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Social Security Information Systems Near Collapse 279

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-unlike-social-security dept.
matty619 writes "An Information Week article warns that the computer systems that run the Social Security Administration may collapse by 2012 due to increased workload, and a half-billion-dollar upgrade won't be ready until 2015. One of the biggest problems is the agency's transition to a new data center, according to a report (PDF) by the SSA's Inspector General. The IG has characterized the replacement of the SSA's National Computer Center — built in 1979 — as the SSA's 'primary IT investment' in the next few years."
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Social Security Information Systems Near Collapse

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  • 2012 (Score:4, Funny)

    by Sooner Boomer (96864) <sooner.boomr@COB ... m minus language> on Sunday January 09, 2011 @06:15AM (#34813208) Journal
    So the world will end in 2012!
    • So the world will end in 2012!

      Only if you are on Social Security, For the rest of the folks, just keep on paying those Social Security taxes . . .

      . . . and stay in your homes; there is no danger.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by garompeta (1068578)
      I am still amazed when I see people who think that the US is the world.
      Isn't it amazing that whenever there is an alien invasion, they seem to invade the US first (or some times ONLY in the US). Bleh.
      • by Joce640k (829181)

        Look on the bright side. If they come to destroy us the USA will be the first to go.

      • by KDR_11k (778916)

        That's marketing. Apparently Americans don't like movies and games where the important people aren't American, I recall a story about a game that was supposed to be about rebels in some Soviet bloc state trying to get the SU out of their country getting a rewrite so it plays in a Soviet-occupied America for that reason.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          That's marketing. Apparently Americans don't like movies and games where the important people aren't American

          Ya that whole Harry Potter thing, it was a complete flop here in the 'states.

          • Red herring alert -- it's because Harry Potter appeals to yuppie Anglophiles who want their kids to be "classy".
          • by DavidTC (10147)

            That's just because kids haven't learned that particular stupidity yet.

        • Re:2012 (Score:4, Interesting)

          by FrootLoops (1817694) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @08:23AM (#34813612)
          Ads depress me for a similar reason. Announcer voices are male or female depending on what's being sold; homemaker-type products use white upper middle class-style actresses; life insurance commercials use old male announcers, unless it's the Gerber Life commercial (ironically showing right now) in which case it uses a young (but not too young) woman. Of course, these are generalizations and not strict rules, but the correlation is strong. Incidentally, I hate marketing. It seems to be a necessary evil, but I wish their manipulations were as transparent to everyone as they are to me. Maybe then ads would contain more actual content and less flash.

          (Yes, this is off topic, but discussing the social security system's IT infrastructure isn't exactly thrilling conversation.)
          • by nedlohs (1335013)

            It's advertising, obviously they are going to use the type of voice that their research (or just the anecdotes they happen to have heard) says is most effective for the demographics they are selling to.

      • Re:2012 (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Angostura (703910) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @08:05AM (#34813548)

        You're wrong. In most disaster movies, there is usually the obligatory 'interference-laden quick-cut TV new reports from around the world section'.

        By law this must feature:

        The Eiffel Tower, the UK Houses of Parliament, the Taj Mahal and optionally the Sidney Opera House.

        • by nedlohs (1335013)

          Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs did that well with the news announcer commenting that it was an unusual weather pattern to hit major landmarks first and then the rest of the world.

      • I always thought it was Japan that got invaded first...
      • by HiThere (15173)

        And Godzilla attacks Tokyo, and Mothra has these two little japanese princess figures that advise or cajole him. (If I haven't gotten my monsters mixed up.)

        When I lived in Japan back around 1960 I saw LOTS of Japanese SciFi flicks. (Some with subtitles, some with English dubbed.) They *always* attacked Japan. Only in films made originally in English did they attack the US,

        Movie makers know that their audiences are ethno-centric and state-centric (whatever the word for that should be). In fact Hollywood

      • Isn't it amazing that whenever there is an alien invasion, they seem to invade the US first (or some times ONLY in the US). Bleh.

        OT. But regardless, your example doesn't carry much weight in that Hollywood is
        1). American
        2). Entertainment for an American audience.

      • by sjames (1099)

        Watch Torchwood or Dr. Who sometime. With those, take every instance of "The President" and "The Whitehouse" and replace them with "The Prime Minister" and "Buckingham Palace" (Rarely 10 Downing Street). The alien invaders typically pick on the U.K. with occasional mention that the U.S. isn't any better off.

  • *HOW* Much?! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Seumas (6865) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @06:29AM (#34813256)

    Half a billion dollars? Are you fucking kidding me?! No wonder the program has failed and is such a joke. And we're looking to find a way to keep this program afloat well into the future, to "protect" us in our retirement by siphoning off extra taxation from every paycheck for our entire life? The same guys who are spending $500,000,000.00 to upgrade the system that maintains it? You could buy a million iPads at retail price for that. I don't know why you would, but you could. Holy fuck.

