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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.

The Social Security Administration's primary data center is nearing the end of its usefulness--its electrical system is an accident waiting to happen, and decades-old software hampers the agency's ability to extend its services to the Web. Social Security has a plan to replace the overburdened facility with a modern data center, but that will be a five-year process with challenges of its own.

The Government Accountability Office and Social Security's inspector general have looked into the issues and published reports calling for remediation. Social Security's data center--located at agency headquarters in Woodlawn, Md.--is home to 4 petabytes of demographic, wage, and benefits data, and the agency last year distributed $703 billion in retirement, disability, and survivor benefits to 53 million Americans. Uncle Sam can ill afford for the agency's services to be disrupted by an outage to the systems that manage it all.

"Service interruption would severely affect the American public, delaying the delivery of benefits to citizens who depend on these funds in their day-to-day lives, and likely hindering people's ability to obtain employment, driver's licenses, and even loans and mortgages," inspector general Patrick O'Reilly told a House of Representatives committee in February.

Social Security has been planning construction of a new data center for the past few years. That project has already fallen a year behind schedule, though agency officials recently assured Congress it wouldn't slip further. However, even if the project remains on track, the new data center won't be operational until 2016.

Floor space isn't the problem in the Woodlawn data center; it's the building's infrastructure--electrical, cooling, and heating systems--that can no longer keep up with requirements. According to a project plan released in August, the facility will reach its maximum electrical distribution capacity within four years.

Data Center Faces Retirement
Social Security Administration's primary data center in Woodlawn, Md., is expected to max out its electrical distribution capacity within four years
The facility's HVAC system is outdated, and replacement parts are no longer available for its UPS system
Mainframes run Cobol applications and a file system written in assembler language
A replacement 400,000-square-foot data center to be built in Urbana, Md., is scheduled to open in 2016
The building, designed for 1970s-era mainframes, lacks redundant electrical, heating, and cooling systems, and its fire suppression system doesn't even cover the entire data center floor. Its HVAC system is "well beyond its expected life cycle," says Kelly Croft, the agency's deputy commissioner for systems.

Likewise, the data center's uninterruptible power supply system can't be trusted. The vendor for the custom-designed UPS has informed Social Security that replacement parts are no longer available. And the facility's electrical system serves other areas of the building, raising the risk that a power surge elsewhere could cause a partial outage among the computer systems.

What about backup and recovery? Social Security operates a secondary data center in North Carolina, but it's a poor safety net. It would take five days to get the secondary data center to run critical applications if needed.

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