COBOL and the collapse of the Canadian government

Sheila Fraser made an announcement last week which brought an extremely important issue onto the national stage: the Government of Canada’s IT infrastructure is about to implode. In fact, it’s so bad that key government services may shut down because the systems behind them are in such bad shape.

Apparently the National Immigration Program runs on COBOL and a database system which has been dead for over twenty years. Also the Department of Public Works’ pay and pension system is about to collapse. And the Auditor-General says it’ll take billions of dollars to fix.

The problem here is that the government never implemented any sort of continuous maintenance and update strategy for its technical infrastructure. And there apparently isn’t any sort of reasonably competent department to run such a program. The fact is, if your organization (or, government) is going to rely on an IT infrastructure for all its day-to-day operations, you can’t let it rot. You need technically competent people to maintain the system. You need to keep up-to-date with changes in the industry. And you need to investigate how newer and better tools will make the continual growth and expansion of your IT services manageable. Otherwise it’ll crumble. The situation out in Ottawa is exemplified by Stockwell Day’s brilliant statement:

“As you know, with technology, there are always people who are saying you should have newer and better.”

Apparently the problem with software is that it needs to be updated every forty years or so. Other government tools such as cars, pencils and coffee makers don’t suffer from the same issue.

My biggest concern isn’t the cost to fix the issue, it’s potentially more serious. If the Government of Canada can’t keep its legacy systems up-to-date (we’re talking almost half a century old technology here), then how is it supposed to protect sensitive information about itself and the citizens of the country from malicious hackers and other threats?

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2 responses to “COBOL and the collapse of the Canadian government

  • Eliasz

    The Canadian Government is so high and mighty when they attack Facebook and other companies about Privacy issues, but when it comes to investing in their own infrastructure, they lag behind. The Government should be a leader in the Information Security field, and without active Maintenance and regular updates of their systems, they risk create an unmanageable problem, such as how do you migrate off of COBAL?
    Every project should be planned in such a way, that there is a future strategy for how to move off the system, or upgrade to the next version. You cannot blame the engineers from the 70’s and 80’s who designed these systems in the early days of IT, this is rather a failure by the Government to mandate that IT Infrastructure which is critical to the functionality of the government be managed correctly, and setup with the future in mind, rather then just fixing the current issue quickly.

    -Eliasz

  • Ian Chan

    Brutal. This is going to be a case study for ‘ignoring technical debt’ which will be in our soft eng. books for years. Sure, there are legacy systems everywhere in the world, but ignoring the problem for so long and (seemingly) not having any kind of action plan is just irresponsible.

    The problem is said to potentially be in the Billions… Imagine getting an RFP from the Canadian government with a $1,000,000,000 price tag?

    zomg

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