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MOD test flies Universal Credit elastoplast

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Systems analyst letches over old Univac computer operator.pngThe Ministry of Defence has been struggling to patch together a vast estate of creaky old computer systems to make them fit for interconnection in the 21st century.

It's travails may provide insight into the challenges being faced at the Department for Work and Pensions, which aims to build its ambitious Universal Credit system on a veritable shanty town of legacy systems.

Kevin Wallis, lead applications architect at the MOD, heckled open standards purists with the legacy problem at a meeting of the British Computer Society's Open Source Specialist Group last week.

This chatter about open standards and interoperability was all very well, but legacy systems simply did not conform to new world thinking.

You can glue disparate systems together, he said, "provided the whole of the architecture has been designed around open standards.

"We are working in a brownfield site where we do not have that bit. That is the problem I face architecting the Ministry of Defence application suite. We don't have open standards that we can plug and play. That's the problem."

Having lobbed the inconvenient truth into the open source meeting, Wallis was forced to admit that the MOD IT section had earned itself the nickname "the Microsoft/Oracle department". But, he said, 70 per cent of MOD IT projects used some element of open source software.

The MOD headache will become familiar to departments across government as the Cabinet Office presses ahead with plans to make its systems interoperable through the use of open standards.

Open standards didn't exist 30 years ago

Very old codger with very old computer possibly from DWP but origin uncertain.pngAfter the meeting, Wallis told Computer Weekly: "The MOD has systems that are 30 years old. They are mission critical. How can we work round them to go to an open standards architecture? Mostly open standards didn't exist then."

The MOD was solving the problem on "a case-by-case basis" using a variety of approaches.

"One of the options is, can we wrap it into a web services wrapper so we can pull that existing system as a web service," said Wallis.

"It can work. The huge advantage is that we don't have to redevelop the application," he said.

Another advantage was business continuity, said Wallis. It could plonk a new IT system on top of the old one, getting some of the advantages of modern computing without the usual delay. That would win the department breathing space where it might consider a long-term strategy for upgrading its decrepit systems.

The department's long-term plan was to do this with all its old systems. But it had a finite budget. And the government was considering whether the MOD was a special case whose systems deserved special attention.

The MOD was had been reviewing all its software applications and asking: "Can we eliminate, can we migrate, do we have to tolerate or do we invest," said Wallis. One MOD programme alone was seeking to "rationalise" 600 applications. The Defence Information Infrastructure had rationalised about 2,000 applications to just 500.

Universal credit

The MOD approach may win the backing of duffers at the Institute for Government, whose report into government IT last week itself won the backing of Ian Watmore, head of the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group.

The report said the DWP's proposed £2bn Universal Credit system would be built using agile development methods, which effectively means it would be developed piecemeal, with a high degree of autonomy given to software development teams and outputs being produced iteratively as they were in the commercial software world.

The Universal Credit system proposes to integrate 51 separate state benefits into a single credit in just three years. DWP disperses £90bn-a-year through the present system, which is said to rely on 51 separate computer systems, some of which are 30 years old.

Watmore reportedly said at the launch of the Institute's report that Universal Credit would be built on top of the DWP's legacy systems.

Give Linux security clearance, US told UK

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The British intelligence services pushed the open source Linux operating system through security clearance in order to meet a US request for operational interoperability of computer systems.

GCHQ, the signals intelligence arm of the Ministry of Defence, fast-tracked a version of Linux through computer security checks that must be passed by any software to be used in government communications. The procedure is usually off-limits for open source software because there aren't single large corporate backers prepared to sponsor it.

Kevin Wallis, lead architect at the Ministry of Defence, told an open meeting of the British Computer Society's Open Source Specialist Group last week that it was the only instance he knew where CESG, the information assurance arm of GCHQ, had vetted and approved genuine open source software.

"This one came about because it was an interoperability issue with a partner nation," Wallis told the meeting. "This was an operating system," he said.

"A Linux variant," he told Computer Weekly after the meeting.

"It was certified by NSA (the signals intelligence arm of the US Department of Defence) in the US.

"And then CESG, because there was a government use for it, were prepared to put it through the accreditation and accept it accordingly.