    Then again, a lot of it is written in COBOL, as the article states. And as our unqualified, ignorant, idiotic National CIO stated last year -- something like this, anyway -- "we need to improve the computer human interface with skip-logic, because a lot of things are in COBOL binary interface". Or something.

    Oh, and note that the article said that half a billion dollars is just what has been allocated for the project. So far. How much longer are these guys going to get away with these twenty million dollar Drupal *.gov website projects and other scams?!

    • Re:*HOW* Much?! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by WarwickRyan (780794) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @06:39AM (#34813288)

      I know that it sounds like a lot of money, but it may not actually be that bad, depending on what, exactly, is included in that budget.

      If, say, they're including upgrading all IT infrastructure for the agency (all desktops, laptops, network etc), and they're including things such as training of users and rollout costs, then it really isn't such a crazy figure at all.

      That's also the problem with these projects. They include everything under the sun in one project budget, instead of splitting it out into multiple smaller budgets.

      • Come on... you know it doesn't include any of that.
      • ...you forgot something. That's the costs of new personnel because of the ones that quit because they have to learn something new.

        This might seem silly to some of you, but it's quite real. I worked on a rollout where a department in a certain U.S. state's government in the mid 90s. People resigned in many offices rather than learn about the new equipment even though it was going to help them out tremendously.

        This is one of the problems in government agencies... people are there because it is cushy and wh

        • by HiThere (15173)

          I think you've misanalysed that. They work in civil service because they're afraid of change. When change is *going to happen* they reanalyze their job options. Maybe there would be less change to be dealt with if they changed to somewhere else, where people already knew how the system worked.

          The effects are largely the same, but that actions to mitigate the problem are very different. E.g., long ago I used to set up duplicate systems...the new one and the old. It was a big hassle, but it solved severa

      • by magarity (164372)

        That's also the problem with these projects. They include everything under the sun in one project budget, instead of splitting it out into multiple smaller budgets.

        I'll bet the real problem is scope creep. It probably started out as a two year, $100M project ten years ago and every nine months the requirements are rewritten so that the current work is 50% scrapped and another year and a half and $100M are added. It stinks of poor executive management support and inadequate project management pushback to changes.

    • by grimJester (890090) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @07:18AM (#34813426)

      Then again, a lot of it is written in COBOL, as the article states.

      Yes, and upgrading legacy code to become a modern data center is hard. Why, I remember how I struggled to turn a simple Pascal Hello World into a cafeteria. Can you believe there's no open source tool to translate for loops into pretzels?

      Hint: It's a building. With computers. And data.

    • Re:*HOW* Much?! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by DarkOx (621550) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @08:30AM (#34813650) Journal

      I really find these OMG we have to get away from COBOL articles sort of silly. While I agree that doing new development in COBOL probably does not make a whole lot of sense most of the time using the existing code base is not a problem. IBM makes it real easy to not only run your forty year old COBOL applications but integrate them with Java, Ruby and other more modern languages. You can even do things like implement web services and the like pretty easily in COBOL these days, I have seen some pretty impressive copy books.

      What we should remember is COBOL has run these business systems for 40 years with success. It might not be the most fun thing to write code in but its actually quite good for accounting and basic reporting processes. Oh sure you can do these things in C, C++, Java, or anything else just fine but in general its going to be more error prone because those languages are not really targeted at the task and in truth probably use more total lines of code to get it done, even if most of its warped up in some frame work or STL. Finally most of these business accounting type tasks really do make more sense thought about in structured programming terms or even just simply as control break processes, they can be forced on to an object model like anything else but the operative word there is forced.

      There are lots of good reasons to replace systems and forklift old code. If you are tossing out you old COBOL process because its a mess of badly done spaghetti code fine, if you are getting rid of it just because OMGs COBOL is dying that is fixing what is not broken an asking for trouble.

      • by nurb432 (527695)

        Right. Why fix what isn't broken in a panic. Sure, make it a long term goal to move away from it, as realistically someday it wont be supportable as the pool of people slowly shrink, but don't flip out and convert it into today's latest and greatest language.

        COBOL is stable, and has been proven by the test of time. For projects like this you want its successor to do the same.

        I still remember in school how 'pascal is the next thing and its all you ever need to learn..'. ya, that worked out real well and it w

        • Re:*HOW* Much?! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Belial6 (794905) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @02:20PM (#34815754)
          I would say that the 'pool of people' shrinking is not even a problem. Any of us that write code, know that once you know how it works, the language is just a matter of syntax. Cobol isn't the magic language that no one can learn after 1990. Hire developers and train them if they can't get to the point of being useful in a short amount of time, then maybe they just don't have what it takes to be a good developer anyway.

