Daylight saving change proves thorny for businesses

As time change nears, some companies are still struggling to patch their computer systems.
Written by Ina Fried, Contributor
With the early move to daylight saving time taking place this weekend, businesses not yet ready for the change are finding themselves in a race against the clock.

With many large companies still struggling to patch their computer systems, a backlog has emerged for customers trying to get help. In some cases, IT workers have been waiting three or four hours to get telephone support from Microsoft, whose Exchange Server serves as the official calendar for many of the world's largest businesses.

Aiming to shorten that wait, Microsoft has boosted the number of people addressing the time change issue. Earlier Thursday, the company opened up a "situation room" devoted to monitoring customer issues and providing support to the software maker's largest customers. The main situation room will be in Redmond, Wash., with centers in Texas, North Carolina and India overseeing things in the off-hours. Microsoft has also added more than 200 workers versed in Exchange and Outlook to its phone lines.

"The order that things are patched is important."
--Rich Kaplan, Microsoft vice president

"The teams are working hard," said Rich Kaplan, the Microsoft vice president in charge of handling issues related to the early arrival of daylight saving time. "Everyone is going to be here through the weekend."

Thanks to a federal law aimed at reducing energy costs, daylight saving time starts three weeks earlier and runs one week later in the fall. However, without an update, many computers and digital gadgets can't automatically adjust to the new time, potentially wreaking havoc on corporate scheduling for the next three weeks.

The issue harks back to Y2K, when there were years of fretting over the fact that many computer programs were designed to enter years in only two digits, meaning that the 2000 might be mistaken for 1900. In the end, years of planning meant that there were no major crises and far fewer headaches than had been predicted.

With the daylight saving issue, the potential impact is seen as less, but there has also been far less preparation than there was for Y2K.

"The Y2K thing had tons of press," said Kaplan, who also managed Microsoft's efforts on that changeover. "Even if you didn't read the paper or go online or watch the news, you knew about Y2K because people talked about it."

And though the law mandating the change was signed in mid-2005, many of the necessary patches have been available only in recent weeks or months. With Windows, Microsoft was ready with patches last year, but waited until November, after the fall time change, to make them publicly available. But it only recently released automated tools for businesses to manage time change issues in Exchange. And customers have also had a significant number of challenges getting those patches to work, particularly if they are not applied in exactly the recommended order.

"The order that things are patched is important," Kaplan said.

Though both tech companies and corporate tech departments were later to the game than with Y2K, businesses are largely prepared, Kaplan said. Kaplan said that call volumes seemed to peak on Monday and have dropped since, as more companies now see themselves as ready.

"I can tell you, the wait times are unpredictable," Kaplan said, but added that the company has also added an option for large businesses to leave their call-back information and details of their issue and get a return phone call once an engineer is available. Microsoft has also expanded an online chat forum where users can query experts online. Initially running for 12 hours a day, Microsoft made the call to expand that to 15 hours a day.

While solutions are available, they aren't always cheap. Support calls to Microsoft about this issue are free, but the company is charging $4,000 to companies that need patches for products that are no longer widely supported.

Most large businesses are doing the necessary work--and shouldering any necessary costs. A big question mark, though, is what will happen Monday when small- and midsize-business workers arrive in the office and begin noticing the effects of the time change.

The most widespread of the problems that have been anticipated have been around scheduling. While people are advised to double check any meeting times for the next three weeks, the problems there aren't expected to be catastrophic, though there may be double-booked conference rooms, missed appointments and other scheduling issues.

"I talked to many people who said 'The time isn't right on my computer now; I don't care.'"
--David Milman, CEO of Rescuecom

But there are other potential issues, particularly where computers are used to automate manufacturing processes or are required to record time-sensitive sales data, such as stock trading.

In manufacturing, there could be particularly thorny issues if only a portion of PCs properly make the switch to daylight saving time.

"If some change and others don't, you're going to have batching operations out of sequence," said David Milman, CEO of computer support company Rescuecom, which helps individuals and small businesses manage PC problems.

For some people, particularly home users or small businesses, the issue may hardly register.

"I talked to many people who said 'The time isn't right on my computer now; I don't care,'" Milman said.

The daylight saving challenges are not without precedent. In countries like Israel and Brazil, the time change differs each year. In many cases, that means that companies have to manually adjust their computers' clocks.

"There are lots of people who deal with this already," Kaplan said. Indeed, Microsoft had initially planned on updating Windows to adjust to the time change, but leaving it to individual users to make sure their calendar items were correct during the four additional weeks of daylight saving time.

However, Kaplan said many large businesses wanted some sort of automated tool for attempting to fix calendar items. In the end, Microsoft created two such programs. One lets businesses run it against their server, updating each user's calendar, while another is client software that individuals can run. Still other companies are going with Microsoft's initial plan, and leaving it up to users to manually check their schedules.

It is not clear whether this year's exercise will have to be repeated. Congress gave itself an out to re-evaluate the expanded daylight saving time after two years.

"Stay tuned," Kaplan said.

One thing that is clear, Kaplan said, is the need for the technology industry to be clearer early on about the implications such changes can have.

"I do think at a high level, the technology industry was not engaged enough," he said. "Moving forward, as decisions are made that affect the infrastructure, we should work to make sure that we understand the impact."

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