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1 mainframe, 2 critical databases, 43 police forces, 1 big headache

Home Office plans to move “the most important law enforcement technology system in the UK” off an aging Fujitsu mainframe and into the cloud are now five years late and £1.1 billion over-budget, a select committee warned today – with the team that maintains the Police National Computer (PNC) under-resourced and with several staff nearing retirement, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) highlighted.

The PNC is a criminal records database used by 43 police forces. It is searched over 140 million times a year. The Home Office’s National Law Enforcement Data Service” (NLEDS) programme — first proposed in 2016 and estimated then to cost £671 million – initially aimed to migrate both the PNC and the Police National Database (“PND”), which holds over four billion items of police intelligence) into a unified cloud-based data lake.

The initial aim: searching of the entire data pool “via a single free form enquiry (‘Google-type’)”

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It was a bold idea, yet after five years of development, nothing has been delivered into live usage across all police forces. As PAC put it damningly on December 8, 2021 the Home Office’s “original scope and ambition” were “unrealistic” and the department had “created a programme designed to replace two vital police information systems without fully understanding the police’s requirements or how these systems worked”.

(This failure deeply undermined relationships between the nation’s police forces and the Home Office, the Parliamentary report flagged, saying that the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) had written to the Department’s Permanent Secretary in October 2020 stating that the police had lost confidence in the Home Office’s ability to deliver a range of law enforcement technology programmes, including NLEDS.)

PNC migration still planned, but NLEDS drops PND

The Home Office in December 2020 decided to drop plans to bring the two databases into a single environment, removing it from the scope of the NLEDS programme. It will now be maintained as a standalone system until 2031: “Police and other users will therefore be unable to access PNC and PND data from a single system, which was one of the Department’s original objectives for NLEDS, for the foreseeable future.”

As one witness told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) the Department had under-estimated the complexity it expected to find within the PNC, which runs on Fujitsu mainframe technology (an SE700 H/W with BS2000, OSD v9, UTM v6.3): “It anticipated that asking the system to show a person’s driving licence would be relatively simple, perhaps involving up to five business rules, but it turned out to involve 40”.

UK crime database is sitting on one of these… which is running some heavily undocumented applications written in COBOL, reports suggest. Image credit: Fujitsu

They added: “The lack of documentation for the PNC meant… repeated such surprises.”

The Home Office also lacks the skilled staff required to design, develop and manage its various technology programmes, it added, urging it to require “all SROs (project owners) of major programmes to report annually on how they will manage any gaps between the skills and capabilities required to deliver… their programmes.”

As recently as April 2020 a Home Office spokesman had told The Stack’s founder that the project was “on track” for completion in 2023, as the department launched a £3 million cybersecurity tender for the project — with it seeking experience in “AWS native Services Eg S3, EC2, DMS Databases, Cloudtrail, Cloudwatch etc., security managing Windows, Red Hat and Centos operating Systems, and be familiar with Splunk and Nessus.”)

Another April 2021 contract gives a snapshot of the PNC back-end, with the Home Office hunting for contractors to work on a PNC change team. Skills required were experience with the SE700 H/W mainframe running BS2000, OSD v9, UTM v6.3; experience with Natural v427, Adabas v825 and recent experience “developing and or supporting products implemented in a mixture of Cobol, C, 390 assembler and Easy Case assembler”.

Despite the project imbroglio, the PNC seems to be doing what mainframes do: running pretty robustly, with availability of 99.74% between January 2020 and March 2021. Retrieving data lost after human error in a high-profile January 2021 incident was complicated by the “aging technology” however.

Are you a PNC user/following the NLEDS project closely? We’d love to hear from you.

See also: “Borderline criminal” — US Air Force CSO quits with a bang

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Ed Targett

Ed Targett is the founder of The Stack. He has served as editor of Tech Monitor, Computer Business Review, and Roubini Global Economics. He has 15 years of experience in newsrooms and consultancies. His interests span technology, foreign policy, and sustainability.

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