Embarrassing Bugs (Part 2)

7/5/2012 3:18:27 PM

Los Angles International Airport – 20,000 Airline Passengers Grounded

Description: Los Angles International Airport – 20,000 Airline Passengers Grounded

Los Angles International Airport – 20,000 Airline Passengers Grounded

In 2007, a single network card in a single computer with a faulty piece of software on it brought the entire air transportation system down on the west coast of America.

The data sent by the card causes the entire airport network to fail, and it took eight hours to identify the problem and correct it. During that time, no aircraft could land or take off, and around 20,000 passengers couldn’t embark.

EDS – Missing Child Support And $1.5bn

Description: The system that EDS created for the CSA was a low point in software development.

The system that EDS created for the CSA was a low point in software development.

The government in this country has a lamentable track record in the procurement and implementation of IT systems. But even by their low standards, the system that EDS (Electronic Data Systems) created for the CSA (Child Support Agency) was a low point in software development.

Some blame must go to the Department for Work and Pensions, which decided to entirely restructure its operations at the same point as EDS decided to roll out its new CSA system. As a result, the interactions between these two departments no longer worked, as their systems became entirely incompatible.

The CSA system was worst affected, having at one point some 500 documented bugs, and many more undocumented. It ended up allowing the CSA to overpay 1.9 million people, while underpaying a further 700,000 and having more than $7.5 billion in uncollected child support payments. As government departments go, the CSA had the highest number of public complaints for a number of years running.

It’s since been admitted that the CSA spent $1.5 for every $2.75 that is managed to get paid in spousal support, while running a backlog that reached more than 240,000 cases at one point.

A divorced friend recounted to me how while he was talking to a CSA case worker on the phone, she told him categorically not to tell her if he patched up his marriage, because placing that information in the system that would mean that his records would be entirely inaccessible, possibly forever.

Soviet Gas Pipeline – A Big Bang

Description: The problem about Soviet Gas Pipeline in 1982

The problem about Soviet Gas Pipeline in 1982

This wasn’t exactly a bug; it was a fully intentional software failure, but it’s still worth a mention. Back in 1982, the US didn’t want its latest computer hardware going to the Soviet Union, and banned the direct or indirect supplying of it to them. The Russians, thinking they’d been clever, ordered a system from a Canadian company for controlling the trans-Siberian gas pipeline, but the CIA was one step ahead of them.

Instead of blocking the deal the Americans had the Canadian company provide the system, with an additional piece of code that would cause fault once the system went fully operational, but not before.

It’s been widely reported that the result was the largest peacetime explosion that wasn’t a nuclear test, although the Russians are strangely coy about discussing what actually transpired.

Ariane 5 Flight 510 - $8.5bn And Counting

‘That dream ended just 37 seconds later when the rocket exploded.’

You’d think that the European space agency might have learned a few lessons from Nasa’s most unfortunate experiences, but apparently not.

In 1996, on the brink of offering a large payload space transportation service, ESA launched the massive Ariane 5 from its facility in French Guiana. That dream ended just 37 seconds later when the rocket exploded, taking a $750 million satellite payload with it.

The cause of this fiasco was a software bug that tried to push a 64-bit block of data into a 16-bit address, crashing the engine control software module. The backup software system kicked in, written with an identical bug, crashed and 0.05 seconds later the engineers where commanded to deliver in excess of 100% power and shortly thereafter Ariane 5 Flight 501 was a billion tiny pieces of scrap metal floating down over the Atlantic Ocean.

Description: The European Space Agency demonstrates its own big bang theory with the $85bn Ariane 5

The European Space Agency demonstrates its own big bang theory with the $85bn Ariane 5

The cost of developing the vehicle was $8bn, although they did eventually get one that wasn’t just a big firework, on the third attempt. Interestingly enough, the software problem was present in the previous Ariane 4, but due to the lower power output of its engines the code there never ran into the overflow issue that doomed its successor.

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