A strange sight faced visitors of the Computer Associates' user conference in New Orleans last month. On any given day of the four-day event, attendees could catch glimpses of world-famous people, such as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams and retired US General Colin Powell, hob-nobbing with Charles Wang, chairman and CEO of Computer Associates (CA), the number two independent software company in the world after Microsoft.
CA's strength is in finding solutions to problems that many other companies aren't looking at, and as a result has few competitors. Due to the explosive interest in the client/ server model of computing, strong growth in Internet use and increasing interest in intranets, CA is working closely with Microsoft to combine its mainframe and minicomputer network and management software with Microsoft's desktop computer system software.
'CA products traditionally make up the software that run businesses, and these days businesses are changing,' explains Wang. 'It is the world's leading developer of client/server solutions. In fact, we expect most of the growth in the business software market over the next decade to be in client/server technology, and we expect to continue to lead the way by providing solutions that work.'
CA has spent a great deal of time on the issues surrounding computer date formats in advance of 2000. The mechanics of the problem are quite simple In the early days of computing, a format for storing dates was established that specified two digits for the day, month and year - so that 1 January 1996 would be stored as 01/01/96.
No field for the century was established and all systems were designed assuming that the first two numbers in a date field would be 19. The problem is that when 2000 rolls around, most of the world's corporate computer systems will think the date is 01/01/00, in other words, 1 January 1900.
This might seem a minor technical problem, but CA president Sanjay Kumar revealed it will potentially cost billions of dollars to correct and will have disastrous consequences for government agencies, insurance companies, banks, airlines and many multinational corporations if it is not addressed.
He said that, in many cases, the software used by such firms performs complex calculations on these date fields - and they must all be changed if the software is going to function accurately in the next century.
In a car insurance company, for example, rates are often calculated by age - with drivers under 25 paying a premium. Age is typically calculated by taking the current date and subtracting the driver's birthdate from it. If the resulting number is less than 25, a higher premium notice is sent out.
If the system calculating that date believes the year is 1900, any driver less than a century old would end up having their age calculated as a negative number. So someone born in 1959 would have their age calculated as -59. Since all negative numbers are less than 25, virtually all of the insurance company's customers over the age of 25 would end up receiving notices saying they would have to pay higher premiums.
CA has designed software that will help its customers automate the task of converting all such software to handle date fields properly, but Kumar warns that even those who are working to do this conversion and testing have to be careful how they do it. He relates the tale of one corporate customer that did all its conversion work and then brought in some employees to test it over the weekend when the system was not in use.
The company rolled forward the clock on its main computer and checked that all date-based calculations and applications worked correctly when the date was set to 1 January 2000. Satisfied with the results, the employees then rolled the clock back to 1996 and went home for the weekend. When they returned to work the following Monday, they discovered to their horror that some of the backup data files for recent work had been wiped out. The reason was simple. The automatic data backup system used was designed to conserve storage space by erasing data that was more than two years old and allowed it to be over-written by new information.
During the test, the system clock had been rolled ahead by almost four years. The backup system was fooled into thinking there was data on the system that had not been used for more than three years and erased the data. Kumar says the industry is abound with such horror stories and suggests that all companies develop a strategy for handling the issue.
CA's Discovery 2000 solution is aimed at solving this problem. It provides 'a complete suite of software and services to help reduce the costs and resources associated with year 2000 processing'. Included are tools to help estimate and plan the year 2000 initiative, and services including portfolio inventory, impact assessment, project planning, education and conversion techniques.
CA has also hopped on the Internet and intranet bandwagon with the announcement of Net Haven, an Internet business division. The division is offering a set of products and services to 'help organisations create, manage and promote dynamic Web sites'.
CA says that Net Haven will provide a variety of services designed for turnkey Internet and corporate intranet solutions. 'Net Haven's charter is to help organisations successfully conduct electronic commerce over the Web,' says Ven Subbarao, Net Haven general manager. 'Customers can focus on the business issues of running a Web site without becoming slaves to Internet technology.'
Subbarao said the Internet is an extension of CA's core business because of its ability to empower organisations to enter new markets, automate operations and extend strategic IT resources to business partners and consumers.
'Few internal IS organisations have the Web experience, resources, tools and commitment that CA's Net Haven division brings to a company's Web effort,' says Stan LePeak, program director for advanced information management services, Meta Group. 'CA lets organisations focus on the business issues, not the technical implementation.'
The company believes that Net Haven will also supply browser-based content management tools and the technology necessary to develop and host dynamic, database-driven Web sites. Customers receive assistance with Web site promotions through a variety of traditional and online marketing services.
It trotted out a few early customers to enthuse about it all. 'Not many technology companies are willing to design your Web site, deploy it, host it, promote it, and help you link it to your back office systems,' said Frank Martino, president of Seafood Credit Corporation, a privately held firm that provides credit reports to companies in the seafood industry. 'But Net Haven does it all.'
Net Haven offers a range of solutions such as Web Database Wizard, a browser-based toolset for dynamically managing the content of Web sites via a CA-Open Ingres database; and CA-Unicenter TNG, an end-to-end enterprise management solution that is used to manage Net Haven's Web hosting facility.
It also offers CA-Unicenter/Internet Commerce Enabled (ICE), a Web server management environment offered as an add-on to CA-Unicenter TNG; Jasmine, an object-oriented database that features a multimedia application development environment ideal for creating content-rich Internet and intranet applications; and CA-Open Ingres/ICE, an HTML-enabled relational database enhanced for Internet use.
Net Haven is also doing work with charities and community groups as part of its underlying mission. 'We have seen the potential of Web technology, but we need to take it to the next level,' says Pete Banks, director of outreach at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Arlington, Virginia, which relies on Net Haven to accelerate the posting of missing children's information on the Web. 'Net Haven has the all technology and the resources we need.'
Net Haven offers a set of what it calls 'scalable content hosting options' to establish an organisation's presence on the Web. The company suggests that each option provides enterprises with the ability to seamlessly scale from one to the other, as their business needs dictate.
Net Haven also offers professional services to design, develop and deploy custom Internet and intranet sites. Services include Internet audits focusing on competitive analysis, electronic commerce, the Intranet and security strategies. Professional services then designs and deploys Internet solutions that are based on the audit results.
For dealers, these efforts offer new solutions to customers. A number of companies throughout the computer industry are offering year 2000 solutions, but few have the experience with high-end systems to credibly offer tools and strategies for overcoming it as well as CA. Dealers will at least have some idea of who they are dealing with in arranging and implementing solutions for their customers if they consider this option.
As for Net Haven, it is yet another way for dealers to help customers 'get Webbed'. It is an initiative that CA is starting in the US and it will bear some watching, and assessment of its performance, as it rolls out to other markets.
Overall, CA's recent announcements, including the deals it also unveiled with Microsoft and non-stop computing specialists Tandem suggest it is definitely a player to watch, and one that may assume a growing role in the industry.
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