          The 'shrinking pool of developers' problem is only a problem when you have the mindset that everyone must be a star on their first day. It is how we see ads asking for 10 years of experience in technology that is only 5 years old.
      • by Nemyst (1383049)

        Similar arguments are being used about IE6. Doesn't stop ActiveX from being any less horrid and IE6 the bane of web development.

      • I really find these OMG we have to get away from COBOL articles sort of silly. While I agree that doing new development in COBOL probably does not make a whole lot of sense most of the time using the existing code base is not a problem.

        See... the problem here is you are trying to apply normal logic. Look at this from a PHB persepective.

        It's OLD. Old is BAD.

        New is GOOD. Replacing old with new is something that we can spend money on and the PHBs can put on their bragsheets to get promotions.

    • Oh, and note that the article said that half a billion dollars is just what has been allocated for the project. So far.

      You can safely assume this project will overrun its budget just like many many many other government and defense programs.

    • by theVarangian (1948970) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @09:30AM (#34813916)

      Half a billion dollars? Are you fucking kidding me?! No wonder the program has failed and is such a joke. And we're looking to find a way to keep this program afloat well into the future, to "protect" us in our retirement by siphoning off extra taxation from every paycheck for our entire life? The same guys who are spending $500,000,000.00 to upgrade the system that maintains it? You could buy a million iPads at retail price for that. I don't know why you would, but you could. Holy fuck.

      I like bashing expensive government projects as much as the next guy, but if you are creating a nation wide IT system of any kind for a nation of 300+ million people $500,000,000.00 it doesn't sound too far off. Hell, Apple just sank $1 billion into a datacenter and Google sank $600 million into a datacenter in Berkeley, South Carolina and that one is just one of their many data centers. People love to take the total costs for a project like this and shout: "SCANDAL! $500,000,000.00 spent on failed IT project". Nobody mentions that the investment in a data center is largely recoverable since it and it's hardware can easily be repurposed. It's only development and training costs that are wasted which is bad enough but still only a fraction of the costs. The main scandal here is not so much the cost of, its the fact that they will run out of capacity before the new datacenter is ready. As for COBOL being a dying language COBOL is in good company on death row along with C, C++, OpenGL, BSD (and UNIX in general) plus a number of other things IT that have been labeled as "dying" almost as long as I have been in the IT business which is longer than I care to remember. The claim " is dying!" is a long time IT gutter-press favorite.

    • by timeOday (582209)

      Half a billion dollars? Are you fucking kidding me?! No wonder the program has failed and is such a joke.

      It is absurd to say that SS has failed or is a joke. Without it, millions of elderly would live in poverty, just as they did before the program was instituted, only moreso, since people live longer now.

      When a nation's demographics skew older, it is overall less productive and so less wealthy. The effects of that are felt in many ways, including increased direct burden of supporting the elderly. Co

  • by outsider007 (115534) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @06:42AM (#34813310)

    Just use facebook ID's instead.

    • by Huntr (951770)

      I really can't decide whether to mod this funny, insightful or terrifyingly possible.

      Not that it matters now...

  • Flash... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Genda (560240) <mariet@ g o t . n et> on Sunday January 09, 2011 @06:52AM (#34813356) Journal

    In a related story, it has been reported that top officials at the Social Security Administration are prepared to reduced the entire Social Security System to a Web App and run it on the Amazon Cloud.

    • And having a web app is bad why?

  • Why there is no money in SS to distribute...

  • This is sick. The three physical costs of S.S. as I can see it:
    1) Data acquisition (who has incrementally paid into the system) - this is B.S. accounting because it's all going to come from the general tax fund soon anyway, so why the charade?
    2) Call centers - (this is for old people after all)
    3) Printing checks

    The rest can be handled by less than a million dollars in hardware / software.
    3 can be outsourced (paychex doesn't overburdern my company with overhead as far as I know).
    2 can be outsourced and them
    • by dbIII (701233) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @09:10AM (#34813814)
      It already is and that's the problem.
      Instead they should try running it like a government. You need at least enough people to watch the contractors or they rob you blind.
      Endless red tape is not a feature of government versus private enterprise. It's actually sometimes far worse in very large private enterprises and there is usually little or nothing to catch the inevitable petty or major corruption. Badly run private enterprise can look just as bad or far worse than badly run government, and on some levels they are indistinguishable. Look at Australia's Telstra under Trujillo as a shining example of a business that could not possibly fail due to it's monopoly status but that didn't stop it trying to fail in so many ways.
    • by vlm (69642) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @09:24AM (#34813874)

      1) Data acquisition (who has incrementally paid into the system) - this is B.S. accounting because it's all going to come from the general tax fund soon anyway, so why the charade?

