Our government computer systems are so old they crash when Americans try to file their taxes. Worried about North Korea? Worry more about the senile machines launching our missiles. Houston we have a problem.
AI will take our jobs. Google and Facebook will take our privacy. Ya-da, ya-da, ya-da! It’s time for a little perspective. While we are all waiting for the rise of the machines how about at least having them provide some of the basic functions of government. I don’t like paying taxes anymore than the next person, but when the IRS has to extend the filing deadline because its computers broke, I think it’s time to take notice. In fact, if the hairs on the back of your neck did not stand up when this was announced you’re missing a key and scary piece of our modern life – the systems all around us are old and fragile.
The pundits and the press love to alternately dazzle or terrify us with the wonders of today’s and tomorrow’s technology. No doubt about it. The devices and applications we use today would seem like sci-fi some years ago and more like magic a few years before that. But the computer age is 70 years old and with it comes a long tail of legacy systems upon which we still depend.
This stuff is so old that the people who created it are long gone and the few and fewer who understand it are disappearing, too. Sure the government is notorious for being behind when it comes to the everyday IT stuff. But they are just the most public. There is a good chance parts of your insurance, banking and investments sit on similar legacy systems. Do you think these commercial institutions would disclose that and risk losing customers?
Most of these are written in the ancient computer language of COBOL (circa 1957). According to Gartner, COBOL apps comprise 60% to 80% of all business applications worldwide (and 90% of financial transactions). The world is not what you think it is. Just look behind the curtain and you’ll see incredibly old code still running. A couple of years ago the Government Accounting Office (GAO) surveyed the oldest systems in the government. Here’s the list. Read it and weep. (Don’t worry despite the fact that the list is two years old, nothing has changed.)
I particularly “like” No. 3: “Strategic Automated Command and Control System”. Developed in 1953 it is just what you think a scary title like that would be. The system coordinates U.S. nuclear forces! It runs on 1970s-era IBM computer systems and uses 8-inch floppy disks. (The storage capacity of these is so small that this blog post alone would need ten of them.)
Think about it. We have a 65-year-old computer system coordinating the delivery of nuclear weapons by 63-year-old B-52’s and 48-year-old Minuteman III missiles. You just can’t make this kind of nightmare scenario up. Calling Doctor Strangelove! Calling Doctor Strangelove!
What can be done about this? Well, I’ve got bad news and good news. First, the bad: when it comes to the government and information technology we are truly screwed. It’s the demographics and the acquisition process that are killing us. OPM reports that for every Federal IT worker under 30 years old, there are 4.5 are over 60. These folks came up in the days of mainframes.
Remember the Cloud (our latest computing platform) is only ten years old. Sadly, today’s government IT folks struggle with this new paradigm and the Feds cannot recruit the new talent needed to take us into a new age. Couple that with a Federal acquisition process that virtually assures you’ll get yesterday’s technology, tomorrow (See: Healthcare.gov, VA’s VISTA modernization, IRS modernization, etc.) and we’re doomed.
OK, how about some good news. In the commercial world there is some hope. According to a 2016 Gartner report, “structured data archiving technologies help IT leaders retire legacy applications, reduce capital and operating expenses, and meet governance and compliance requirements.” In the report, Gartner estimates that “the size of the structured data archiving and application retirement market is $287 million and growing at a compound annual growth rate of 10%.”
Importantly, Gartner notes “the market, which started as a cost containment measure for data growth in active applications, has largely transitioned to a vehicle for application retirement as the primary use case”(emphasis mine). So, even in the commercial world with the heat of competition the pace is modest.
Just for grins here is a test. Take a look at all the systems you interact with at work, school, or where ever. How many are old? Don’t be fooled by a fancy/colorful user interface that may have been slapped on a few years ago. That is the proverbial lipstick on a pig. I’ll bet you’ll be shocked at what you find.
By John Pientka