Virginia fights computer failures

Computer failures leave Virginia agencies hobbled.

A massive computer failure across multiple Virginia agencies last week continues to cause problems. Three agencies’ systems are still being worked on, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, which isn’t able to process driver’s licenses or identification cards at its 74 customer-service centers.

Technicians worked through the weekend to address the problem, which was blamed on the failure of two circuit boards installed and maintained by EMC, a Northrop Grumman subcontractor, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The equipment is located at a headquarters office in Chesterfield County shared by the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) and Northrop Grumman.

"We've been told by EMC engineers that this is the first instance of a simultaneous memory board failure on one of their systems," Samuel Nixon Jr., the state's chief information officer and head of VITA, told the newspaper. "We've asked for specifics [and] proof."

The state's largest computer failure, which began on the afternoon of Aug. 25, affected 25 out of 80 agencies, the governor’s office and Northrop Grumman. Virginia officials had hired Northrop Grumman in 2005 under a $2.3 billion contract to provide computer and communication services to state government, the state’s largest outsourcing contract.

In all, the failure hit 483 servers, about 13 percent of the total number of Virginia's government servers.

VITA has not yet quantified the amount of stranded data — data stored in computer memory but not yet written to the hard drive — that was lost when the system failed last week, Nixon said. However, the interruption was not serious enough to activate a backup system at a duplicate computer center in Russell County, Va., he added.

Northrop Grumman will have to pay a penalty of at least $100,000 for the outage, Nixon said, and the state is considering whether agencies should also get credits or refunds for service interruptions.

Megan Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Northrop Grumman, had no comment.

The outage shut down Web sites, prevented the processing of jobless benefits and delayed welfare payments, the Times-Dispatch reported. At the state Department of Taxation, taxpayers could not file returns, make payments or register a business through the agency's Web site.

According to the newspaper, VITA and Northrop Grumman have quarreled for months over what the state characterizes as shoddy, expensive service. This past spring, the two entered into a new agreement that gives the company an additional $236 million in exchange for a pledge to provide better service.