      They gather that data to verify eligibility and calculated benefit payout. Don't you get an annual statement listing what you earned for the past X years and if you were to become disabled you would get Y dollars per month, etc? I just got my annual statement on Friday.

      They send this out annually because if the food store that I worked at in 1991 forgot to credit me with that income, its a heck of a lot easier to set the record straight in 1992 rather than waiting for me to retire or become disabled decades later and ooops I haven't paid in enough "fully qualified" years for whatever benefit.

      Also if someone steals your SS number and works under it, you can trivially figure out how much money they earn, which is interesting.

      • Because the difference in receiving $145 / year for life instead of $135 is so great a risk? The goal of S.S. was to make people 'feel' like it's something you have to work towards. (Maybe at the time the ponsi scheme looked like it might work indefinitely). But how would people survive up to age 65 if they didn't already work. So what's the charade all about then? Just give them a reasonable retirement amount from the general tax fund, and require a 10% min tax rate on every working citizen and you're done. Enough of this robbing peter to pay Paul crap.
        • A 7% variance is OK? That's about $50B a year vs the entire SS administration budget of $12B and no matter what you'd still have to pay someone and have systems to make sure some jackass wasn't collecting for six fake people. Let's just ignore that it would take a major legislative effort that might cost more than the new systems.

        • by Velex (120469)

          Enough of this robbing peter to pay Paul crap.

          Too bad you're proposing the same thing. A better idea would be to stop robbing Peter and let Peter just put the amount he's paying in into an investment fund of sorts he has control over. And if you work somewhere like I do, my employer is helping to give me a "pension" by matching my 401(k) contributions anyway (the difference is that once my employer contributes to my 401(k), the money becomes mine, whereas with a pension I'd need to worry about sticking with this dead-end job for the next 40 years an

    • Social security is going to an all direct deposit system. So you can cross off printing checks.

      The call centers could easily be outsourced to Zimbabwe or wherever English is spoken with the worst accent possible thereby eliminating the need to pay benefits.

      The data thing is the hard part. It isn't 300 million records, it's 300 million times the number of paychecks you receive in your lifetime. But that could easily be handled the same way the people who receive the paychecks do. Shoeboxes. And anyway with t

    • The costs of the rote standardized execution of normal transactions is nothing compared to processing the exceptions created by over 2000 pages of law that have no doubt given rise to hundreds of times that much supporting legal interpretation documentation each and every one of which may require implementation of a supplementary system.

      It's never the "1) Do this 2) Do 1 again with a different name" system that costs money. It's exceptions, interfaces, changes, specialized reporting and human intervention r

  • What does it look like for a computer system to "collapse?" Suddenly no longer able to process a single transaction?
    • by YoungHack (36385)

      I suppose it looks the same as when your backup system collapses. The next backup starts before the current backup has finished.

      The system collapses when next month's work has to start and this month's work is still processing.

    • by hrvatska (790627)
      It might be able to complete transactions, but not in a timely manner. If social security checks didn't go out on time there'd be a political shit storm that would make the tea party seem tame.
    • Re:Collapse? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Belial6 (794905) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @02:54PM (#34815978)
      A decade ago, I did work on updating the system at the 'California Board of Pest Control'. They had a system that had "collapsed". What it looked like was an office that had stopped buying cubicle walls. They instead had built their walls from stacks of paper that had to be processed. They literally had walls made of stacked paper. I will say it a third time just because the image in my head was so startling. They had made the internal walls of the office out of 12' tall stacks of paper. When I displayed shock at what I saw, they explained that this was just the new stuff that they hadn't gotten moved to the big warehouse across the street. It looked a lot like one of those houses you see on the news where the owner went insane, and become a hard core pack rat.
  • by constantnormal (512494) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @06:03PM (#34817602)

    This strikes me as a task comparable to the Y2K crisis, which was handled well enough that the vast majority of the sheeple believe it to have been a scam, a tremendous waste of time, money, and urgency that was all for naught.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    The major differences between this and the Y2K crisis is that the politically-dominated government, and not profit-minded enterprises, is responsible for dealing with the problem. And so we are likely to see government gridlock drive us straight into a collapse of the system that would have been paying out a huge chunk of the spending money to just about the largest demographic group in the country -- those age 60-something-and-over, with the resultant impact on the economy triggering an economic crisis that will be truly stupendous to behold.

    Consider the alternative: an economy that is strapped for reasonable-paying jobs, hires a bunch of the near-retiring or retired boomer coders, delaying their retirements and generating additional cash flows into the economy. We get a smooth transition to a SS system (hardware and software) that is capable up supporting the huge demographic bubble of the boomers, that also happens to lessen the impact of an abrupt boomer retirement. This covers more than mere coders, as the planning and logistics and setup of a number of fault-tolerant fail-over capable data centers employs a lot more than just coders and analysts.

    And Obama says he can't find any "shovel-ready" jobs.

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