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Social Security Confronts IT Obsolescence

The agency's overburdened data center and decades-old software need to be replaced, but a replacement facility won't be ready until 2016.

Efficient And Secure

The new facility will be built on a 63-acre property at the Urbana Research Center in Urbana, Md., that will also be the site of new office space for the agency. The data center, to be called the National Support Center, will be about 400,000 square feet. It will be an energy-efficient Tier 3 data center, with a minimum of 99.982% uptime, a LEED "silver" design certification, and state-of-the-art physical security.

Bids on the construction phase of the project were due March 2. Once the contract is awarded, the schedule calls for construction to be completed by September 2014 and for IT systems to begin moving into the facility in January 2015. The agency estimates that migration could take 18 months to complete.

Most of the funding for the new data center will come from $500 million made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. However, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives' revised budget for the rest of fiscal 2011 would cut $120 million of that stimulus funding. If that happens, one of the first things to go could be $100 million in software and system upgrades planned for the new data center.

Social Security continues to run its core applications--including the Retirement, Survivors and Disability Insurance Accounting System and the Supplemental Security Income Record Maintenance System--on four powerful IBM mainframes. Those systems are only a year or two old, but many of the apps that run on them were written decades ago in the Cobol programming language.

That old software constrains how data gets accessed and shared internally, and how services and data are made available on the Web. "We do a lot of batch processing, so there are hours when our systems aren't even available to the public," CIO Frank Baitman says.

Social Security CIO Frank Baitman
"We have very limited dollars to invest, so you've got to invest where you're going to get the biggest bang." -- Social Security CIO Frank Baitman
Social Security is five years into a project to convert its aging Master Data Access Method (Madam) file management system to IBM's DB2 database management system. Various government reports going back as far as 1997 have characterized Madam, which was written in the 1980s in IBM assembler language, as primitive, obsolete, and outdated.

The transition from Madam to DB2 will happen in three stages, and the agency is only midway through the first of those, the file conversion phase. Completion of the entire project is expected by September 2013.

Social Security's inspector general reviewed the project in May and concluded that the agency lacked "critical decision-making information" around the DB2 project, including a baseline for measuring performance. No analysis had been done on what it would cost to rewrite applications for the DB2 environment, even though the agency contended that such a rewrite would be "too resource intensive."

In addition, Social Security had warned that, as a result of anticipated employee retirements, it faced a potential shortage of technical staff with Madam skills, potentially leaving the agency short-handed during the Madam-to-DB2 transition. However, Social Security didn't specify when that would become a critical issue, according to O'Reilly.

There are no plans to rewrite the agency's core apps as part of the DB2 conversion. Instead, Social Security will take the lesser step of modifying the applications to enable DB2 access. The National Research Council determined in 2007 that moving away from Madam without rewriting the Social Security's applications "would limit the functionality of existing applications and compromise the design of the new database." At the time, Social Security defended its approach as "more cautious and less risky."

But the question of software obsolescence won't go away. A Social Security advisory board told President Obama's transition team in 2008 that the agency needed to convert its Cobol-based IT infrastructure to newer technologies. The agency has yet to articulate a plan for doing so.

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