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By Chuck Jones
Thursday, March 1, 2007:
An hour late, or a meltdown?
Earlier switch to Daylight Saving Time could throw computers for a loop
The Ides of March may come a few days early this year for computer experts, who will beware March 11. That's when Daylight Saving Time starts, three weeks sooner than usual, and the switch's effect on business computers could range from slight to serious, experts say.
Congress two years ago passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which, beginning this year, changes the start of Daylight Saving Time from the first Sunday in April to the second Sunday in March. The law also extends Daylight Saving Time an extra week to the first Sunday in November.
That could pose a problem for computers that run on older software and won't automatically leap forward until April 1, leaving them out of sync with much of the cyber-world and causing snafus for businesses that rely on timetables and whose operations depend on accurate time reporting, experts said.
"There is going to be a new element to the twice-yearly adjustment of the clock, the one on the mantle as well as the ones embedded in computers and their software, " said Phil Bond, president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of America.
"No one is talking a replay of the worst fears in the lead-up to Y2K - no widespread computer outages, no scare talk of a global IT meltdown. This issue primarily is confined to date- and time-processing functions, "Bond said. " Scheduling or synchronizing problems may arise where systems make or check date or time stamps relating to transactions in other countries, or there may be difficulty in scheduling meetings. "
While large and mid-size businesses often have information technology specialists on staff to stay on top of computer glitches, small businesses in particular need to be vigilant for problems that can cripple their automated processes, said M. Richard "Ric" Adams, president and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce.
"There definitely needs to be an awareness of this issue in the business community, " he said, "and I haven't heard any business owners talking about this. "
"Having lived through the Y2K scare, we know the hype can overshadow eventual problems, but hype can also solve them, " said David A. Milman, CEO of Rescuecom, a national computer repair company in Syracuse, N.Y.
"For businesses of every size, there are fairly simple steps that can be taken to avoid any problems on March 11, " Milman said. "But we will all be on watch for the larger issues of older computer systems, such as government and airline computers that are so vital to our lives and our safety. "
Many major computer vendors have patches available to fix the Daylight Saving change. These include Microsoft, IBM, Novell and Cisco.
"Multi-site companies need to get patched up, " said Vaughn Thurman, president of Swift Systems Inc, a Frederick IT company. "If your business has, for example, four offices, and three of them are patched and one isn't, they may not be able to talk to each other. "
One of the elements computers use to recognize each other is the time stamp, he said.
"If you have an older system, and you're not synched up with other computers, they're not going to recognize the information, "Thurman said.
"Computers use time to synchronize information, " he said. "You really need all sites that communicate with each other to have the same time information."
Some computer systems are "beyond support," Thurman said. "No patch is going to fix them. They can't be fixed. Computers do a lot of things in the background that are based on the time. If you don't have the correct time, it could throw off reports and potentially corrupt databases, and that's a more serious problem."
For many small businesses, fixing the problem shouldn't be very expensive, he said, "but there is a surprise cost factor. If you're running off an old, customized program, you may have to go back and find the guy who wrote it for you, or pay some guy to recreate the code for you.
"But for most small businesses, they can update their systems with off-the-shelf software," he said. Many IT Web sites also have patches that businesses can download, he said.
"Or you can work with an outside vendor," Thurman said. "You don't need an IT consultant hanging around your office for two months. It doesn't take a lot of time to fix - maybe a few hours in one visit."
Large companies are typically relying on their corporate IT staff to fix the problem, said Frank Blanchard, spokesman for Science Applications International Corp., the San Diego technical services giant that has 1,650 employees in the Frederick area.
"We got a notice from the corporate office about the problem," he said. "Basically, they outlined the procedures we have to follow to bring our system up to date. We have to manually go in and make changes."
Officials at The Plamondon Cos., which owns Roy Rogers restaurants and franchises four Marriott hotels in the Frederick area, were not aware of the issue, but are relying on Marriott to shepherd its hotel computer systems through the change, and an outside IT firm to handle its restaurant computers, said Bryan Casey, company CFO.
"Our hotel systems are a more serious concern, because hotel operations are extremely time-sensitive," he said, "but we're relying on the Marriott computer structure to get us through. It's not a major issue."
Mary McCormack, owner and president of Sage Small Business Services in Jefferson, was surprised to learn about the possible problems the earlier clock change may cause for her company.
"I hadn't heard anything about it," McCormack said. "I'm going to check with my computer people about this. That's what I pay them for.
"If it were up to me, I'd say leave the time alone," she said. "Don't change it."
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