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Social Security Data Center Approaching Collapse

An inspector general finds agency operations at high risk due to delays in upgrading its critical infrastructure and software.

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Compromised timing for a new data center transition and a slowdown in application modernization are among the top IT management challenges facing the Social Security Administration (SSA), according to a recent report by the agency's inspector general (IG).

A report by SSA IG Patrick P. O'Carroll Jr., examining the top management challenges the agency will face in 2011, shows it grappling with a host of IT infrastructure projects the agency's IG, Congress, and the SSA's advisory board worry it can't handle.

One of the biggest problems is the agency's transition to a new data center, according to the report. The IG has characterized the replacement of the SSA's National Computer Center (NCC) -- built in 1979 -- as the SSA's "primary IT investment" in the next few years.

The agency has received more than $500 million so far to replace the outdated center, which is now so severely strained by an expanded workload over its time of operation that it may not be able to function by 2012, according to the report.

However, the SSA does not foresee completing the new center until 2015, a project the IG deems as "imperative" considering the precarious position of the existing NCC.

Another IT management challenge the agency faces is application modernization -- specifically, the existence of critical business applications written in COBOL, which the IG calls a "dead or dying language."

Replacing these applications has been deemed "too risky" by analyst firm Gartner Group, according to the report, so the SSA must figure out a way to restructure them to modernize the applications.

Another IT transition -- moving from telephone or face-to-face customer service to using the Web to interface with customers -- is yet another SSA management challenge the report cites.

People are filing only 35% of retirement applications online, despite the existence of a Web-based option for several years, according to the IG. Because the SSA was hoping the move to the Web for this service would happen faster, its field offices are being overwhelmed by the workload via traditional customer service means. Electronic filings must increase to 50% by 2013 to alleviate the strain on field offices, according to the IG.

In the meantime, the SSA is using voice over IP (VoIP) to handle telephone calls for faster call routing to improve customer service by its field offices. However, the report notes that services issues -- including long wait times, disconnected or dropped calls, and poor sound quality -- are plaguing the VoIP system.

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