"It's amazing that anyone could manage to cock it up so successfully." That was the reaction from Liberal Democrat IT spokesperson Richard Allan to the spectacular desktop crash at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) last week. It’s a viewpoint we wholeheartedly concur with.
After the Child Support Agency (CSA) debacle earlier this month, when it emerged that the £450m system built by EDS still isn't working properly a year and a half after its supposed completion, the DWP crash seemed impossibly incompetent. Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 desktops crashed -- exact figures weren't forthcoming as the DWP doesn't actually seem to know how many computers it has -- during an upgrade from Windows 2000 to Windows XP. According to our sources, EDS was attempting a small trial upgrade of around 40 machines which somehow went awry and spread to the entire network. Bingo! -- no more desktops.
DWP has tried to play down the problem ('Hey, 20 percent of our systems were fully functional'), but the repercussions of the outage have seen the opposition calling for a full inquiry and Microsoft's and EDS' share prices taking a hit on the stock market.
What's especially worrying in this instance is that this was a desktop upgrade. As the Liberal Democrats' Allan points out: "To be able to make this kind of mistake with desktops is actually quite tough". We could sympathise with the CSA system glitches, just about, as bedding in new server infrastructure is tricky. But desktops? Admittedly, there are over 80,000 of them -- but this is probably where the crux of the issue lies. No single organisation should be charged with managing that many PCs, except perhaps the DWP itself. Certainly not EDS, which probably got the gig in the first place as there so few suppliers with the resources to manage (or mismanage) a project of this kind.
Another factor is the commitment made by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to cull tens of thousands of 'extraneous' civil service jobs and make good any productivity shortfalls with technology. The problem is that this kind of solution costs a lot of money and takes a long time to implement -- longer than the time to the next election certainly. But rather than take a strategic view, the Chancellor is trying to cut corners by jumping on massive service deals such as those offered by the likes of EDS. He is cutting from both ends at once: cutting staff and cutting IT. Which, as we have seen with the DWP, simply does not work.
Homogeneity might seem the cheapest way to go, but the proliferation of malware affecting the Windows platform is testament to the dangers of sticking to one software standard. If the Government took the time to analyse the precise needs of each department within the DWP, they might find that thin clients from Sun, or perhaps desktop Linux, would prove more secure and possibly cheaper too. The idea that one Windows/MS Office size fits all seems very narrow-minded.
By chasing cheap deals via economies of scale, the Government has made a rod for its own back -- putting too many desktops running the same software in the hands of one supplier. It might cost slightly more and be harder to manage, but by splitting the DWP into smaller bite-sized chunks (possibly by geographic area or work function), a host of smaller firms could be invited to tender, increasing competition and doing away with a single point of failure like EDS.
Let's hope something changes soon, as right now EDS is one of the leading proponents of ID card technology in the US. Be afraid.