Old mainframes hinder Social Security's move to online services

Agency should transfer data from aging mainframe databases so new Web applications under development can easily tap into the data for the public.

Obsolete mainframe software at the Social Security Administration threatens to slow the deployment of online services, just as the number of retiring baby boomers is increasing and adding to the agency's workload, according to a white paper an industry group released on Friday.

SSA has stored citizens' retirement information in formats that cannot be read by modern databases or processed by computers other than the older IBM mainframes, according to a paper written by the Computer and Communications Industry Association. The association formally submitted the white paper on Friday to an SSA technology panel, when advisers met to design a roadmap for delivering electronic services during the next decade.

To resolve the problem, CCIA said the Social Security Administration should pursue open standards -- specifications for hardware and software that are not controlled by a single vendor -- to ensure the government has long-term access, and a backup in case of an emergency, to track the retirement accounts of every American. CCIA promotes open markets and open systems and represents many of IBM's rivals in the information technology industry.

The technology panel met after an SSA advisory board recommended in April that the panel advise the agency on how to overhaul its databases.

"If you've been relying on a mainframe, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to effectively migrate off" it, said Dan O'Connor, CCIA director of competition and telecommunications policy, in an interview.

In addition, the COBOL software code underpinning the database is nearly obsolete and has not been an industry standard for years. Also, some critical business applications are written in IBM assembler language, which is considered archaic by most IT professionals and is not an industry standard, CCIA officials and federal advisers said.

"This is akin to storing major documents in hieroglyphics," O'Connor said. "There are only a few people who know this coding. They are dying off and retiring so the supply of people who know how to use this stuff is vanishing."

The association noted SSA is in a good position to overhaul its database programs swiftly because lawmakers are paying attention to what the agency has said are aging IT programs. The stimulus package allocates $500 million for a new SSA data center. Congress would have to appropriate additional funds to alter the mainframe software, CCIA said.

"We believe that Congress should also act to fund additional efforts needed to bring SSA's obsolete mainframe database and applications architecture up to modern standards," the white paper states. "If the agency fails to modernize its mainframe database and associated application programs now, the precious citizen data it manages on behalf of the nation could be locked into obsolete formats for decades to come."

A 2007 National Research Council report on SSA electronic services stated the system that warehouses SSA information "is based on a 40-year-old proprietary record-based file/index system that ran on IBM 360s and still runs on their modern mainframe hardware. The fact that the SSA's equivalent of the 'corporate jewels' are stored using decades-old technology is alarming and needs to change."

The agency currently is migrating to a new IBM database, but an SSA advisory board said in an April report that it was concerned "there are not sufficient resources being devoted to this conversion and believes that this effort should be on a more aggressive schedule. . . . Given the challenges of delivering service in the very near term, the agency should reevaluate its strategy and develop and implement a comprehensive accelerated conversion schedule."

Social Security officials said on Friday they agreed its data must be protected, noting that consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton is helping to ensure the safety and "technical currency of the agency's data and database environments."

More information resides in modern database programs than in the old in-house system, said SSA spokeswoman Dorothy Clark. "Contrary to the statements in the report, the conversion of data from [the old to new system] has implemented industry best practices and moved to normalized data structures as recommended," she said.

The association's recommendations include moving toward open standards to bolster online services and continuity of operations. If SSA opts to remain on an IBM platform, the database contents should be formatted so that any database can read it, the paper states.

CCIA contended that IBM stifles competition from providers of emerging technologies that could expedite the transition. IBM spokesman Steve Eisenstadt said the industry group's members stand to gain financially from such assertions. "It's really important to understand that these statements are being made by some of our competitors, including companies that have brought antitrust claims against IBM. It's silly," he said.

The CCIA paper suggests that Social Security require IBM to cooperate under nondiscriminatory terms with suppliers of alternative mainframe systems.

Social Security officials said the agency follows federal procurement guidelines and adheres to strict full and open competition when buying information technology. "While SSA does try to influence the technical direction of its vendors, it does so through normal channels such as vendor conferences and user groups," Clark said.