Our crumbling public computer systems infrastructure

CA DMV computer outage

Much has been said about our crumbling infrastructure of roads, bridges, water, dams, and the like. What goes perhaps more unnoticed is computer systems used by local entities, states, and the federal government are often beyond antiquated and seriously in need of upgrading.

Calwatchdog details computer problems in California over the years. DMV just had major problems because their primary and backup systems both had major problems because, wait for it, they were in the same room and were directly connected. D’oh.

California has spend $850 million trying to replace their dinosaur payroll and court systems and failed. The problem isn’t that it’s written in COBOL. The problem is almost certainly that the systems are a rat’s nest of poorly documented code developed over decades with dozens if not hundreds of modules feeding data in and out and no one really understands how it works. Upgrading means pulling all that data into modern understandable data sets and, oh yes most especially for payroll, it must work perfectly when it goes live. Employees get really cranky if their check is short

I’m a software developer and specialize in converting DOS database applications originally written in the 1990s to modern platforms. There practically never is documentation and sometimes they don’t even have the source code. Now imagine that for systems originally written in the 1960s-1970s…

The federal government has similar problems. The IRS Commissioner says they are working with systems originally written when JFK was president. Nihilist Republicans in Congress continually cut IRS and other federal agencies budgets for modernizing software then complain the software is antiquated. Hopefully President Clinton and a Democratic Senate will start to change that.

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