"We needed it. It got through. Its now in the catalogue. It may now be built upon," said Wallis.

Wallis joined a chorus of leading public sector figures who said at the meeting government departments should sponsor open source software through the CESG approval process. If they didn't do it, no-one else would and government open source policy would fall at the first hurdle.

Wallis said it was a "vicious circle".

The fact that open source software didn't get sponsored for CESG approval had impeded government policy to increase the public sector's use of open source software.

Ravi Vitankar, chief technology officer in Fujitsu Services Government Division, told the same meeting that open source software "needs sponsorship from a government department". CESG could not be expected get open source through security clearance without help.

"It can be done but it still needs the sponsorship from the government department. Otherwise, CESG is so over-stretched that you put it there and it will probably sit there for a couple of years because they won't get around to touching it," he said.

Tariq Rashid, Home Office lead architect, called the meeting to ask why open source software was not being used in government despite a two-year old policy that said it would.

There are a number of Linux variants on CESG's list of security assured products. It does not specify which are proprietary and which are open source versions. Linux variants on the CESG list of approved products include those carried by Red Hat, Oracle, MIRACLE LINUX, and SUSE.

Ban the Microsoft "virus", government told

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Microsoft web software is like a computer virus in government computer systems and must be banned, a meeting of the British Computer Society's Open Source Specialist Group heard last week.

Called by Home Office lead architect Tariq Rashid, the meeting formed part of an investigation into why government open source policy has floundered. Rashid got a clutch of executives from the systems integrators who control 80 per cent of the UK's £16-24bn public sector IT industry, sat them before a room full of open source advocates, and asked them to explain why the computer industry had become so stagnant under their watch.

Why for example, asked Rashid, had proprietary Microsoft technologies become entrenched in government systems? The audience seemed more sure of the answer than the panel of executives. The problem was proprietary Microsoft software. Rashid agreed.

Chris Kenyon, vice president of global OEM sales at Linux publisher Canonical, said some technologies had such a malignant effect they should be "banned" from government systems.

"Some software components are so fundamentally viral in the way they get used that the government may want to [reconsider], given that there's convicted monopolist behind a couple of them," said Kenyon.

Rashid had wanted to know why the "vast majority" of government websites were delivered using Microsoft's Internet Information Services Web Server (IIS). Before long the meeting was considering how a phalanx of Microsoft internet technologies, including its Internet Explorer (IE) Browser and ActiveX system for distributing software applications, reinforced one another to the detriment of competing technologies.

Kenyon referred to his sales conversations with the IT chiefs of large organisations: "If they are predominantly on IE, you can guarantee that they have built ActiveX requirements in, and will have used IIS," he said. He went on: "But...IIS encourages the use of ActiveX. You are automatically encouraging people to use IE, automatically locking them into Windows laptops."

Was IIS "too dangerous and viral" to permit at all, he asked. "There are a few key elements of software stacks globally that if you choose proprietary software, you are setting a dreadful precedent," he said.

"Outlook and exchange!", someone shouted from the audience.

Kenyon, said these technologies "may be just so fundamentally viral" that their continued use prevented the government fulfilling its open source policy.

Approached after the meeting, Microsoft refused to comment. The open source community would say Microsoft was a virus, wouldn't it? Kenyon sits on the board of Canonical, Microsoft's arch rival.

But this was not all.

"I have to agree with what you are saying," replied the government lead architect.

"We pay through the nose with when we get stuck with applications that are ActiveX-specific or browser-specific, which then in turn is desktop specific," said Rashid.

It was, he stated, a question of open interoperability standards, or not as the case may be. He derided the use of "secret codes", meaning the proprietary standards by which it was implied Microsoft systems interoperate - to the exclusion of competitors unless those competitors conceded to build their systems on Microsoft's terms.

The meeting proceeded on the assumption that most public sector procurement officers had not even heard of Apache, an open source alternative to IIS, let alone considered that it might be preferable. The procurement system was much to blame. The public sector was awash with Microsoft and Oracle consultants. Procurement officers didn't know anything about technology, they just did what they were told.

