back to article CSC axes doctor support software in the UK

CSC has finally confirmed it is pulling its GP support products from the primary care market. The company is dropping its iSoft products, including Synergy, Premiere and Ganymede, after they run through their existing contracts. CSC will support the gear until the end of October next year for practices in England and Northern …

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Silver badge
Unhappy

Private enterprise.

"Live by the sword, die by the sword."

This is what happens when critical infrastructure is passed to the private sector. Their only concern is to make a profit. "Need support with your applications? Tough, that's been discontinued due to financial constraints." In other words, you and your patients are not a factor in our business.

And this government thinks that the private sector is the answer to everything. More like doing their friends a favour by handing out nice, juicy contracts with toothless penalty clauses. See G4S and the Olympics for an example of this

The pity is, it's us, the taxpayer who will have to pay to sort out the mess this ideology is going to cause.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Private enterprise.

So the public sector would be better?

Schools have been ripped off buying computers, so I wouldn't trust them to procure anything like a national IT system.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19667657

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Silver badge

Re: Private enterprise.

That is once again, the private sector, not the public sector, causing trouble.

If the government had its own IT software division in the NHS which developed their own tools, then they would be able to create and maintain a system that they actually want.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Private enterprise.

It is not the private enterprise which is the problem it is the relationship with it.

Software like this should be purchased as a "made to order" job with the source and everything so you can give it someone else to maintain it if needed. This is the only way to procure it in a long term viable fashion in the absence of a defined data representation standard. In fact, even if the back-end data was standardized a reference implementation should have still been order with source included.

Doing this however requires understanding WTF are you doing which is something that has been prohibited as a part of procurement by management consultancies' best practice.

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Re: Private enterprise.

You highlight another example of exactly the same. The private sector ripping off the tax payer because they are represented in these cases by the most gullible of all fools - a gullible inexpert person with a pile of someone elses cash.

It is tricky because there aren't many ways out...

a) You could try consultants that are supposed to know the business - i.e. IT - and can properly advise, but how do you know which consultants can, and whether they are advising you correctly on getting a back hander (bit like when your pension adviser said to buy a private pension thats now worth squat - but they still got their commission).

b) You could try centralized purchase done by experts employed by schools/nhs/who ever which are buying on a scale that could force huge discounts, but we know from bitter experience that this also leads to the doing of favours for friends, of buying from huge suppliers in preference to local smaller business.

c) You could try paying the people involved a little more and insisting that they spend 'their' money on the goods - saying they can keep the difference between what they spend and what they buy... but this can lead to the purchase of cheap but shoddy, insufficient amounts, etc. without actually saving the tax payer a penny.

Or, when a company is clearly responsible for shafting the tax payer you could black list the company bosses so that if they are ever involved with any other company that they never get a government contract again, or in the worst cases of clearly poor professional conduct (such as selling a 'support contract' for the price of half a dozen replacement PC's) you could jail them for fraud. I know my local school ignored my pleas for common sense and bought a couple of dozen laptops and support contracts. Each laptop with its support contract cost them more than the price of 5 in the local shop and about 10 perfectly suitable desktops (the laptops were chained in the 'computer lab' and never moved). But the 'support contract' made them feel 'safe'.... the fact they could have just thrown the broken machine in the bin and replaced it didn't seem to occur to them as the best route to travel.

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Re: Private enterprise.

Source does NOT mean someone else can maintain it.

You should see the source code I am looking at, even with 30 years experience its like trying to find the slightly wrong length piece of spaghetti in a world record bolognaise.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Private enterprise.

Couldn't agree more with the majority of these comments. Not only does Whitehall not learn from their mistakes but they go on repeating it over and over. We all know about the "hushed up" £13 billion fiasco - admittedly not a total fail but definitely not value for money. So... what's the latest scandal?

I believe certain Cambridge hospitals are being railroaded into buying a system from US company Epic Software for some phenomenal sum. Cost a lot because it is State Of The Art software I hear - if you regard MUMPS as State Of The Art. I know for sure that certain NHS software developers would have no problems delivering a true and honest State Of The Art system for a fraction of the cost, but no, the NHS cannot do that - we have to keep the inter-Atlantic trade by buying any old crap from our trading partners across the pond. What better use of public money than channelling the spending through the NHS? After all, it is such a valued organisation that no one will dare question the spend even though PFI maintenance contracts allow private companies to charge NHS organisations £60 to change a light bulb.

Furthermore all public sector IT staff are well-known for their lack of skill and abilities which is why they are so poorly paid and we all know that the best IT personnel are in the private sector aren't they?

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Headmaster

Not necessarily...

I'd have to say there's no silver bullet to this problem. I worked in the NHS many moons ago, and it seemed to me from afar that GP systems were poor value for money for the taxpayer. That being said, what is the alternative? All major vendors have canned products at the drop of a hat when sales are struggling or they just don't think it sexy anymore, regardless of how wedded you are to it and where it leaves you when the lights go out.

