GSA retires its vintage Univac
- By Florence Olsen
- Apr 28, 1997
Adams had a bigger problem to worry about. The 20-year-old Sperry Univac mainframe that
ran the leasing information system was breaking down often and costing $12 million a year
to maintain. The agency had used one or another Univac system since the early 1970s to run
lease software originally written for the Univac 1108.
Adams is relaxed enough now to chuckle about it, but two years ago the system's resources
were really strained. Databases for the lease information system were written in Data
Management Language, which he called "the last surviving little dinosaur."
Agents used DML to access the databases that ran on the Computer Sciences Teleprocessing
System, which resided on the Univac. The application code was Cobol 68 with patches of
The situation finally came to a head when agency programmers ran out of room. They could
no longer add new elements to the system databases, said division director Joe Griffin.
Computer Sciences Corp., which owned DML, and its Infonet subsidiary had stopped
supporting the language years ago.
The Infonet time-sharing company in Beltsville, Md., had brought in newer systems, and the
Public Buildings Service was one of the last customers still on the Univac.
"We had the government's longest-running sole-source contract, from 1972 to January
1997," Adams said.
Until the agency moved the old applications onto a newer Unisys A11 series mainframe
server, the real estate specialists had always worked in batch processing mode with
teletype-style data entry screens. That's no longer the case now-the agency has completed
a simultaneous hardware and year 2000 software conversion of its lease information system.
While programmers were converting the old applications from Cobol 68 to Cobol 84 and
the old databases from DML to DMS2, they also expanded the date fields from yymmdd
to yyyymmdd to fix the problems leasing agents were having with the century
They also created an on-line transaction processing environment with full-screen data
entry for the agents to use alongside their Microsoft Corp. tools.
The converted information system still has interfaces to about 10 internal systems that
are not year 2000-ready and probably will be replaced by commercial equivalents rather
"The problem there became putting the date back into the old format so those
applications could receive the data," Griffin said.
The $15 million conversion effort averted more than one crisis. "We'll be able to
survive the next few years, including the year 2000," Adams said. But ongoing
discussions about the GSA agency's future role leave much up in the air.
"We didn't want to go out and design costly new systems at the same time we're
deciding how we're going to handle the whole business of public buildings," he said.
Five previous attempts over the years to modernize the agency's systems did not succeed
for various reasons, often because people tried to squeeze too many new functions into a
new design, Griffin said.
"This time we did strictly a functional equivalent," he said. If the old Cobol
system added 2 and 2 and got 5, the converted system had to do the same.
Four computer specialists from Griffin's staff worked on the two-year conversion, assisted
by contract personnel from Unisys Federal Systems Division in McLean, Va. At the peak of
the project, 200 contractors were working at multiple sites.