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"Bug' stops HRS supercomputer

Published Oct. 9, 2005

A problem with the state social services computer forced officials to shut down the FLORIDA System for two hours Tuesday, causing a work backup at some welfare offices, state officials said.

The slowdown, caused by a software problem, fortunately occurred during one of the slower times of day and month.

"I was coming back from lunch, and it took forever for me to get back on the system," said Anita Barrett, a Tampa-based public assistance specialist for the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, which administers the state's welfare programs.

"Thank goodness this wasn't the first of the month," she said. The early days are especially busy because that is when people pick up food stamps.

The $173-million supercomputer has been a source of trouble and controversy almost since it was phased in at HRS about two years ago.

In recent months, technicians have wrestled with a capacity shortage that is due, in part, to the state's escalating welfare enrollment. Tuesday's shutdown was entirely unrelated to capacity, said HRS spokeswoman Melanie Mowry.

The shutdown apparently stemmed from a software problem, said John Holland, a FLORIDA staff director at HRS. The problem, which Mowry described as "a bug," and systems support director Joe Duggar described as a "loop," occurred in the smaller of FLORIDA's two IBM computers.

In simple terms, Duggar said, the computer's operating system was momentarily unable to perform a task that it needed to. "We know what happened, but exactly why it happened, we do not know," he said.

The smaller computer, called a "600," is used for training, development and other functions. It also handles FLORIDA's communications network, and serves as sort of a gateway into the larger IBM-900.

Correcting the problem required HRS to shut down the smaller computer and then the larger computer, Mowry said. Service centers were without computer service for about two hours.

The technicians are still researching the problem, but they do not think it will happen again, Duggar said.

HRS officials in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties said they do not think the shutdown caused any major problems. Not only did it occur at a slow time in the month; the afternoon also is a slow time in the day.

Barrett, in Tampa, said she handled one recertification interview by taking the information down on paper and then entering it into the computer when service was restored.

"By 3 o'clock, it was back up again," she said.

Problems with design and equipment have increased the FLORIDA system's cost nearly $70-million. Since the system went into use, the state has made nearly $300-million in payment errors.

On another front, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, the acting HRS chief, has asked the Attorney General's Office to take over the agency's defense of a $46-million lawsuit filed by the original contractor, EDS Federal Corp., over non-payment of bills.

The decision means Tallahassee attorney Phil Blank's contract to defend the case won't be renewed after this month, except as a $100-an-hour consultant to handle the transition.

Two state lawyers, Denis Dean and Mike Ingram, will earn just their regular salaries to defend the case.

_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.