Parliament plagued by computer crashes after upgrade foul-up

MPs and Lords receive apology e-mail from parliamentary technology chief for IT failure

By David Hencke | 10 March 2014

“One of our suppliers involved in this upgrade inadvertently introduced an error into the supporting software” – Joan Miller, director of the parliamentary IT service

MPs, peers and their staff have suffered repeated computer crashes in their parliamentary offices after an upgrade project went wrong.

An e-mail written by the head of IT for the Houses of Parliament last week, which was passed to Exaro, explains how an outside contractor was brought in to improve the systems, only to make them much worse.

Thousands of people who work at the parliamentary estate, including MPs and lords, have been hit by the IT problems. They have repeatedly endured interrupted and slow internet access, delayed delivery of e-mails sent outside Parliament, and computers that keep freezing.

The system crashed completely on Wednesday, the day after the e-mail from Joan Miller, director of the parliamentary IT service.

She wrote: “I am very aware that many people on the parliamentary estate have experienced problems with their IT and internet access over the past few weeks.

“The problems may have shown themselves in freezing or slowing down of your web browsing, video via the web, slower delivery of e-mails sent outside Parliament, use of [Microsoft] Office 365 and other internet-dependent systems.

“I know that this has been very frustrating and inconvenient for those affected.  I therefore wanted to write to you to apologise for the on-going problems and for any difficulties caused, and to tell you about what we have been doing to fix the problem.”

“Contrary to what some people may think, the issue has not been caused by our rollout of Office 365 across the estate, although, like all other systems that use the internet, it has been affected.”

The problems have infuriated MPs and their staff. One senior MP told Exaro: “This has been driving me mad, and it keeps becoming worse.”

She said that the upgrade was aimed at saving money by replacing Parliament’s server-based system with remote, “cloud” technology.

One staffer said that she had also been “driven mad” by the system.

The MP’s assistant, speaking soon after the system crashed totally, told Exaro: “Today was the worst day ever when the whole system crashed. This has been going on for weeks, and is wrecking our work.”

Miller said in her e-mail that higher use of internet from Parliament, such as greater use of video streaming, had increased demands on the system.

“We therefore commissioned work to upgrade and expand our links out of the estate to the internet. Unfortunately, in January, one of our suppliers involved in this upgrade inadvertently introduced an error into the supporting software. This had the opposite effect of that intended, that is, it reduced the capacity of the access to the internet.”

“In an environment such as ours on the parliamentary estate, with several thousand users and accompanying security features, these IT connections and security systems are very complex.

“We therefore had to do a significant amount of detective work in order to identify the cause of this problem. Regrettably, but unavoidably, this has taken some time. We have now pinpointed the cause, and the solutions that will allow for further growth in the future.”

But she expected the problems to be resolved within days, saying: “We will monitor the situation closely over the following weeks. We will not commence further migrations of Microsoft 365 until we are sure that we have resolved this network issue.”

She ended with another apology, writing: “My sincere apologies again for the difficulties which you may have experienced during this period. We have been doing everything we can to try and get things back on track for you as quickly as possible.”

MPs have also been complaining about a rise in the time it takes for calls to the parliamentary IT helpdesk to be answered.

Figures given in response to a parliamentary question from Ian Austin, a Labour MP, last month showed that calls took more than three times as long to be answered in January than a year before – an average of 112 seconds.

A spokesman for Parliament said: “The company that provides this fully managed service made an error, which it has rectified at its own cost. This caused some disruption to parliamentary services.”

“We are working with the supplier to ensure that the services remain resilient in the future.”

Additional reporting by Alex Varley-Winter.

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