The only thing to do is find some kind of middle ground, meaning if you do get shafted either by a vendor or the in house systems get canned because of internal NHS politics, make sure your data is in a format in which it can be easily transported from A to B.

Not defending private enterprise in the slightest, but if you offer criticism you also need to offer constructive suggestions.

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Silver badge

Re: Not necessarily...

The "silver bullet" would be to have a clearly-defined, mandatory standard for interoperable file formats, unencumbered by "intellectual property" restrictions (so anyone can create a royalty-free implementation). The NHS should be smart enough to be able to draw up a specification that suits their needs, and big enough to be able to insist on it.

The real failure here is that there wasn't a law passed requiring all software suppliers to document all file formats, for the express purpose of enabling interoperability, 30 years ago -- before they could come up with arguments about "why should we be obliged to help our competitors".

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Anonymous Coward

"These practices will be shocked to have to find a replacement application at relatively short notice, and seemingly without any additional funding for migration,"

12 months to find a replacement with at least more than 18% market share?

the article gives 2 more popular alternatives, sounds like someone moaning because they will not get their "re-signing" fee next year

cant see why some of the PCT's dont pool part of their "partying in hot climates for execs" budgets and start their own bespoke software company with all their insider knowledge and expertise

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Bronze badge

Good idea, and it works

"cant see why some of the PCT's dont pool part of their "partying in hot climates for execs" budgets and start their own bespoke software company with all their insider knowledge and expertise"

Bearing in mind the sort of people who work in PCTs, they'd probably end up with a highly efficient reporting system that was a nightmare for GPs to use.

But the idea is perfectly sound. That's how EMIS started - it was designed and written by a GP.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: designed and written by a GP

that's funny, the guy who did my heart transplant used to be a BOFH

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Anonymous Coward

Open Country

The government needs to encourage open standards and software. From my humble knowledge HMRC have done this with Tax returns with iXBRL. This is an open XML schema which can be opened with any software.

They would have been better off putting all the NHS IT money towards designing a schema for the NHS and it's related bodies thus allowing software companies to develop their own software around that schema. You're data is therefore portable and you are not at the mercy of the software company.

Essentially we could be doing this for the entire Civil Service, replacing all the proprietary systems with more open and portable systems. For the untold £billions we've spent on IT projects, the UK could have set up an Open Source initiative for the country to build it's own and pay all contributors. Unfortunately nobody is likely to get a backhander with this process so it's a non-starter.

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Re: Open Country

HL7 is the closest there is to a standard for medical records but it isn't open in the free as in speech sense.

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Silver badge

Time for a new law

If you cease selling or supporting a software product, you should be obliged to release the complete Source Code and Build Instructions, in order that others can step into the market you have vacated. Otherwise, you are obliged to support it as long as anyone is using it. If for some reason (e.g. loss of Source Code due to poor backup practices) you are unable to supply the necessary Code in full, a hefty fine should be applied.

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Re: Time for a new law

That's a stupid idea. Unless there is a SLA in effect saying that "This software will be supported until [date]" then there is nothing to prevent companies from taking a step back and saying that "We no longer wish to support this." To address your idea directly, when they do that, it doesn't mean they stop owning the code or being able to exploit it, so no, they shouldn't have to release their source and let others profit off their work, and it should be up to the customer to move on.

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Re: Time for a new law

No. Software vendors should not be allowed to leave their customers in the lurch like that.

You want to sell software, fine; but you have to understand that in deciding to sell software, you have accepted a responsibility towards your customers. Abdication of that responsibility costs those who put their faith in you significant amounts of time and money, and should not go unpunished.

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Re: Time for a new law

You can write a law to that effect, but the main result will be a huge price hike in software - if it's not selling, then the cash to pay for support / development has to come from elsewhere - and that either means much higher prices to purchase in the first place, or hefty on-going support charges.

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What's so special about software???

When the BBC canned my favourite TV show they weren't obliged to handover the equipment and cast to me so I could film my own new series

When Toyota stopped producing my favourite car they didn't hand over the production tooling so I could build my own

So why should software companies hand over source when they choose to end a product?

If systems are mission critical then the purchaser should ensure the contract includes sufficient warranty, support and notice periods to find a replacement should the need arise

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Re: Time for a new law

Three words: source code escrow.

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Re: Time for a new law

I'm not seeing what that would accomplish. Code escrow is for when you're delivering code as part of a contract, I don't see how it can be used when you're selling a compiled product to multiple customers.

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Re: Time for a new law

Who said customers are being left in the lurch? Computer software (Unless you happen to be Richard Stallman) is a commercial product that is developed to make money, not to make the world a better place full of rainbows and unicorns. They have no responsibility to their customers beyond what they promise under contract.