The government was doing a host of things to address it. Some might even discourage government procurement officers from installing IIS in a zombie-like fashion. They include ways of promoting open source software. They include a mandate for open standards "where possible". They have not yet extended to hazard warnings for unhealthy proprietary systems, let alone a ban.

Rashid is hosting another meeting of the BCS Open Source Specialist Group this evening.

End IT dinosaurs' reign of terror, MPs told

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Public sector IT was depicted as a scene of prehistoric horror in evidence submitted to the Public Administration Select Committee last week.

300-pages of testimony described how a crass procurement regime and stunted technology has created an environment favourable to out-sized IT companies that dominate the rest of the industry. If the evidence before the Committee is anything to go by, everyone's unhappy but the dinosaurs.

As reported by the National Audit Office in another report last week, just 18 IT suppliers command 80 per cent of all government IT contracts. These great, lumbering systems integrators (SIs) may be in for a shock on the scale of a mile-wide meteor. The G-Cloud may pack a wallop. But the government is wavering on its promise to end the £100m+ IT contracts that sustain the IT ecosystem.

Nevertheless, the environment has changed. The PASC evidence comprised a consensus (among all bar the dinosaurs) around the necessity of procurement reform and open standards of interoperability.

These changes promise to nurture the current surge of hi-tech SMEs, just as environmental changes at the end of the Cretaceous period of earth's history led to a proliferation of flowering plants that fed the insects that fed the rise of the mammals.

SMEs may be similarly fluffy, but they have evolved a good set of teeth and will eat your babies if you don't watch them closely.


The Cretaceous period is reported in the PASC evidence, and is often said, to have begun in the late 1980s when the last Conservative government (Libdem's absented) started winding down the now beloved Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), the public agency that is said to have kept private IT suppliers in line.

What is universally described now as the government's inability to behave as an "intelligent customer" is said to stem from a trend established then: for government to give contractors the job of telling it what it needs to buy from them.

This led to the situation exemplified by the National Programme for NHS IT and raised repeatedly in the PASC evidence, where the government must therefore also trust what has now become an oligopoly of SIs to sub-contract on its behalf.

They were asked to sub-contract to other tech firms in the public interest, when their first concern was for their own shareholders and executive pensions. This was a product of the naive, New Labour vision of public-private partnership, the precursor to government's Big Society wheeze.

Just about everyone is exasperated with the pattern established under the National Programme for IT, where prime contractors were given the power to hire and fire SMEs vying for government business - or to cut everyone else out and do the work themselves, if they so preferred, which they did.


They call it the bums on seats rule: a large SI will sooner stick another over-paid consultant on the job than let an SME disrupt its business model with some new technology that does away with the need for over-paid consultants.

That's more or less what Malcolm Harbour, chairman of the Conservative Technology Association, told the PASC submission, though he expressed no concern about pay inequality or executive pensions.

Stifled innovation is the terror in this tale: warm-blooded SMEs huddling in caves for shelter, only venturing out to steal eggs and pick insects off dinosaur hides.

David Chassels, CEO of software SME Procession plc, and a former executive with venture fund 3i, relayed for the Committee inquiry a rare public account of how he went cap in hand to Capita for a share of some public business and was thrown out by his ear.

Other SME's will tell you similar stories, but they are scared of naming and shaming in case they get singled out for retribution by the all-powerful SI's.

This unsavoury environment has been sustained by the UK's "gold-plated" interpretation of EU procurement rules said testimony after testimony submitted to the PASC.

The procurement regime is complex and inefficient, they said. It's therefore so expensive that only large firms can afford to take part, and is terrible way of doing anything well but fulfilling obligations set by the procurement rules.

The Office of Government Commerce had made matters worse by relying so heavily on Framework Agreements - backroom deals done to squeeze savings out of large suppliers by consolidating their government contracts.


Protecting it all, like the jungle crater round the land that time forgot, are the proprietary software standards that made it difficult for anyone to get in or out of these multi-billion pound IT contracts.

A lot of people are very peeved about this. The dinosaurs, it is said, build systems with which no-one else can interoperate so no-one else can create more innovative ways of doing things.

