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Ed Driscoll

LudditeCare: A Federal Agency That Still Uses Floppy Disks

December 7th, 2013 - 12:52 pm


Last month, the New Yorker made rare sport of its fellow leftists, by featuring on its cover Kathleen Sebelius crossing her fingers, a pensive looking Barack Obama with Gordon Gekko’s giant mid-’80s brick of a cell phone, and a pocket protector-wearing young nerd (Jay Carney?) inserting into a White House computer equipped with a sclerotic CRT monitor, yet another piece of technology from the early pioneering days of personal computers, a floppy disk.

As Malcolm Muggeridge noted a half century ago, there is no way for any satirist to improve upon real life for its pure absurdity. Yesterday, the New York Times* ran a story titled, “Slowly They Modernize: A Federal Agency That Still Uses Floppy Disks”:

The technology troubles that plagued the HealthCare.gov website rollout may not have come as a shock to people who work for certain agencies of the government — especially those who still use floppy disks, the cutting-edge technology of the 1980s.

Every day, The Federal Register, the daily journal of the United States government, publishes on its website and in a thick booklet around 100 executive orders, proclamations, proposed rule changes and other government notices that federal agencies are mandated to submit for public inspection.

So far, so good.

It turns out, however, that the Federal Register employees who take in the information for publication from across the government still receive some of it on the 3.5-inch plastic storage squares that have become all but obsolete in the United States.

Now government infrastructure experts are hoping that public embarrassments like the HealthCare.gov debacle will prompt a closer look at the government’s technological prowess, especially if it might mean getting rid of floppy disks.

“You’ve got this antiquated system that still works but is not nearly as efficient as it could be,” said Stan Soloway, chief executive of the Professional Services Council, which represents more than 370 government contractors. “Companies that work with the government, whether longstanding or newcomers, are all hamstrung by the same limitations.”

The use of floppy disks peaked in American homes and offices in the mid-1990s, and modern computers do not even accommodate them anymore. But The Federal Register continues to accept them, in part because legal and security requirements have yet to be updated, but mostly because the wheels of government grind ever slowly.

The mid-1990s you say? That was when Newt Gingrich, newly ascendant as the first GOP speaker of the House in 40 years, was barnstorming the country (to use another retro phrase) with technowonk speeches in which he noted how outmoded much of government was. Gingrich would use as visual prop another technology that was largely obsolete** in 1995: he would hold up a vacuum tube, like something out of your grandfather’s TV set — or an FAA air traffic control tower in 1995:

The big battles will deal with how we remake the Government of the United States. The measure of everything we do will be whether we are creating a better future with more opportunities for our children.

New ideas, new ways and old-fashioned common sense can improve government while reducing its costs. Let me give you an example. The United States Government is the largest purchaser of vacuum tubes in the Western world. This is a Federal Aviation Administration vacuum tube. Good solid 1895 technology. This is the updated mid-1950s version. When you fly in America, vacuum tubes in the air traffic control system keep you safe. Our purchasing rules are so complicated and so wasteful that our government has not been able in seven years to figure out how to replace vacuum tubes with this. This is a microchip that has the computing power of 3 million vacuum tubes. So today’s government operates this way; after we remake it, the government of the future will operate this way.

My point is this: this same reliance on the obsolete pervades most of the federal government–not just in regard to computers but in regard to its thinking, its attitudes, its approaches to problems. It’s one thing if we’re talking about vacuum tubes, but this backward thinking is entirely something else if we’re talking about human lives.

And we are. An AP story in late September foreshadowed the Obamacare Website horrors to come with a shocking reference to the F-word:

Administration officials are quietly telling key interest groups to expect initial glitches signing up online for coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Two sources tell The Associated Press that small businesses will not be able to enroll online starting Oct. 1 when new health insurance markets go live. Instead, one of the sources, a person who was briefed on the situation, said business owners will initially have to mail or fax their information so that they can enroll.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement hasn’t yet been made.

If you’re getting a sense that the Leviathan federal government is connected together with bailing wire, string, fax machines, and floppy disks, you’re not alone — and you’re one up on the president, as we’ll explore right after the page break.

