Government IT managers say their systems are still stuck in the 1990s

Survey finds the vast majority of U.S. federal IT managers feel their systems are not capable of meeting the challenges ahead.

What an incredible $80-billion-a-year technology behemoth the federal government is. Much of it still runs on systems first built in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. There are so many systems and networks that it's even still unclear how many data centers it runs. As fellow ZDNet contributor David Chernicoff recently observed in DatacenterDynamics, a recent audit found the federal government maintains up to 11,500 data centers, or 2,000 more than originally thought -- despite a concerted effort, announced with great fanfare a few years back, to cut the number in half.

Photo: Joe McKendrick

The federal government's cloud-first policy and FedRAMP program also seems to have barely made a dent in the mess. A recent review of the cloud services offered return so-so reviews, especially in terms of sufficiency and consistency.

In fact, things just seem to be getting more complicated: more than nine in 10 U.S. government agency managers say they are still saddled by legacy applications -- increasing the vulnerability of government databases to security breaches, as well as making for slow responsiveness.

That's the gist of a recent survey of 150 federal managers conducted by MeriTalk, a public-private government IT partnership, and Accenture Federal Services. In the survey, 92 percent of the agency managers say it's urgent for their agency to modernize legacy applications. This urgency comes from managers' fears of security breaches (52 percent), performance drags (47 percent), and increased downtime and service disruptions (40 percent).

Legacy applications are having trouble keeping up with agency needs, and it's only going to get more difficult with time. Just under half of the federal IT managers (48 percent) believe their legacy applications are completely capable of meeting their mission needs today. What's more, significantly fewer, 32 percent, think they will be able to deliver five years from now. A majority, 62 percent, say if they do not modernize their legacy applications, mission-critical capabilities will be threatened.

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Despite the urgent need for modernization, a little more than half (53 percent) of agencies have a formal application modernization strategy, and just one in four (28 percent) have developed a business case around renewing or replacing existing applications.

In addition, the survey discovered that agencies are delaying the process to modernize for a variety of reasons, citing delays are primarily due to risks (42 percent), failure to execute (34 percent), and the overwhelming amount of options (20 percent).

Not all is gloom and doom in federal data centers, however. On average, government IT managers estimate that 55 percent of their current legacy applications could be successfully modernized using solutions like re-platforming the existing application (72 percent), leveraging architecture-driven modernization (69 percent), and remediating the existing application to extend its useful life (65 percent).

David Hantman, general manager for MeriTalk, remains upbeat about the potential for bringing government systems into the 21st century: "The federal government is running legacy systems from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, which many feds find outdated, inefficient, and difficult to fix," he says. "However, if they take a deeper look into their legacy applications, they will realize that implementing the right modernization strategy can truly uncover unrealized potential."

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