IRS Linux move delayed by lingering Oracle Solaris systems

A recent Treasury audit report revealed an IRS IT move from Solaris to Linux was delayed due to gross incompetence.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

The enterprise server market belongs to Linux now. Clouds, web-servers, you name it, Linux runs it. One of the biggest reasons for this remains that Linux is cheaper than the alternatives. But that doesn't mean Linux has all its way when fighting against legacy systems. Take, for example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Wanting to save money, the IRS set up a migration plan in 2014 to move 1,400 databases and 190 applications designed to operate on Oracle Sparc servers running Solaris Unix to IBM mainframes running zLinux. According to the Department of Treasury auditors, the "IRS made a decision to consolidate platforms and migrate applications to Linux-based operating systems."
In theory, two-thirds of applications and databases were supposed to have been moved by December 2016… in theory.

Also: IRS failed to apply consumer protections for 11,406 taxpayers

In reality, only eight of the applications were successfully moved to Linux by February 2018. A Treasury Department audit found that more than a third of the projects hadn't even started on their migration path.

Why had things gone so wrong? The auditors found gross incompetence. Specifically, "The Linux Migration Project operated without governance that was specific to its operations. The inadequate governance contributed to the project delays. For example, the business case did not include key factors such as the time required to train employees on how to set up and support a Linux environment. Prior to implementation, the IRS did not develop an initial project plan, or conduct upfront assessments and technical analysis on the applications and databases that were to be migrated."

This isn't the first, or last time, the IRS has been found guilty of botching its IT work. For example, the IRS Individual Master File (IMF) is the master US citizen's individual tax records. It includes the data on how much money you owe to the federal government, your refunds, and your tax penalties. And the IMF runs on assembler code, which dates back to the 1960s.

It's scheduled to be replaced by 2022 with more modern software. But the IRS has been missing these deadlines for years, so I wouldn't count on it.

Must read

As for moving from Solaris to Linux, the IRS has agreed with the auditors requests to put the Linux Migration Project under a proper governance board and include a reasonable plan for procuring hardware, services, and support with realistic timelines.

The auditors missed two reasons why this migration has gone so wrong: Politics and funding. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va) told NextGov, a federal technology news publication, "Since Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 2010, their partisan attacks have left the IRS with nearly 10,000 fewer customer service representatives to assist taxpayers and a patchwork of IT systems, some dating back to the Kennedy Administration, which is ultimately harming all taxpayers."

Or, as IRS CTO Terence Milholland told Congress in 2016, "The situation is analogous to operating a 1960s automobile with the original chassis, two suspension and drivetrain, but with a more modern engine, satellite radio, and a GPS navigation system. It runs better than the original model but not nearly as efficiently as a system bought today."

More recently, Nina Olson, the IRS national taxpayer advocate, told Congress, "Since FY 2010, the IRS budget has been reduced by 20 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis, and the IRS workforce has declined by about the same percentage. These reductions have led to significant cuts in taxpayer service levels and have prevented the IRS from deploying new technology that would improve the taxpayer experience."

Linux could improve technology and save funding, but to save money, first you have to spend money. If, and only if, the IRS can modernize its systems can Linux show what it can do for both the agency and the American taxpayer.

Linux survival guide: These 21 applications let you move easily between Linux and Windows

Related Stories:

Editorial standards