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Top Rated Comments   
All the more reason to put banking, insurance, automotive, energy and real estate into the hands of government.

If you want to destroy free market democracy...come hidden as a "compassionate liberal".

But still...where are the government whistleblowers? We know the Propaganda Machine is conspiring to not do a single investigative piece.

If the elements of this coup were undertaken by a Republican, there would be nightly expose's, names of traitors and their deeds would be in four page articles in every paper...and "insiders" would be spilling their guts.

It is the silence that is eerie.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
It occurs to me that perhaps restricting the federal government to using only antiquated technology might be a good thing. No computers at al. No email. All communication must be hand-written and either mailed or hand-delivered.

Perhaps then we would not have 2700-page bills in Congress.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
But can you press the CTL-ALT-DLT key?
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (43)
All Comments   (43)
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my classmate's mother makes $89/hr on the laptop. She has been laid off for 8 months but last month her paycheck was $12657 just working on the laptop for a few hours. read the article,,,,,,,http://www.jobs59.com
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
my best friend's mother makes $82/hr on the computer. She has been without a job for 5 months but last month her check was $13455 just working on the computer for a few hours. view it now,,,,WWW.Rush64.Com
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
Does anyone here remember what Colin Powell's first announced surprise was when he took over State in 2001? It was that State was still using Fortran word processors and had no internet connections almost a decade after internet had become common place. Fortran was what we were using in the mid-80s and given the constipated way in which the government had to buy computer technologies then, it was considered cutting-edge when everyone else was using PCs and Word Perfect.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Be careful what you complain about. My experience as a systems designer and programmer migrating employees of various sized companies from an 'antiquated' system to something more modern taught me:

--employees have strong habits and methods and have a hard time changing. They want to know only what they have to know and no more. If it's a company with little turnover that values their employees, to be successful you program the front end the way they're used to doing things not the best way. Efficiency is rarely increased by much.

--migrating to newer systems makes databases on the back end easier to manage and interface with other databases (via their new hires who are willing to learn). In the government do we really really want this? The NSA is state-of-the-art and look where that's gotten us.

45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
What did you expect, considering that the military payroll system is still operating on COBAL - with no source code documentation and fewer and fewer people who can work in COBAL.
http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/pentagons-broken-payroll-system/
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
That would be COBOL = COmmon Business Oriented Language. I programmed in COBOL back in the late 70s when I was in High School and I hated it because the language was so verbose and wasn't good at doing the things I was interested in doing (computer games). However, it was great at doing business applications.

Would it surprise you to learn the COBOL still has ongoing development and that there are Object Oriented versions of COBOL? Would it surprise you to learn that many companies still maintain COBOL based software systems to power their back-end mission critical operations?

Why? Because the cost to convert them to modern languages is extremely high, these systems have already had the bugs worked out of them and perform well enough, re-writing the COBOL applications using modern languages is very risky because it would introduce new bugs that would be devastating to the mission critical systems (banking for example), and there is nothing to be gained in terms of improved transaction performance because COBOL was designed to be very efficient at business data processing.

COBOL is a pain to program in, but its performance in many business data crunching applications rivals many modern alternatives. Consequently, the "Front End" (the part that the user interacts with) of applications is written using Java or other modern approaches and those front ends are connected to the COBOL back ends using more Modern COBOL compilers that support the hooks needed to interface these systems. Brand new applications aren't generally developed in COBOL because COBOL is cumbersome to program, but that doesn't mean it can't perform.

In addition, it's just not that hard for programmers to learn new computer languages. There's just not a lot of new development using COBOL right now, but a programmer can learn it relatively easily. At least it was easy for me way back then. If required, I could pick it up in a few days and could be proficient in less than a week or 2. That's been the case for every new computer language that I've taught myself.

