Starting this year, Canada will get four more weeks of daylight saving time, a changeover that could throw off both computer operating systems and the IT professionals who manage them

Part of the U.S.’s Energy Policy Act of 2005, the changes are intended to conserve more energy. Daylight saving time (DST), which traditionally began on the first Sunday in April, will start three weeks earlier (on the second Sunday in March), and end on the first Sunday in November, as opposed to the last Sunday in October.

The changing of DST is automated on most operating systems, but when a fact that a computer takes for granted shifts, a problem of Y2K-scale proportions immediately springs to mind. According to Info-Tech Research Group senior research analyst Carmi Levy, however, IT professionals should not panic. “The world is not going to end if you have to manage your clocks. We’ve already been and gone through Y2K, and it was much to-do about nothing. It didn’t turn out to be a big deal, but IT people like to over-worry rather than under-worry.”

Companies can’t afford to ignore it, either, said Peter de Jager, an IT consultant and speaker who is widely credited with raising awareness about the Y2K issue. He echoed the Scouts’ motto: be prepared. “You need to (address) it early – you will be running around like a chicken with its head cut off if you don’t follow good practices. The sooner you do (something about) it, the sooner you could correct whatever Murphy’s Law can throw at you.”

IT professionals working for companies using the most current generations of operating systems (such as Windows Vista, XP, 2003, or Mac OS X) don’t have to sweat anything. “They already have the change baked into them,” said Levy, who added that the OS of the company’s server should automatically do it for the network. Levy recommends companies double-check with their vendor, who can either inform them whether they have a product with the schedule built into it, or about a possible patch or online upgrade.

“There’ll be issues if you’re using any older versions, such as Windows 2000 or Windows 98 – that will have implications,” he said. “In the absence of a downloaded patch, businesses that are running these obsolete operating systems or other similarly unsupported devices will be completely reliant on manual processes to change the time. Because this approach relies on human intervention, it significantly increases the potential for time-related inconsistencies to creep into the corresponding systems.”

Whether it’s an automated installation of a patch or having an IT person go around to each machine with a CD or flash drive with the update, Levy said that IT managers won’t want to leave the changeover in the hands of end-users. “Administrators will have to handle it manually. You can’t expect hundreds of staff and end-users to change it. If you don’t automate it, you run the risk of having at least some computers or devices running out of synch.” While an automated changeover is the best practice, Levy suggests that a manual verification process will ensure that everything is running smoothly, especially if the time has been changed manually.

If the update isn’t already in place or a patch isn’t applied successfully, Levy said, “Where time is of the essence – for example, for transportation scheduling, air traffic control systems and legal situations, among others – this could be problematic.”

At risk, said de Jager, are any systems with a short response time, including financial and mortgage systems, and systems that govern manufacturing processes.

“When there is a sharp spike in quantum laws of time – from a minute (passing) to an hour (passing) – that’s when trouble happens,” de Jager said.

Neil Amyotte, a network analyst with Ottawa-based ICT consulting form Ajilon Consulting, said that he doesn’t foresee a lot of this happening. “All they need to do is apply a patch or download an update, and most organizations have IT groups ready to do that. If there is not a plan in place to update regularly anyway, they’re not doing what’s right for the company.” He, too, advocates leaving the user out of the updating equation but said that he doesn’t think panic will reach sufficient Y2K levels to create a cottage industry of IT experts vying to ensure that companies’ operating systems are DST-change-ready.

“The most they would do is tack it onto a standard contract to support the company,” he said.

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