But the world has moved on, as described clearly in the PASC evidence. Interoperable systems and open standards are the order of the day.

The government hasn't quite moved on, though its been talking the talk for a while. No less than the British Computer Society was reduced to asking in its PASC evidence to be consulted before the government concludes its now concluding policy deliberations on an inclusive IT ecosystem.

Westminster Council said the government's long been better at talking the talk than walking the walk on standards. Similarly, the CCTA was trying to get software metrics established in 1990. That's 20 years for anyone too old not to have noticed.

Metrics have been recommended by many a major report since. But nothing has been done, perhaps because government IT is in hock to a handful of large suppliers who have no interest in having their gluttonous bellies exposed.

The idea wot time forgot

"Software suppliers all measure their own performance and make healthy profits whilst the taxpayer suffers all the cost overruns and delays," said Charles Symons a consultant with Common Software Measurement International Consortium.

"But it is not in the suppliers' interests to educate their customers on how to manage them properly," he said. The Australian State government of Victoria managed it, and apparently did very well.

Other revolutionary remedies were suggestion to the PASC, and none of them were far removed from government policy: prohibit commercial in confidence, make the sub-contracting supply chain totally transparent, publish procurement costs and performance metrics, break up large IT contracts, insist that all government software is open source and replace the common waterfall software development model with iterative, agile development methods.

In short, Alex Stobart of Enterprising Scotland Limited told the committee: less competition, more collaboration.

That won't favour the dinosaurs, who have done well out of procurement laws imposed with strict adherence to the principles of competition. But What will follow, if the evolutionary metaphor stands, will be a period of adaptive radiation, when the innovators flourish.

Ex-NHS CIO is new head of BCS's Health Informatics Forum

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Matthew Swindells, who led a Whitehall review of NHS informatics, is the new head of the British Computer Society's Health Informatics Forum. He is managing director for health at consultancy Tribal and has been NHS chief information officer.

Dr Glyn Hayes had successfully chaired the BCS's Health Informatics Forum. He led a review on NHS IT for the Tories and more recently has sat on a medical advisory board set up by iSoft, one of the NPfIT suppliers.

Divert some NPfIT money to mobile comms

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Tom Brooks is a semi-retired healthcare management consultant who attended the Labour Party conference in Brighton. He's a respected commentator on NHS IT.

At a fringe meeting at the conference Brooks listened to Mike O'Brien, the minister responsible for the NPfIT.

O'Brien made a point of saying that his personal view was that NPfIT was achievable though many in his department considered the programme "over-ambitious".

Moving towards error-free software - Martyn Thomas

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Martyn Thomas is visiting professor of software engineering at Oxford University Computing Laboratory. One of the few in the software community to have strong engineering credentials, he is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) and of both UK professional computing institutions, the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)

Thomas was one of 23 leading academics who called for an independent and published review of the NHS's £12.7bn National Programme for IT. 

He has now written a guest blog post on a report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering on 31 July 2009. "Every important IT project should be led by a Chartered Engineer or a Chartered IT professional accredited in systems engineering," says Thomas.

NPfIT - the good and not so good

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Glyn Hayes, chairman of the Health Informatics Forum at the British Computer Society, gave a brief but frank assessment of NHS's National Programme for IT [NPfIT] at a Westminster forum this week.

Hayes is leading a review of the NPfIT for the Conservative Party.

With Guy Hains, President of CSC's European Group, Hayes spoke about the NPfIT to an audience of Parliamentarians, IT specialists, clinicians and others at the Conservative Technology Forum at Portcullis House, Westminster, on Monday evening.

One of his main messages to an incoming government is not to assume that an IT-based modernisation of the NHS is easy.

"Would a changed government want to cancel the programme? I think the plea is to understand one thing more than anything else: it is very difficult to implement IT into healthcare anywhere in the world and it is even more difficult in England than a lot of other places.

"It is one of the most difficult areas of human existence to put systems into. One of the major problems with the national programme is that politicians at the time thought that if they threw money at it, it would happen in a couple of years.

"It couldn't because it is so difficult. Can they [an incoming government] please remember if it is difficult; and can they please remember there is no magic bullet."

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