Some federal government systems have passed half-century mark

Cloud and shared IT services are being pushed as a way to bring some government agencies out of the 1950s.

If you think your systems are outdated, just look at what folks working for Uncle Sam are dealing with. Some federal agencies have systems and software that is almost 60 years old, with no signs that it will be updated anytime soon.

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

It's enough of a challenge to upgrade a system that's five or ten years old. Imagine keeping a system going that your grandparents may have been designed and operated.

Having a system that's more than five years old often sucks up valuable IT funding that could be devoted to innovation. Imagine how much in operating funds and time a 50-year-old computer consumes. As a result of these outdated systems, spending on maintenance is increasing, while spending on modernization and enhancement is actually on the decline.That's the takeaway from a recent GAO review of OMB and 26 agencies' IT operations and maintenance spending for fiscal years 2010 through 2017.

The federal government spent about 75 percent of the total amount budgeted for IT for fiscal year 2015 on operations and maintenance investments. Of the more than $80 billion that the 26 agencies spent in fiscal 2015 on IT, about $61 billion went to O&M. Such spending has increased over the past seven fiscal years, which has resulted in a $7.3 billion decline in development, modernization, and enhancement activities.

"Federal legacy IT investments are becoming increasingly obsolete: many use outdated software languages and hardware parts that are unsupported," the report states. Agencies reported using several systems that have components that are, in some cases, at least 50 years old. "For example, Department of Defense uses 8-inch floppy disks in a legacy system that coordinates the operational functions of the nation's nuclear forces. In addition, Department of the Treasury uses assembly language code--a computer language initially used in the 1950s and typically tied to the hardware for which it was developed," the report's authors add.

GAO is urging the Office of Management and Budget, the administrative overseer of federal offices, to document what systems are at-risk and obsolete, and formulate modernization goals.

The oldest systems are found in the US.Department of the Treasury, which runs systems that are estimated to be an average of 56 years old -- such as the individual master file, the data source for individual taxpayers where accounts are updated, taxes are assessed, and refunds are generated. This investment is written in assembly language code and operates on an IBM mainframe, GAO reports. "The agency has general plans to replace this investment, but there is no firm date associated with the transition," the report adds.

Other agencies are slowly moving ahead. The Social Security Administration, for example, is in the process of modernizing its COBOL-based subsystems running retirement benefits eligibility and amounts. However, the agency is encountering "cost and schedule challenges due to the complexities of the legacy software."

What about the aggressive cloud and shared services initiatives the federal government has launched within the past five years? What about the "Cloud-First" directive? OMB has identified a performance metric to measure the percent of IT spending on non-provisioned IT spending, GAO says. "However, it has not identified an associated goal with this measure. Until it does so, OMB and agencies will be constrained in their ability to evaluate their progress in adopting cloud and shared services."

Specifically, 5,233 of the government's approximately 7,000 IT investments are spending all of their funds on O&M activities. Moreover, OMB has directed agencies to identify O&M expenditures known as non-provisioned services that do not use solutions often viewed as more efficient, such as cloud computing and shared services. Agencies reported planned spending of nearly $55 billion on such non-provisioned IT in fiscal year 2015. OMB's "Federal IT Shared Services Strategy," launched in 2012, requires agencies to use shared services--IT functions that are provided for consumption by multiple organizations within or between federal agencies--for IT service delivery in order to increase return on investment, eliminate waste and duplication, and improve the effectiveness of IT solutions. "Examples of commodity IT areas to consider migrating to a shared environment, as described in the strategy, include software licenses, e-mail systems, and human resource systems."

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