Legislature’s computersDelays and production glitches have been common on major computer projects in North Dakota government. Now, the state Legislature, which is laboring to replace its own computer system, is getting its own lesson on how treacherous the job can be.
By: By Dale Wetzel, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — Delays and production glitches have been common on major computer projects in North Dakota government. Now, the state Legislature, which is laboring to replace its own computer system, is getting its own lesson on how treacherous the job can be.
A $5.7 million overhaul of the Legislature’s system, which was scheduled for completion before the 2009 session begins in January, has been delayed, lawmakers and staffers say. The project’s manager is being replaced this week.
The problems should not affect access to the Legislature’s public Web site, which many North Dakotans use to track legislative goings-on, said Maryann Trauger, the Legislative Council’s information technology manager.
The site includes copies of bills and daily House and Senate journals, although with minutes, agendas and memoranda from the Legislature’s interim committees, which study issues between sessions and prepare reports and suggested bills for the next one.
However, the holdup means the 2009 Legislature will once again rely on a state mainframe computer and software that is almost 40 years old.
The mainframe is more expensive to operate than the computer servers that most state agencies use. State officials worry about whether a serious system crash can be repaired, because many of the people who developed it have retired or are no longer available.
Mike Ressler, assistant director of the state Information Technology Department, said it is about 35 percent more expensive for an agency to run its software on the state’s mainframe computer than it is to use servers.
Most agencies have removed their operations from the mainframe, Ressler said, although North Dakota’s departments of Human Services and Transportation, the Bank of North Dakota and the Legislature still use it.
“You have applications that are 30 years old, and they’ve been patched so many times. It’s kind of like an old tire,” Ressler said. “The potential for the (software) code to have problems increases because of all the complexity that is built into it. It is definitely time to get on something new.”
Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the chairman of the Legislative Council, said the 2009 Legislature will rely on its aging system because there is not enough time to try out the new one before lawmakers return to the Capitol.
The new software’s developer, PTC Corp., of Needham, Mass., “had a little problem getting the packages to work together,” Carlson said. “There’s no way it’s going to be operational to be tested, so we’re going to wait until after the session, and resume the work then.”
North Dakota lawmakers may not have allowed enough time to finish the upgrade. When it was proposed in 2005, it was envisioned as a four-year effort, legislative committee hearing records say, and the Legislature’s own proposed budget included $4.2 million for the project.
Lawmakers removed the money from the budget, and instead ordered the development of a more detailed plan for the project. It did not get the final go-ahead until last year.
“There is substantial risk that the current systems will not be supported in the near future, and the Legislative Council is in danger of losing support for these mission-critical systems due to the loss of key personnel resulting from retirements and other job changes,” the council’s former director, John Olsrud, said in January 2005 testimony on the Legislature’s spending bill.
“Because some of the critical system technologies may become unsupported within the next five years, the risk is amplified, because it may take as long as four years to completely renovate the entire software platform,” Olsrud said.
Carlson said the Legislature may not have allowed enough time to finish the initiative. However, the project’s developers had repeatedly given assurances until recently that the software would be finished in time for the 2009 session, he said.
“It’s very complicated,” Carlson said. “And I think as they were trying to put it all together, they found it was tougher to interface everything.”