LudditeCare: A Federal Agency That Still Uses Floppy Disks

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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In October, a post at Power Line noted how kludged together the Obama administration's attempt to socialize the health care insurance industry is -- which oddly makes sense: why shouldn't a 19th century leftwing scheme (socialized medicine) be reliant on 1990s-era outdated technology?

The front end technology is not the problem here. It would be nice if it was the problem, because web page scaling issues are known problems and relatively easy to solve.

The real problems are with the back end of the software. When you try to get a quote for health insurance, the system has to connect to computers at the IRS, the VA, Medicaid/CHIP, various state agencies, Treasury, and HHS. They also have to connect to all the health plan carriers to get pre-subsidy pricing. All of these queries receive data that is then fed into the online calculator to give you a price. If any of these queries fails, the whole transaction fails.

Most of these systems are old legacy systems with their own unique data formats. Some have been around since the 1960′s, and the people who wrote the code that runs on them are long gone. If one of these old crappy systems takes too long to respond, the transaction times out.

Amazingly, none of this was tested until a week or two before the rollout, and the tests failed. They released the web site to the public anyway – an act which would border on criminal negligence if it was done in the private sector and someone was harmed. Their load tests crashed the system with only 200 simultaneous transactions – a load that even the worst-written front-end software could easily handle.

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When you even contemplate bringing an old legacy system into a large-scale web project, you should do load testing on that system as part of the feasibility process before you ever write a line of production code, because if those old servers can’t handle the load, your whole project is dead in the water if you are forced to rely on them. There are no easy fixes for the fact that a 30 year old mainframe can not handle thousands of simultaneous queries. And upgrading all the back-end systems is a bigger job than the web site itself. Some of those systems are still there because attempts to upgrade them failed in the past. Too much legacy software, too many other co-reliant systems, etc. So if they aren’t going to handle the job, you need a completely different design for your public portal.

A lot of focus has been on the front-end code, because that’s the code that we can inspect, and it’s the code that lots of amateur web programmers are familiar with, so everyone’s got an opinion. And sure, it’s horribly written in many places. But in systems like this the problems that keep you up at night are almost always in the back-end integration.

And while an earlier Democrat (who also had his own visions of socializing medicine; like I said, it's a century-old scheme) would have looked at it all and said that the buck stops here, naturally for Mr. Obama, this is an all excuse for why none of the problems of his namesake bill are his fault, as Charles C. W. Cooke wrote yesterday at National Review:

In his Chris Matthew interview yesterday, Obama pushed back against the idea that this was his fault. Per Politico:

“The challenge, I think, that we have going forward is not so much my personal management style or particular issues around White House organization,” Obama said. “It actually has to do with what I referred to earlier, which is we have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly.”

So, it’s the government’s fault, not Obama’s. It’s the design of the agencies, not Obama. Okay, fair enough. But then why isn’t he moving to reform those agencies? He’d certainly have Republican support for that, and, as we all know, he just wants to do “what works” and he’ll “work with anyone” who agrees with him.

This approach is eerily reminiscent of David Axelrod’s. “How could the head of the executive branch know about the IRS scandal?” Axelrod effectively asked:

“Part of being president is there’s so much underneath you because the government is so vast. You go through these [controversies] all because of this stuff that is impossible to know if you’re the president or working in the White House, and yet you’re responsible for it and it’s a difficult situation.”

It is difficult, yes. The federal government has become vast and unwieldy. Which makes it all the more peculiar that the reaction of the administration to every problem is to grow the system that they simultaneously say is too big to manage.

But the problem is also the voters' fault as well: why does a nation that's obsessed with iPads and Android tablets, laptops and smart phones, and loves nothing more than to customize and program and fine-tune this technology so that it's individualized to the nth degree vote to give more and more power to a federal government that's organized around 19th century socialism, and reliant upon fax machines, floppy disks, and, until the late-1990s, vacuum tubes? I wonder if Obama supporter Terry Gilliam realized in 1985, when he was making Brazil, that he was shooting a documentary about America in 2013?

* Why yes, it does take a certain amount of chutzpah for a print-based newspaper, which at least once a year runs an article decrying the use of air conditioning, toilet paper, refrigerators, automobiles, and other inventions man has created to ease his brief time on this mortal coil, to complain about the Luddite nature of the federal government they worship.

** Tubes aren't entirely obsolete -- many electric guitarists value the warm sound of vacuum-tube powered amplifiers, as do some hi-fi traditionalists.

Related: Damned if you do, damned if you don't: On the one hand, while Washington state's health-insurance website has been down for days, "federal health officials, after encouraging alternate sign-up methods amid the fumbled rollout of their online insurance website, began quietly urging counselors around the country this week to stop using paper applications to enroll people in health insurance because of concerns those applications would not be processed in time," AP reports today.

(Artwork created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)