Target to its other retail operations — Dayton’s, Hudson’s, Mervyn’s and Marshall Field’s.
“We expect to do more testing at the end of 1998. That way, we can have a whole year to identify and fix problems,” he said.
Similarly, Montgomery Ward, despite being in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and actively closing stores, is preparing for the next millennium.
“We’re certainly budgeting time to get over the bumps and bruises, so our goal is to have the year 2000 work done by Dec. 31, 1998,” said Morton Mease, Ward’s director of planning and technology, who also spoke at the conference.
Mease said Ward’s has identified about 25 million lines of code that need to be examined to determine whether they are year 2000 compliant or potentially a problem.
Even if an application is replaced, there are often interfaces to legacy systems which may not be year 2000 compliant.
“We have about 150 interface points to our legacy systems,” Mease observed.
He also said that many software applications purchased from vendors are often customized, another potential source of problems, because documentation on the modifications is often unavailable, making it difficult to determine how to correct such programs.
“About 70 percent of all software that is purchased is modified,” he said.
Mease also pointed out problems with application-code generators, which perform some of the routine tasks for writing computer code for systems that are developed in-house.

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