Montana Viewpoint


State's computer system vulnerable to physical damage

March 29, 2004

Last week I learned that my home office computer is in a safer location than the state of Montana’s main computer system. This is not good news. Last week the members of the Legislative Audit Committee, which I serve on as Vice-chairman, took a tour of the operations center for the state’s computer system. Among our other duties, the Audit Committee reviews the performance of state agencies to see that they are doing their work in an efficient manner. We’ve had concerns with computer issues for years.

Up until recently state agencies were allowed to enter into contracts with computer companies for hardware or software purchases, often with drastic results. A couple of years ago the Office of Information Technology was created to coordinate and supervise the application of computer technology used by the state, and it’s already paid for itself a couple of times over. The head of the shop is Chief Information Officer Brian Wolf, and it was his suggestion that brought us to take the tour.

As political junkets go, this one was pretty cheap. We just walked across the street from the Capitol to the basement of the Mitchell Building where the system is housed. We were told there are two serious problems with the system; one is the electrical supply back-up system, and the other is the Mitchell Building.

When lights go out because of a power failure (one of which was recently caused by a squirrel known as Osama bin Rodent, late of Helena), so do computers. When computers stop suddenly, things that spin stop suddenly too, and they can break. To prevent physical damage and data loss, big computers have a back-up electrical supply, usually a generator. It takes generator a while to kick in, so there’s also a large battery pack that supplies power to the computer in the interim.

The state’s computer center requires a 750 Kilowatt generator, but we don’t have one. What we do have is about 200 Kilowatts of backup power, which will run only part of the system. The battery pack has just enough capacity to allow for an “orderly shutdown” of the state’s system. An orderly shutdown takes about 20 to 25 minutes if all systems are running. Without an orderly shutdown, information can be lost or corrupted or equipment damaged.

A “cold startup” after a power failure can take a couple of hours, which I will remember the next time I get impatient with my computer.

Mainframe computer systems need to be protected from environmental hazards and physical damage; you can’t just put them anywhere. The Mitchell building was built with state of the art technology, but it was state of the art sixty years ago. There is some wiring in the building that met electrical code then, but doesn’t now; the same with plumbing and  engineering.

It would be hard to find a worse place to house a big computer system, but when this one was put in way back when, it seemed appropriate to put in the basement of the building where the most important data processing was done; the home of the Department of Revenue.

The computer center is at the lowest point in a building with old water pipes. Water and electricity mix all too well, but not with good results. If there is a serious earthquake—and they do happen in Montana—there are four floors above it that could flatten it. If there is a fire because of old wiring, there will be more water problems, and smoke and heat don’t do computers any good either. Don’t forget lightening strikes: the Mitchell building doesn’t have an adequate grounding system to shunt the voltage to the earth. It will fry things.

What happens if one of these things happens and actually takes the system out big time? Major inconvenience to Montana citizens is putting it mildly. State operations could be completely shut down. But before a great cheer goes up, remember that some information processed there can mean life or death to law officers and people with health emergencies. Businesses the state owes money won’t get it, telephones will go unanswered, e-mail will cease, and hunting licenses won’t get issued.

What to do? Well, to get it out of the Mitchell building seems pretty obvious. The solution is easy, all we need is the money to put up a one story 7500 square foot building, but that’s not going to be anytime soon. Meanwhile, we do what we can to protect it. We’ve already come a long way when you consider we didn’t even know we had a problem a couple years back.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620