On Friday and Saturday, the U.S. tested the preparedness of two key infrastructures, power grid management and the air traffic control system, reporting success in both cases. Is it time to put some fears to rest?
The power grid tests, conducted by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), focused not on the systems, but the people who run them. When computers and data networks go down, the engineers in the control rooms and distribution management centers must respond by taking over the data exchange processes those systems handle. On Friday, NERC organized a nationwide simulation of a failed telecommunications infrastructure and the human systems responded successfully, making decisions that would have kept the grid operating if the simulation had been real.
The air traffic control system operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on the other hand, withstood a real-world encounter with Y2K. Backup computer systems and hardware were set to a time just before midnight on December 31, 1999, and managers watched as the date rolled over. Afterward, the backup systems were compared with the systems that had been left on the current date to see if the date change had created any anomalous readings. None were found. A more complete analysis of the data will be conducted early this week and the results released to the public, but FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said "we are pretty confident with what we saw tonight."
A Lear jet travelling from western Colorado and that landed at Denver International Airport was tracked using the backup system. The test included the DIA tower, an approach radar tracking system and the FAA's traffic center in Longmont, Colo. - the same set of systems that would be involved in monitoring any commercial flight over the US.
Apparently, the FAA has been testing its systems with 2000 dates prior to this, but had not revealed these earlier tests to the public. Based on the combined findings in Denver and earlier tests, the air traffic control system does appear to be prepared to provide safe service for travelers.
Likewise, the performance of the human managers of the power grid should provide ample reassurance to skeptics. If the computers that monitor and provide limited management of the power grid fail, the people who will takeover are prepared to do so, and they have ample warning about Y2K.
The drill last Friday put electrical system managers in a situation very similar to those described as the worst-case scenario - individual power plants acted as though their primary telecommunications systems had failed and they had to fall back to the systems they've invested in to keep in touch. Cellular, radio and Internet connections took the place of normal telephone lines and dedicated network connections, allowing managers to make decisions about the delivery of power, which must be carefully balanced at all times, to prevent damage to the physical network of wires and circuits.
While no hardware was launched into the next year, which could have produced problems for consumers and business users of electricity, the human system that overlays the power grid is a critical, the critical stopgap between reliable delivery of power and outages.
Power industry commentators have suggested that perhaps one in five power generation plant may experience a mission-critical failure due to unremediated embedded systems or computer applications. Since the network remains largely electro-mechanically controlled, the failure of a computer or embedded system does not represent a certainty that the power will fail - rather, the engineers who sit in the control room can make decisions and throw switches to prevent an outage.
Based on the findings on Friday, the people are prepared to respond. So, if one in five power facilities may experience a system failure, the engineering staff may prevent the consequences from being felt beyond the walls of the generation facility.
The results of the tests this weekend, though inconclusive because each isolated only one portion of the total system that could be affected by Y2K problems, do offer evidence that the systems are in good shape.