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Is there a good list of "worst software project failures ever" in the history of software development?

For example in Canada a "gun registry" project spent around two billion dollars.

This is of course, insane, even if the final product "sort of worked".

I have heard of an FBI Case file system which there have been several attempts to rewrite, all of them so far, failures.

There is a book on the subject (Software Runaways). There doesn't seem to be be a software "boondoggle" list or "fiasco" list on Wikipedia that I can see.

(Update: Based on a response of human sympathy Therac-25 would be the 'winner' of this question, except that I was internally thinking more of Software projects that had as their deliverable, mainly software, as opposed to firmware projects like Therac-25, where the hardware and firmware together are capable of killing people, and also, the question was more intended to address boondoggles and bureaucratic failures rather than tragic explosions, or deaths. In terms of pure software monetary debacles, which was my intended question, there are several contenders, and an interesting future community wiki, is "what are the common traits among large software project failures with budgets over $100 million US".)

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This should be a community wiki. – gnovice Jun 24 '09 at 19:14
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@unknown (google): What do you think in Canada? Don't they use British Pounds...? – gbn Jun 24 '09 at 19:53
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I'm pretty sure it's Yen, actually... okay, I'm done. – San Jacinto Jun 24 '09 at 19:56
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Pretty sure it's a barter system, with back bacon accepted as currency in most large cities. – Nosredna Jun 24 '09 at 21:06
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Most of the people who answered didn't understand the question. – Robert S. Jun 29 '09 at 18:32
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37 Answers

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up vote 50 down vote

The Ariane 5 integer overflow :

alt OUCH

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actually.... it's tragic :( – darkrain Jun 24 '09 at 19:23
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I don't know if it's tragic... there wasn't human life lost, to my recollection... just a huge ton of money. – San Jacinto Jun 24 '09 at 20:16
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Interesting. A 64bit floating point to 16 bit integer conversion. Number was too big for the 16 bit integer. Code was in Ada. Although other parts of the code had protection, that part didn't. The result was an exception, and the flight system interpreted the diagnostic bit pattern as flight control data. Fancy! – Nosredna Jun 24 '09 at 21:11
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Is this a project failure or a bug? I'd say a bug. – CodeSlave Jun 29 '09 at 15:15
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@ CodeSlave...this is definitely an example of project failure. When the project explodes into little pieces that is ultimate failure. Think about it. – Devtron Jun 29 '09 at 18:58
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up vote 45 down vote

Duke Nukem Forever.

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Now it truly is forever. – Nosredna Jun 24 '09 at 21:11
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up vote 42 down vote

Therac-25.

Let us all remember that our carelessness, in life an whatever profession we choose, has real consequences.

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Not as simple as the others (and thus less obviously preventable), but more egregious since it involves lethal radiation aimed at a person :0 – StuffMaster Jun 26 '09 at 21:38
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I agree, but every article I've ever read about the problem hints at very poor planning for safety. For instance, on most missile systems, there are mechanical safeties since the software isn't trusted for the level of reliability required. – San Jacinto Jun 29 '09 at 11:41
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up vote 24 down vote

Windows ME

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the worst operating system built by Microsoft – jerbersoft Jun 24 '09 at 23:33
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@jerbersoft that's saying a lot ! – GuiSim Jun 25 '09 at 2:52
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deanliou.com/WinRG – Arnis L. Jun 27 '09 at 12:02
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What? It wasn't a failure. It was the same thing as Vista. Microsoft needed an early release of XP in order to recoup some of their R&D costs before the real launch as well as to get some serious beta testing in. This is what Vista was for Windows 7. Trade a little brand integrity for paid testers. – orokusaki Jan 29 at 16:15
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crokusaki: ME was not an early XP, but a later 98. XP was built on 2000, ME not. – ammoQ Feb 11 at 0:04
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up vote 23 down vote

Mars Climate Orbiter 23 September 1999 Orbiter Crash landed on surface due to metric-imperial mix-up

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Seriously, what was the excuse for using imperial measurements in a scientific project? More importantly, why wasn't there adequate end-to-end testing to detect this kind of error months and months before launch? – Juliet Jun 24 '09 at 19:17
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No excuse, the upcoming Constellation Program (replacement for the space shuttle) will still use imperial units. newscientist.com/article/… – Ludwig Weinzierl Jun 24 '09 at 19:22
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Americans DO use metric measurements in science, from grade school on. We don't use them for cooking or driving or checking the temperature or measuring how tall and fat we are, but we do use them for science, and we have for a long time. At least since the 1970s. – Nosredna Jun 24 '09 at 20:50
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@Ludwig Weinzierl. That article does a pretty good job of explaining why they won't switch to metric. Money. – Nosredna Jun 24 '09 at 21:04
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Should have used boost::units ! – tragomaskhalos Jun 30 '09 at 14:46
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up vote 21 down vote

Netscape 6.0. It cost them a considerable lead in the browser wars.

