The hush of Infoliant Corp.’s Station Square offices is in contrast to the hubbub over the Y2K issue that dominated the news during the waning weeks of 1999.
Yet, in its own quiet way, the company formed in 1997 to offer computer users updates on the Y2K status of their software may very well have helped corporate and government computer users avoid a chaotic, or at least troublesome, New Year’s Day.
With thousands of software products available and in use, it would have been nearly impossible for most companies to assemble the Y2K status information to judge their exposure. Infoliant’s founders realized that and came up with the Year 2000 Network Advisor, a service that helped its clients do just that.
“What we do is aggregate and standardize and package the information for companies that don’t have the resources to do it themselves,” says Kevin Weaver, Infoliant’s executive vice president and co-founder.
Weaver repeats the conventional wisdom that appears to be emerging about Y2K: The likelihood of major catastrophes was remote, at most, and software makers, government and private industry saw the potential for problems and acted decisively and spent considerable dollars to head them off. That made the first hours of 2000 uneventful, at least as far as the millennium bug was concerned.
While they are undetectable to most of us, some lingering effects of Y2K do exist; some software did prove noncompliant, which created problems. That will mean weeks or even months of vigilance and ongoing demand for reporting on the status of software fixes.
Weaver says some help desks got swamped, and Infoliant still received status changes during January, something he expects to continue at a brisk pace, at least until the end of February. It also could mean a flurry of litigation coming out of those failures, and that, Weaver believes, may offer opportunities for Infoliant.
In this month’s One on One, Weaver reveals why he wasn’t worried that the world might come to an end at midnight Dec. 31, 1999, and talks about Infoliant’s future in a post-Y2K world.
SBN: What’s in the future for Infoliant?
Weaver: We’re looking at a couple of different strategies. We have prepared something called the compliance archive. Part of our process is to collect information about the Y2K status and keep that record as it changes over time. So we can tell you that this product was originally deemed compliant on May 21, 1998, and that in August, they found an issue, and in September, they found a second issue.
We’ve got all of that kind of information documented. We put that together in anticipation of supporting the legal community if there were a large number of Y2K lawsuits, so we’re exploring some outlets for that information.
The market for that, the need for that, is later, after the lawsuits start to get filed. That’s something that is there and just needs a bit of polish if we need to turn it on. What we’re doing right now is the market research and some product development work.
Many of our customers took it upon themselves to contact us and tell us some ideas they’d like to see us do, and we heard a very common message. What they told us basically is that they absolutely love what we’re doing with Y2K with the Year 2000 Network Advisor, but from their perspective, the year 2000 was just a special kind of bug, and that they would love to see some sort of service expanded, not just to cover a Y2K topic, but the general problems that occur every day with computers.
We’re in the process now of formalizing that in terms of understanding how big the market is and how we price and package it and adapt what we have to cover a broader range of topics. That probably won’t be ready for the market for a few more months.
Are we out of the Y2K woods?
The media attention on midnight, Dec. 31, was unfounded. It was kind of a lightning rod point, but anybody who’s been involved with Y2K and the information technology business understands that really only a small number of the problems were going to occur at that time, and that the nature of the problems was not going to be catastrophic.
According to some of the studies by the Gartner Group and others, a lot of the problems started occurring before Dec. 31, and we knew that from feedback from our customers. They feel about 50 to 60 percent of the problems are yet to be reported, and we’re starting to see that even with the products that we track.
From the perspective of everyday life, I think, yes, there certainly still are incidents cropping up here and there where bills get sent out with the wrong date or what have you. What we undertook as a problem was what we call the broad Y2K problem.
It wasn’t so much that there was a big old application that ran a bank written in COBOL 30 years ago that was not Y2K compliant. We took on all the desktop PC-distributed systems, things that companies have thousands of spread out all over the place. [For our customers] it was a logistics issue of, ‘How do I get technicians and people and information out to all these places and pick up all these things?’
So what we were getting feedback on now are people finding pockets of small things, things they had missed, things that vendors didn’t test thoroughly but are not at points that are affecting overall company performance.
There’s been a lot of stuff written in the last week or so asking whether this was a big hoax, did we overspend, was this a waste of money. There’s no doubt in my mind that had we done nothing, we would have seen a lot more significant issues.
We never expected to see lights go off or telephone service interrupted for any significant amount of time or anything that was going to be nationally newsworthy. I wasn’t surprised to see that. I was surprised to see that there were a relatively small number of reports.
How important was the role played by Infoliant and other similar services in averting widespread problems or even disaster?
This is something I told our employees in our wrap-up meetings. We have several hundred global 1000 firms as customers. Granted, they have lots of other resources going into Y2K we didn’t get a fraction of that $600 billion [estimated worldwide expenditures for Y2K compliance efforts], but we did certainly have an impact on some of the major organizations.
Almost every bank, brokerage firm and investment firm were customers of ours. Many of the leading telecommunications companies around the world are customers of ours.
I want to give some credit to the computer manufacturers and the software manufacturers. I think they did a stellar job of getting information out and available. Without their cooperation, we couldn’t have done our service. It’s unfortunate that it [compliance status] changed frequently.
One of the things our service did was to detect when patch one didn’t really fix the problem, so patch two came out to fix it, or patch one introduced a problem that patch two had to fix.
What was all the hype about with regard to Y2K?
I think what had people concerned was that in the history of technology, there have been a couple of instances where small failures cascaded into bigger problems, problems with telephone systems, where one phone switch in the long distance system goes haywire and all of a sudden things start to go down.
On the Internet in the fall, there was a cut in a fiber optic line in Ohio that pretty much shut down East Coast-West Coast traffic for several days until that got repaired. There was the blackout in the 1960s on the East Coast, where a power generator facility went down and everything started to cascade after that.
We’re talking about billions of lines of code and million of systems and hundreds of thousands of human beings worldwide working on things. It seems difficult to believe that nothing bigger occurred, that somebody didn’t miss something that was important.
That was a little bit of a surprise to us. [Infoliant] is in an odd position; we certainly didn’t hope for a disaster, but at the same time, we’re surprised that things went as smoothly as they did.
Ray Marano (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor at SBN.