Nines bug: a Y2K wolf cry?
September 8, 1999
By Robin Lloyd
(CNN) -- While computer experts are busy stamping out the millennium bug, one of its smaller cousins has crept on the scene and no one is quite sure what it's capable of.
The smaller bug comes from the fact that coders for some widely used computer languages chose decades ago to use the sequence 9999 to instruct a program to shut down or prepare for maintenance.
The trouble is that 9999 also stands for September 9, 1999 -- in other words, Thursday.
So what happens Thursday? Will computers using those languages grind to a halt, throwing a monkey wrench into the works of a huge range of businesses from banking to power to auto manufacturing?
Probably not, experts say.
"There will likely be a problem or two here or there," said Matt Hotel, a vice president with the Gartner Group, an information technology research and advisory firm in Connecticut.
"But so far, in the literally thousands of conversations I've had with folks, only one firm has told me so far they found anything at all on September 9."
Hotel, a former programmer, said he never coded September 9, 1999, without including zeroes, as in the string 090999.
"Saved by the zero," Hotel calls it.
Instead, he hopes the Nines bug calms those panicking about Y2K, the mother of all date-trigger computer bugs -- a result of leaving only two-digits to express dates such that the year 2000 looks just like the year 1900.
"This is a wonderful opportunity to practice your plans," he said. "That is a big advantage that some government agencies are using."
Computer experts are far more concerned about fixing the Y2K bug, on which corporations and governments across the world have spent billions.
Other trigger-date warnings have turned out to be firing blanks, like April 9, 1999, the 99th day of the year. Nothing bad happened.
January 1, 1999, also was supposed to be a danger because many contracts, insurance policies and loans would reach ahead one year and trigger the millennium bug.
Before the Dow Jones Industrial Average burst through 10,000 earlier this year, some experts said computer programs might be unable to handle the fifth digit in 10,000 correctly. No problems were reported with any of these dates.
The satellite-based Global Positioning System reset its computer clock last month. Although not strictly a date-trigger problem, it was heralded as a threat to light planes and yachts. On that day, only a few Japanese taxi drivers using computerized maps apparently had any problems.
The President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion is monitoring the Nines bug but expects few problems, said spokesman Jack Gribben.
"Using a series of nines to end a program wasn't ever a standard programming practice as much as using two digits to indicate a date," he said, comparing the Nines and Y2K bugs.
And finding strings of nines is easier than searching for all the two-digit dates in an application, Gribben said, making it simpler to fix any potential Nines troubles.
Computer systems from the 1970s that never were upgraded are most prone to trouble, he said. Also, the Nines bug is more likely to strike international systems, which are older on average, Hotel said.
Andy Kyte, another Gartner Group analyst, worries that the string of non-events related to other date-bugs may induce a fatal degree of complacency ahead of a very real problem at midnight on December 31.
"This (9999 bug) is not going to cause a significant number of failures or breakdowns. But it may well reinforce the complacency of those that currently should be acting to deal with the real year 2000 issues," Kyte said.
As for Thursday, Mitul Mehta, senior European research manager at technology consultant Frost & Sullivan, said there would be isolated, small-scale problems. He expects many big corporations to use September 9 as an opportunity to test their systems against the Y2K threat.
The U.N.-backed International Y2K Cooperation Center, a global clearing house for millennium bug data, is using September 9 to rehearse a plan to track how the world's anti-millennium bug plans are stacking up. The outfit will update its Web site, www.iy2kcc.org, to show the input of 170 or more national Y2K coordinators.
Gartner Group's Kyte said those looking for explosive evidence of computer failures on 9/9/99, as well as January 1, 2000, are missing the point.
"The majority of errors are going to happen in the few weeks running up to (December 31) and a few weeks after, with gradual inefficiency building up over computer networks.
"This reinforces the fact that year 2000 is not a pyrotechnic event," he said. "It's going to be like putting sand in a Rolls-Royce engine, it isn't going to explode, just work progressively less efficiently."
Reuters contributed to this report.
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