Here's Why: "Things You Should Never Do"

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I you did read it, have a look on In Search Of Stupidity - over 20 years of high-tech marketing disasters. Netscape have it's own chapter :) +1. – Sylvain Jun 24 '09 at 19:37
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up vote 15 down vote

I recommend you take a look at thedailywtf.com for numerous articles about software failure. In many cases the stories are true; only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

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Unfortunately, from what I've read, some of the facts are changed to make it funnier. – David Thornley Jun 24 '09 at 20:39
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up vote 11 down vote

The Netscape rewrite.

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up vote 11 down vote

Crystal Reports

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LOL @ CRYSTAL REPORTS! – JonH Oct 27 '09 at 19:50
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up vote 11 down vote

In Britain, the NHS National Programme for IT. It might reach GBP 20 billion, so 30 billion USD.

It's now part of law that every British contractor must work on the project at some point...

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up vote 11 down vote

The worst?... How about the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) nearly causing global thermonuclear destruction after detecting the moon rising over the horizon and erroneously classifying it as an incoming missile attack from Siberia (Chapter 2 "Boardwalks across the Tar Pit" from Mechanizing Proof by Donald MacKenzie).

That's pretty scary $h!t!

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That's no moon! -- Oh wait, nevermind, it is. – kenj0418 Jul 24 '09 at 4:47
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up vote 10 down vote

The worst one is when you are responsible for it.

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I know a satellite engineer who has secret hopes the rocket will blow up so he won't have to worry his little fiddly bit on the satellite will fail. – Nosredna Jun 24 '09 at 20:53
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up vote 8 down vote

How about the Pentium bug- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentium_FDIV_bug

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up vote 8 down vote

One case, more of a classic project failure, closer to the Canadian example mentioned by OP:

AKE (Finnish Vehicle Administration, a public agency) ordered a project to overhaul its information systems in 1999, mainly from the companies TienoEnator (now Tieto) and WM-data (now part of Logica).

It was supposed to be ready 2003, but has been continually postponed. In 2007 it was estimated that it'd be ready 2011. So right now the project has been going on for a decade, and it will be at least 8 years late!

The budget has gone through the roof too: original estimate was 16 million €; actual total costs as of 2009 have been more than 50 million € (~70 million USD), more than 300% cost overrun, so far.

From news articles, it seems like a proper mess of every kind of leadership, coordination and requirements problem: teams with overlapping responsibilities; no-one having an adequate picture of what was actually needed when the project started; the project responsible at AKE having been changed at least 5 times.

So, nothing as spectacular as Mars landers crashing, or people dying because of this (afaik!), but these sort of things are probably among the most common failures in this field. The main consequences: loads of wasted taxpayer money, and screwed reputation for the software/IT industry. :-\

Sources (in Finnish):

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Then again, the companies responsible do have also plenty of other projects in their portfolio with similar success rates. In this sense I would not say the AKE project screwed the reputation of software/IT industry; instead it merely reinforces the already existing image :) – Schedler Jul 22 at 14:28
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Chrysler's infamous Payroll application, that spawned the Extreme programming concept.

Something like 5+ years of development, and it never cut a single check, then had the plug pulled. Chrysler then banned the practice of Extreme Programming.

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Check your facts. "Never cut a single check" is flat wrong (though it only paid 10,000 people out of the 87,000 initially planned), the plug was pulled when the company got bought out (and after a key non-engineering position couldn't be filled), and while there was an announcement that Chrysler had 'de facto' banned XP, they later started using it again. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Joe White Jun 24 '09 at 19:51
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Congrats on your wikipedia skills. – Neil N Jun 24 '09 at 20:04
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up vote 7 down vote

Here's a list of some of the worst:

http://www.wired.com/software/coolapps/news/2005/11/69355

These include the Morris worm, the Kerberos vulnerability, the Therac-25, and the Mariner I space probe failure, among others.

