Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dinosaur VAX System

This article about the computer system used for the assignment plan appeared in today's Times. I don't know if it was meant to be funny but there was a kind of funny pathos about the whole situation. Like this:

"I gotta say: What did we do before computers?" a frustrated Michael DeBell asked at a board work session last week. "I'm reluctant to accept that ... technology is limiting our policymaking process."

I get his frustration but we're living in 2008. There's really no way to change the assignment plan without changing the technology (unless you like holding your breath and hoping no major disaster occurs).

And this:

"Steve Nielsen, chief financial officer from 2002 through December 2006, said parts were hard to find when he arrived in the district, and officials worried the VAX system would crash permanently. But the district had more pressing financial concerns at the time, he said.

"We were trying to avoid laying off teachers, and we kept the infrastructure going with bubble gum and baling wire."

Some history:

"The VAX was first sold in 1979, and early models were about as big as two refrigerators. Hank Levy, chairman of the UW's computer-science and engineering department, was part of the team that designed its operating system. The VAX on display in the lobby of the department's Paul G. Allen Center was an early model that Levy said at one time "ran our entire department."

Today, however, any current-generation PC is a supercomputer compared with a VAX, he said, even a later-model VAX such as the ones in use at Seattle school headquarters.

"It was a great system for its day, but its day is long past," Levy said.

Although it's hard to compare computing power of different systems, he also said that, in rough terms, even the later-model VAXes have only about 1/20th the power of an iPhone.

The model used by Seattle is "much less of a dinosaur," he added, "but it's still a dinosaur."

Nevertheless, Levy said he knows that many VAXes and even older computers are still in use. They often run customized software that, like the assignment system in Seattle schools, can't be transferred to newer machines."

Less power than an iPhone. Yikes.

I appreciate that the Board wants to take on the huge challenge that is the assignment plan. But I think Mr. Kennedy is being very wise to want to do it the best way possible for the best outcomes possible. One extra year, after years of not doing anything, isn't going to be that bad. I would allow plenty of time for the community input that changing the assignment plan needs. The feedback that the Board receives from this input, plus the extra time they will have because of the VAX situation, would give them time to tweak the plan.

It's not the worst thing to take time to plan and get input.


Anonymous said...

Charlie says, "they only have this week and next to complete the conversations with external stakeholders before they report out. External stakeholders are defined as 'families, community organizations and leaders, and other non-SPS staff'. So, has anyone reading this been invited to participate in this process as an external stakeholder? Not me."
Charlie, see page 19-20 of the Strategic Plan Framework Development: Discussion of Potential Initiatives document. It indicates that these interviews have already been done. On page 19, for "today's discussion (last night, 2/24)we have: "Stakeholdrer Analysis themes/Review themes" under which we find:
Topic: Potential Superintendent Goals - review and discuss. On page 20, we have: "Key themes frm stakeholder analysis."
78 interview with external stakeholders, who say:
There's a poor image of District;
SHs don't understand how SPD makes decisions;
District puts out info, but lacks clear feedback mechanism;
"Little understanding of District strategy/vision and uncertainty with SPS and SEA leadership";
Organizations and individuals uncertain how to help;
Stakeholders not engaged through current comm channels"
56 internal interviews:
"District undertakes multiple new initiatives but with litle prioritization or focus;
SPS is not aligned with SPS Board and Unions;
Customer service training and support is inadequate;
Communication is indirect and results in lack of alignment bewteen Central Office and building leadership."
"Implications of themes:
Stengthen PR efforts;
Clearly define comm process;
Create transparency in decision-making process;
Simplify and automate portions of comm process;
Develop clear, constructive strats to engage unions;
develop and nurture strategic partnerships with external stakeholders."

So it appears they are done with gathering stakeholder comment (through interviews)

dan dempsey said...

Steve offers the following spin to make the SPS look good in this situation:

SPS is saving money and utilizing old resources to keep from filling landfills with old computer hardware.

Jet City mom said...

I attended high school in the mid 70s, if VAX began in 1979 , I wonder what the district did at that point to assign kids.
What were the numbers in 1978 compare to 2008?
and how many now?

Anonymous said...

I guess it's time for Seattle to join with the other 98% of the schools in the State and start using WSIPC services. Who am I kidding? That will never happen... there are too many VAX engineers to think of. Let's just keep paying $20/FTE and close some elementary schools instead.