As far as missing source code goes, I can't speak to that, but at some point they would need to be able to recompile that code to work on the target platforms as they were upgraded, so either the hardware is extremely old, or there are only portions of the code that are undocumented, probably due to shadow IT and a lack of proper backup and version control standards. A lack of such standards and policies is more wide spread in the business world than you think.
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45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Unfortunately it's not working for DFAS - and the Military lacks the sourcecodes to keep the programming current and operating properly.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
I read the article you referenced. I pulled the following quote from the article:
"Further, the system is nearly impossible to update because the documentation for it – explaining how it was built, what was in it, and how it works – disappeared long ago, according to Kevin McGraw. He retired recently after working 30 years in DFAS’s Cleveland office, most of that time responsible for maintaining the part of DJMS that handles Navy pay. “It’s hard to make a change to a program if you don’t know what’s in there,” McGraw says."

While that could mean they are missing source code, I seriously doubt it. As a programmer I can see plenty of reasons why a programmer would make the statement above despite having a copy of the source code right in front of them. For example, the source code is poorly commented or not commented at all. Poor choices may have been made for variable names such that the name of the variable either poorly describes its purpose or isn't even named to describe its purpose. Also, if the program is manipulating files, the file structure may not be obvious without the related documentation describing it. It's very difficult for a programmer to determine what a program is doing if it's not well commented, descriptive variable names aren't used, and documentation of files and file structures are missing.

The point of this is that it can't be assumed from the context of that statement that the source code is missing. All that can be said is that the documentation for them is missing. Nothing more.

The systems aren't working, that much is clear. However, the article tries to imply that the obsolescence of COBOL is one of the root causes of the problem. It's not. The real problem is constantly changing benefits, pay structures, etc, that are being created by people who think that the pay systems are flexible enough to handle all of the scenarios they can dream up. Well, in that regard, having to program those changes using old hardware and old COBOL compilers is an exceedingly difficult task, bordering on impossible depending on what functionality is required. However, it's not the fault of COBOL itself and has absolutely nothing to do with the age of the language. I write most of my code in C and C++, and C was developed by Dennis Ritchie at AT&T labs back in 1972 and it's one of the most widely used application programming language around today. No, it's not the fault of COBOL, it's the fault of the IT management who committed to making the required changes without modernizing the hardware and the COBOL compilers. At some point you have to stand up and say NO.

Once they decided to upgrade, it's clear that the effort to upgrade the system was derailed by a common problem called "scope creep", where new requirements are added by the customer all during the project. Scope creep happens as a result of a poorly specified set of requirements. It also happens due to a lack of strong leadership that overrules department heads and keeps the focus on completing project deliverables without allowing changes unless a real problem is found. The article indicates that the initial project scope was solid, but the lack of leadership on the part of the upper military allowed lower level department heads to add requirements based on their resistance to change, thus dooming the project.

They've already got plenty of our taxpayer money to buy what they need fix the systems. The bottom line is that the systems are broken because there is little will to fix them.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
I doubt this is true........AgitProp from the New Yorker so Da Gubbmint can take more of our money....

PJ Media gulped the Kool Aid........
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Just imagine how efficient our government could be, if half of it weren't chaired by obstructionists who make political gains by stalling legislation.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Actually, I can understand why some government offices have older machines. If all they do is e-mail and word processing, they don't necessarily need the latest computers. Almost any desktop built during the last 20 years will do just fine.

So, some government agencies save taxpayer dollars by not buying new computers every other year, yet they get pilloried for not having current technology?
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, maybe if they weren't pissing away their budgets on lavish tax-payer funded junkets to tropical locales, and million dollar sculptures for their lobbies, we'd be a little more understanding.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Back during the Y2K crisis, they had to bring COBOL programmers out of retirement to work on some of the legacy programs. Maybe they'll be needed again. Hollerith cards. Punched paper tape. Good times.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
I can provide some insight about sluggish computer technology improvements from my experience at a VA medical center. The VA has a reasonably good electronic medical record system. The problem is that it was written in MUMPS, a programming language developed at MIT in the 1960s. MUMPS is a dead language. But, none of the scores of VA programmers (who tend to be past middle age) learned newer programming languages. Another problem is that each VA hospital customized its electronic medical record system. When the VA bought a third-party laboratory information system in 2006, the vendor had to contend with 170 different electronic medical record systems.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
American Airlines used to employ legions of MUMPS programmers.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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