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the soviet pipelines story doesn't sound very plausible IMO – ammoQ Jun 24 '09 at 19:36
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ammoQ is right. The story has no credibility, because there are no facts to support it. There was no pipeline explosion in 1982 - that's a fact. Everything else is one man's words. But I'm sure his book sells good. A bit more on this here: bookscape.co.uk/short_stories/computer_hoaxes.php – Igor Krivokon Jun 24 '09 at 20:11
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up vote 6 down vote

Three people died (and three others horribly injured) due to a small and rare race condition in a medical radiation device.

A really sad story.

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And this one is also the one I was going to post. :-) – Nosredna Jun 24 '09 at 19:25
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up vote 6 down vote

According to The Mythical Man Month, OS/360.

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It was hardly a failure in any way... First it still lives thru z/OS 40 years later, second it sure was late and over budget, but this is just ordinary trouble for software projects, specially that big. – wazoox Jun 24 '09 at 20:00
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up vote 5 down vote

What about the Denver Airport Automated Baggage Handling System? The system's budget was $193 Million dollars of 1994 - and software delays were costing $1 Million dollars a day. According to Scientific American (September 1994), the system consisted of 100 networked computers connected to 5,000 electric eyes, 400 radio receivers and 56 bar-code scanners.

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No, the Denver International Airport (DIA) Baggage Handling System (BHS) is just one cluster in the cluster-frak that was much of the DIA project. The biggest mistakes in the BHS was that they tried to do 8 years of work in 2 years, especially when it was a very new technology (only one airport in Germany had a similar system, and it was a fraction of the size of DIA's). – CodeSlave Jun 29 '09 at 15:29
up vote 5 down vote

How about the Sergeant York gun? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergeant_York_Gun

"Unable to hit drones moving even in a straight line, the tests were later relaxed to hovering ones. The radar proved unable to lock even to this target, as the return was too small. The testers then started adding radar reflectors to the drone to address this "problem", eventually having to add four. Easterbrook, still covering the ongoing debacle, described this as being similar to demonstrating the abilities of a bloodhound by having it find a man standing alone in the middle of an empty parking lot, covered with steaks. The system now tracked the drone, and after firing a lengthy burst of shells the drone was knocked off target."

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In February 1982 the prototype was demonstrated for a group of US and British officers at Fort Bliss, along with members of Congress and other VIPs. When the computer was activated, it immediately started aiming the guns at the review stands, causing several minor injuries as members of the group jumped for cover. – Click Upvote Jun 30 '09 at 19:11
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Windows Vista comes to mind

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can throw in Windows ME for that matter – Cody C Jun 24 '09 at 19:15
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Anyone remember Microsoft BOB? – RobH Jul 2 '09 at 17:29
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@Wahnfrieden: And Vista's server version, Server 2008, seems to have been good, from everything I've heard. I'd call it a series of UI problems, which have likely been fixed in 7. – David Thornley Mar 11 at 17:45
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up vote 4 down vote

The 1985 failure by the IRS to adequately test the new (but overdue and over budget) Sperry Univac system.

The agency sent refunds of tens of thousands of dollars to people who were owed nothing. They failed to send refunds to people who were owed money.

The departments were so backed up that ceiling tiles were removed so that tax returns could be shoved up into the ceiling. Returns (including checks from taxpayers) were flushed down toilets and taken home by employees to be thrown away. All so employees could look like they were keeping up.

In the wake of the fiasco, a new $20 billion plan was put into place to overhaul the system. It was also a fiasco.

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Air Traffic Control System. The US still uses a card-based system designed in the 60's. I know that at least 1 major program to computerize it failed. If the system were computerized correctly, airport congestion would be mitigated

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up vote 3 down vote

Definitely not the worst failure, but probably one of the most stupid...

Microsoft Zune Leap year bug:

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Another payroll I don't think has been mentioned is Wisconsin's payroll system. it has cost $28.4 million so far but they reckon $12 million more is needed.

This HAS to be a software failure imho.

Univ. of Wisconsin's 30-Year-Old Payroll System Needs a $40 Million Fix

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up vote 1 down vote

http://www.ima.umn.edu/~arnold/disasters/disasters.html

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up vote 1 down vote

Microsoft server crash nearly causes 800-plane pile-up http://www.techworld.com/opsys/news/index.cfm?newsid=2275

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up vote 1 down vote

Waste Management suing SAP for $100 million seems like it could be on the list in terms of dollar values on a failed project.

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up vote 1 down vote

Duke Nukem Forever...

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up vote 1 down vote

Goldmine CRM. Without doubt.

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