LI Power fail: I doubt it's Cobol

With 76,000 customers on Long Island still without power today, two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, it's not surprising that the utility serving the region has been harshly criticized for its storm response. This isn't just a matter of people being unable to connect to the Internet or watch TV; one family I know had to leave the state to find shelter because a person in the household is on oxygen. And I'm sure there are many others.

But while the Long Island Power Authority is rightly criticized for ignoring "warnings as far back as 2006 that the utility was unprepared to handle a major storm," I find it hard to believe that a mainframe running Cobol is part of the problem.

Ineffective emergency response technology? Yup. The company still has dial-up Internet connections at some locations, and it's not effectively using either GIS or mobile technology. But is a "mainframe-based, COBOL language, legacy program that is approximately 25 years old" really a problem for storm outage response?

A Public Service Report on LIPA response to Irene criticizes LIPA's outage management system for lack of GIS connectivity -- agree; and that it was "patched together over many years and was not designed as a comprehensive system." OK. But Cobol and the mainframe?

Yes, according to the report, which notes that the LIPA CARES outage response system "is a mainframe based COBOL application. Mainframe based systems are rapidly being replaced because its main programming language used is COBOL. COBOL programmers are increasingly difficult to locate given the age and obsolescence of this computer language."

Well OK, if your beef with running a Cobol application on a mainframe is that you can't modernize it because there's a shortage of Cobol programmers, I can buy that. But that's not what a Newsday report on LIPA's problems leads readers to believe.

"The utility’s critically important power outage management system, which helps direct the recovery response, operates on a 25-year-old mainframe computer that was cited as one of the biggest shortcomings in the utility’s response to Tropical Storm Irene in August of last year," the Long Island newspaper Newsday reported in a story headlined Why LIPA failed: Utility ignored warnings it wasn't ready for major storm.

Ack, no. The problem was not a "25-year-old mainframe computer." The problem was a 25-year-old application that was was cobbled together and neither properly designed for the task at hand nor modernized to handle an emergency as serious as Hurricane Sandy. There's a difference.

So please don't diss Cobol and the mainframe, as if all would be well if only they had move to client-server architecture or had their emergency response system in the cloud. The problem is not that LIPA still uses Cobol -- not unless you want to criticize the 48% of Computerworld survey respondents this year who say their organizations use the language a lot, or the 53% who say it's still being used to develop new business applications. The problem is a poorly designed application. And that can happen on any platform.

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