IT pros battle clock and code in time change

Setting the clocks ahead comes early this year, and that's causing a critical time crunch for a lot of businesses.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

As the new daylight saving time switch nears, businesses are finding the update process to be complicated and time-consuming, particularly for Microsoft Windows e-mail and server software.

New laws dictate that daylight saving time (DST) in the United States will begin three weeks earlier than usual on Sunday and end one week later than usual on November 4.

To deal with the switch, software makers have moved to provide patches meant to adjust the clocks of computers and mobile devices automatically. Those updates are critical for many business users who depend on their PC or mobile calendar to tell them where to be and at what time.

The trick, however, is actually getting the updates installed. Business and consumer electronics users across the United States say working through the sometimes unwieldy patch process is proving to be more than a little difficult.

The Microsoft update process is proving to be a headache for the people who look after corporate e-mail servers. Many say they have had difficulty with the software patches provided by Microsoft for its Outlook and Entourage e-mail client applications, and for the Exchange server software. For it to work properly, Microsoft says the update process has to be done in a very particular and rapid manner.

"The fact that I still have no idea if the patch worked--and what will happen on March 11th--is curious to me. And I (imagine) that it may be a rude awakening to many others."
--Jenny Fielding
COO, Switch-Mobile

"The (question) is when to patch what--and in what order," Larry Wahlers, senior systems analyst for Concordia Technologies, said in an e-mail.

Others are finding the directions too complex.

"Microsoft should have been better prepared with the Exchange (tool for recalculating and rescheduling appointment dates that are affected by DST). I think it's very difficult to follow their 25-page outline," said Pasquale Pescatore, senior technology analyst for Canadian retailer North West. "They don't make it intuitive."

Microsoft acknowledges that the instructions for updating aren't exactly credit card-size.

"What's not clear to some people is that we provide a lot of documentation of these tools. It's not a single page," said M3 Sweatt, chief of staff of Microsoft's customer service team.

The process is complex because a number of applications in a corporate computer network have time stamps and are therefore affected by the DST change. The first challenge is identifying the various software packages that need to be updated, said Eric Vishria, vice president of marketing at Opsware, which makes a software-updating tool.

"The second challenge is identifying, on each one of those, all the different pieces that need to be patched or updated," he said. "Not only your operating system, but also your applications, your custom applications...Time is such an important element in so many applications, (from) calendaring to bank transaction processing. IT people are the ones (who) are going to have a lot of the challenges."

Pescatore said he had no problem updating his company's Unix servers, just those running Windows.

One problem, Concordia's Wahlers said, was that the instructions from Microsoft kept shifting. "Microsoft kept changing the Web sites, the information, the order in which to patch things, to the point where absolutely nobody, including Microsoft, had any idea as to what to do."

But Microsoft's Sweatt insisted that the updated instructions were for different network configurations and weren't actually being changed.

There are four common types of users, Sweatt said: those of Outlook Web Access, third-party messaging, BlackBerry server and Good Mobile Messaging Server.

"The steps in which you deploy significant updates may change, depending on your scenario," he said.

North West's Pescatore said he and many of his colleagues got so frustrated with the error messages they were receiving on the update tool that they gave up and began patching each manually. But since the company has about 5,000 employees, he had to settle for getting updates done for just the company's top brass before Sunday.

After testing the calendaring appointment function of Outlook, the results were inconsistent: some appointments were moved forward an hour to comply with the new DST, while others were not, corporate tech managers said.

"And it didn't seem to matter who the user was," Wahlers said. "There was no rhyme or reason for how it behaved. Even on the same user, the March appointments might not be fixed correctly, while the fall appointments were."

Users of smart phones, including those not running on Windows Mobile, are similarly bewildered by the DST update process. BlackBerry Pearl user Jenny Fielding said in an e-mail interview that when she received the patch from her carrier, she initially thought it was junk mail. Nonetheless, she installed the software.

"To be perfectly honest, I am not sure what happened next (or) if it was fixed...It never said, 'download successful' or anything like that," wrote Fielding, chief operating officer of mobile voice over Internet Protocol provider Switch-Mobile. "The fact that I still have no idea if the patch worked--and what will happen on March 11th--is curious to me. And I (imagine) that it may be a rude awakening to many others."

Windows Mobile program manager Udiyan Padmanabhan said a successful installation of its DST patch will result in a system reboot, and a "successful installation" notice will be displayed.

An update to the patch will be released Monday in response to customer feedback, Padmanabhan said. The update removes the manual steps in the initial DST patch and no longer requires Windows Mobile 5.0 users to specify between the Pocket PC or Smartphone versions.

Installing the Windows Mobile 5 update for employees' mobile devices hasn't proved nearly as challenging as with Outlook and Exchange, Pescatore said, though he still plans to update each device manually. "We don't have a lot, thank God."

 
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many weeks earlier the new daylight saving time will begin this year. It starts this Sunday, March 11, three weeks earlier than last year.
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