Aging Government Computers in Canada

The real morale of the story is how successfully marketers have succeeded in getting us to regard everything as throwaway. Computers are the best example but merely one of many.

‘Rusting’ computers and ‘antique’ application code? Oh, really? Big applications are not easy to build and maintain — particularly if they are expected to run error free. We have been conditioned to think that anything not new is bad and must be discarded and replaced with something that does the same job but (probably) has more errors. This may be ok for the porn we downloaded yesterday but for the tax and benefit records of millions it is total nonsense. But I am sure the sales folks for the computer companies and software houses will tell you something different — after all, their kids are in university and the Bentley is getting shabby.

Think what chaos would rein if we decided to change operating voltages in the consumer electrical grid every few years or decided that the law needed to be converted to Esperanto because its a newer language than English (or Latin).

The problem is maintainability. Structuring applications (or pretty much anything) to change over time is hard — especially if you are under pressure to get it done by Tuesday. Too many big applications (or small ones) are total failures in this regard and over time accumulate scar tissue that makes further changes harder.

Designing applications to change gracefully is a major failure of IT. So computer languages evolve over time to make throwing it away and starting over ‘easier’. But COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) was superb at allowing people to express business problems for the computer — but it failed at modularization. Unfortunately, none of its replacements are any better, just different.

So yell at the Liberals or Conservatives all you want. Until there are useful standards for building long lived code and the business disciplines to use them, expensive rewrites will be normal.

NOTE – This was originally intended as a comment to the GlobeMail’s article of the same name, but it failed their inacceptable language filter. Probably too many words or more than one sylable or perhaps the suggestion that it was not either a Liberal or Conservative failure.