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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Portland City Hall + computers = endless fun

Here's an odd one out of the Portland fire bureau. They're going on a fishing expedition to see if they can find somebody to convert the bureau computer system from some homegrown products created using a now-obsolete Microsoft program to open source software. But they're not even offering a contract at this point -- they just want some free advice in the form of "information" to be submitted by potential future contract bidders.

Included in the unusual announcement were these bits of background:

[Portland Fire & Rescue]’s current information system provides information services to PF&R related to emergency incidents, fire inspections, station scheduling and many other operations (See Exhibit A). The applications that comprise the FIS were developed in-house by City staff for the Windows VB platform. Due to Microsoft’s termination of support for development on this platform, PF&R and [the Public Safety Systems Revitalization Program] are evaluating various options for ensuring that PF&R continues to have reliable and extensible information systems for the next seven to ten years....

The current PF&R information system is comprised of fourteen applications. Six applications are classified as "critical" or "core." This classification is based on the volume of users, nature of the information recorded in the system, need to meet State of Oregon and Federal reporting requirements and necessity to train staff, protect and provide safe equipment to emergency responders. The remaining eight applications are classified as "necessary." These applications collect, track and store data needed for managing the effective operation of PF&R. The applications access data in a collection of SQL databases, several of which are used by more than one application.

I believe by "Windows VB" they mean this, which drew this Wiki comment, among others:

Criticisms levelled at Visual Basic editions prior to VB.NET include:

* Versioning problems associated with various runtime DLLs, known as DLL hell
* Poor support for object-oriented programming
* Inability to create multi-threaded applications, without resorting to Windows API calls
* Inability to create Windows services
* Variant types have a greater performance and storage overhead than strongly typed programming languages
* Dependency on complex and fragile COM Registry entries
* The development environment is no longer supported by Microsoft

Converting the products of this tool looks like it could be a doozy. Better keep those fire extinguishers charged up, Portlanders.

Comments (7)


I am sure the citizens paid large dollars to some consultant way back when to recommend this product to the PFD.

Hello.... MicroSnot ended support for VB in April of 2008 and with years of notice. So two years after the software platform became unsupported the city thought to start taking action. Now that's what I call planning. Maybe someone should write a press release.

As far as free RFIs to replace the platform, all this is pretty standard stuff in any IT shop. However, the cynic in me thinks it could be a set-up for a sweet RFD for someone.

They're hardy the only organization to be stuck in that jam.

VB seemed such an easy, approachable platform back in the day that lots of places - public and private - turned to it. Unfortunately, its heyday coincided with the dot-bubble runup, with its oversupply of newly-minted developers too inexperienced either to see the platform's limitations for enterprise use or to get managers to listen to them if they did see the limitations. (I was there, in the next trench over. My company's VB developer was so happy to be off the factory floor and coding for a living that he wasn't about to annoy his golden goose with some vague fear that a Microsoft product in 1998 wasn't such a great bet.)

In hindsight, we can see that the lucky organizations had their VB app development fail before deployment; the ones who persisted and went live are the ones which really got hosed.

On the bright side, many people learned many important lessons while making Open Source look gooood.

I would have bought some off the shelf program, probably hundreds exists, fired the "programmers" and implemented the sytem "vanilla" and optimized it. Most of what passes for customization in the Applications world is really laziness and unwillingness to change dumb stuff currently being done.

They should buy something off the market to replace what they have and spend their resources in implementation. It will be much cheaper and more supportable, and might even succeed for once.

The good news is that all the data is in a SQL database or five, from the sound of it.

Who cares what the front end is, as long as the data is accessible via a standard interface (SQL). Just bit-bucket the VB crap and make an internal web front-end with something big enough that it won't ever go away, like PHP.

This kind of thing happens over and over and over again in IT work. There's nothing to see here, unless the normal contract shenanigans happen...

Good news about the data, but that's only part of the story. Is the business logic stuck in VB?

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