If I buy an AV package for my system, it will usually come with a one year subscription. When that year is up, I no longer expect them to support my software and the software will stop working.

When I purchase a copy of Windows, I know that on a specified date, I will no longer be able to receive updates, although it will continue to work.

If I buy a piece of specialist software, then I wouldn't expect anything beyond the initial contract in terms of support or warranty.

Therefore I am not seeing how they've abdicated that responsibility by saying that they are no longer going to support the software. Or in your opinion, how long should they support it for? 10 years? 15? Perhaps 25 years since this is the NHS?

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Re: What's so special about software???

The difference being that when Toyota stopped manufacturing your car there were no doubt dozens of other companies out there still producing pattern and OEM parts for it for as long as the demand was there. You will find owners groups online with workshop manuals and peer support. You will find Haynes manuals, you will find youtube videos from enthusiasts.

Alas, this is changing as the automotive world gets more and more proprietary and relies more on proprietary tools and software in their vehicles to lock you into their way of doing things and only using their authorised suppliers.

With software in this case they are shipping compiled binaries. There is no source code, their is no 3rd party support groups. This is why it is so important the the NHS move more to Open Source software as it will help protect them from risks such as shown here.

-Matt

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Silver badge

Re: Time for a new law

"..... [I]n your opinion, how long should they support it for?"

Forever. Note, I count releasing the Source Code as supporting software.

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Re: Time for a new law

I am sure they would be happy to supply obselescant source code to customers, for an appropriate fee equivalent to the cost of developing that software as a contract job.... Or did you mean free? If so you really have no idea of how business works!

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Re: Time for a new law

I think you mis-spelt "extortion" in that last sentence.

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Re: Time for a new law

it means that if the vendor goes tits up overnight then the clients could get access to the source code. it's another safety mechanism for the client should they choose to pay for the option

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Re: Time for a new law

The Law Society requires a source code escrow for solicitor client account software, so it can be done.

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FAIL

Its about time that csc stopped providing services to government departments, as their an outdated company that doesnt know how to deal in the real world. Their services are no better than any government department, and my many dealings with them over the years, have created frustration after frustration after frustration.

I had dealings with them when they were the company behind the national grid electric and gas systems. Their systems have always been outdated and slow. They used to take 48hrs for just a password reset, and their systems were always going down. The staff their were always as helpful as they could be, but they as a company were too big for their own good. Upgrades and change implementations used to take forever to go through. You would request a change, and by the time they were ready to implement it, it would be 2 years gone.

When their systems go down, they seem to be in no hurry to get them back up again, it was common occurence for the systems to be down for 48hrs or more for critical systems, trying to get an update from them was like pulling teeth. When this is for a system that monitors and assigns engineers to emergency gas leaks, then this is unacceptable. The engineers would then go on site, and couldnt get the gis maps up for underground gas pipe layouts, yet their company would never take responsibility for the fault.

Had the same problems with them with the nhs. They seem to be stuck in the late 1990's with their procedures, software, and implementation and need to progress

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Anonymous Coward

Am I missing something?

All the ranting here, but where does it say the software will stop working?

So you have 12 months for support, and then your on your own?

So no reason you can't carry on using it, just if you have a major issue, you may be in trouble, but otherwise it should tick along nicely.

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Re: Am I missing something?

I think people are going to want to have a migration path for the data, at least.

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Silver badge

Re: Am I missing something?

Exactly!

If the program uses proprietary data formats, they have you by the short and curlies because all your critically important data is stuck in that application and you cannot get it out.

That's why no public service should ever be permitted use a closed proprietary data format under any circumstances whatsoever.

Public, published, standards should be the only ones ever used.

If that isn't actually possible for size/speed reasons, then the application must provide a proven export function to a usable public format right from the start.

And no, a supplier merely promising to do that 'later' is not enough, it has to exist and be seen before installation.

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Re: Am I missing something?

Yes, you're missing something.

You're missing that there is a *lot* of data which suddenly needs to be exported in a format that some other software package can make proper sense of; otherwise, there is going to have to be one mother of a retyping exercise. (Disclosure: When the stock control system at an electronics factory where I once worked was changed from a minicomputer system to a Windows-based system, we had a succession of temporary staff retyping data from printouts into the new system. This operation took several weeks, and nobody who actually used the stock control system considered it an improvement.)

All data storage formats should be published and available to everyone, precisely so that no software supplier has the ability to inflict such an exercise on their customers, nor hold their customers' data to ransom. Software vendors may not like the fact that they can no longer lock out their competitors so easily; but no doubt, there was a similar outcry when first laws were enacted against putting addictive drugs into food products to keep the customers returning (yes, this sort of thing really did happen).

The fact is, vendors of proprietary software are in a position of disproportionate power over their customers; and it is only fair for people in such relationships to be bound by different rules than people in more equitable relationships.

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