Alberta government scrambles to restore computer systems
Calgary fire causes sweeping problems for government computer networks
By: By Ryan Tumilty
| Posted: Saturday, Jul 14, 2012 06:00 am
The Alberta government is in overdrive to repair computer networks after an explosion and fire in Calgary hobbled several government systems.
The Wednesday afternoon fire at the Shaw court building in Calgary caused a massive disruption to government services. Initially the systems for issuing hunting and fishing licenses, and printing high school transcripts were down along with many other government applications.
Those services were restored Friday, but the province’s registry services remained down leaving Albertans unable to register new vehicles, pay speeding tickets or obtain land title information.
Gerald Miciak made a quick trip in and out of the Drayden Insurance registry office on Perron Street Friday. The outage stymied his attempt to register a new vehicle, which he said for now is a minor inconvenience.
“I might have more to say if I come back Monday and it is still not up,” he said.
Miciak said he is concerned the outage will create a backlog and long line-ups when the systems come back next week.
“I am surprised that they don’t have some sort of manual system.”
Local police said the outage is an inconvenience, but something they would be able to work around.
“We would consider it a minor disruption and that database occasionally goes into maintenance anyway so it is not unheard of for us to do without it,” said St. Albert RCMP Cpl. Laurel Kading.
She said the department also has several other unaffected databases for more important information, like if there is a warrant out for someone or if a vehicle has been stolen.
The government was waiving normal limits and deadlines, while looking at other possible extensions to driver’s licences that are set to expire.
“We are asking stakeholders that work with the government of Alberta, as well as government departments, to exercise common sense,” said Service Alberta minister Manmeet Bhullar.
The shutdown also hit Alberta Health Services, with the entire organization losing email service and more serious disruptions in Calgary, where elective surgeries had to be cancelled and lab tests were delayed.
Those sorts of problems did not take place in the capital region.
“It is not exactly optimum, but we do have back-up plans in place and those swung into action when this thing happened,” said Kerry Willamson, a spokesperson for AHS.
He said it was a disruption, but hospitals aren’t completely computer dependent.
“We still use paper charts; we still use those things so it is not all electronic.”
The explosion and fire triggered the building’s sprinkler systems and the building is now without power. Bhullar said the shutdown took government systems offline in an instant.
“It is no different than driving a vehicle at 100 kilometres an hour and then abruptly putting it in park.
Back-up tapes from the servers had to be taken out and flown to Markham, Ont., where the government’s back-up centre is located and the government is in the process of getting the back-up systems up and running.
University of Alberta computer science professor Dr. Paul Lu said back-up tapes take time to restart a system and believes it unlikely they were the government’s first line of defence.
“It strikes me as a plan B that it was not the plan A,” he said. “Having to restore from backup tape sounds like a plan B, because that is a relatively slow process.”
Lu said it is hard to judge what the government is doing because he doesn’t know the extent of the problem or the solutions available to them.
He said banks and other institutions have better systems, because they spend the money necessary to have them.
“If money is no object, there are technologies and business that will happily build a system for you where the new system can be up and running within seconds or minutes.”
Lu said he is also worried the government may have lost data as part of the outage.
Bhullar admitted that was a possibility, but believed the systems would largely be restored without any gaps.
The government’s focus would be to get services back online, Bhullar promised. He said this was a major event, but the government would look in future to see if there were lessons to be learned.
“When incidents like this happen, you are not going to evaluate everything overnight, my first priority is to get services back online.”