Not dead yet: 7 of the oldest federal IT systems still wheezing away

From an IBM Series/1 and floppy drives to COBOL and Assembly languages, old federal systems never die


There are some seriously old IT systems at work in the federal IT arsenal and some that are 56 years old have no real retirement date.

That was one observation from a report issued this week from the federal watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office.

“Agencies reported using several systems that have components that are, in some cases, at least 50 years old. For example, the 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, the 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 GAO stated.

The Office of Management and Budget has begun an initiative to modernize, retire, and replace the federal government's legacy IT systems. As part of this transition, OMB drafted guidance requiring agencies to identify, prioritize, and plan to modernize legacy systems. However, until this policy is finalized and fully executed, the government runs the risk of maintaining systems that have outlived their effectiveness, the GAO stated.

Here is a look at some of the oldest systems in the government’s IT world.

Department of the Treasury

  • System: Individual Master File
  • Age: ~56
  • Function: The authoritative data source for individual taxpayers where accounts are updated, taxes are assessed, and refunds are generated. This investment is written in assembly language code—a low-level computer code that is difficult to write and maintain—and operates on an IBM mainframe.
  • Replacement coming?: No -The agency has general plans to replace this investment, but there is no firm date associated with the transition.

Department of the Treasury

  • System: Business Master File
  • Age: ~56
  • Function: Retains all tax data pertaining to individual business income taxpayers and reflects a continuously updated and current record of each taxpayer’s account. This investment is also written in assembly language code and operates on an IBM mainframe.
  • Replacement coming?: No -the agency has general plans to update this system, but there is no time frame established for this update.

Department of Defense

  • System: Strategic Automated Command and Control System
  • Age: 53
  • Function: Coordinates the operational functions of the United States’ nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts. This system runs on an IBM Series/1 Computer—a 1970s computing system—and uses 8-inch floppy disks.
  • Replacement coming?: Yes -The agency plans to update its data storage solutions, port expansion processors, portable terminals, and desktop terminals by the end of fiscal year 2017.

Department of Veterans Affairs

  • System: Personnel and Accounting Integrated Data
  • Age: 53
  • Function: Automates time and attendance for employees, timekeepers, payroll, and supervisors.
  • It  is written in Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL)—a programming language developed in the 1950s and 1960s—and runs on IBM mainframes.
  • Replacement coming?: Yes -The agency plans to replace it with a project called Human Resources Information System Shared Service Center in 2017.

Department of Veterans Affairs

  • System: Benefits Delivery Network
  • Age: 51
  • Function: Tracks claims filed by veterans for benefits, eligibility, and dates of death. This system is a suite of COBOL mainframe applications.
  • Replacement coming?: No -The agency has general plans to roll capabilities into another system, but there is no firm time frame associated with this transition.

Department of Justice

  • System: Sentry
  • Age: 35
  • Function: Provides information regarding security and custody levels, inmate program and work assignments, and other pertinent information about the inmate population. The system uses COBOL and Java programming languages.
  • Replacement coming?: Yes -The agency plans to update the system through September 2016.

Social Security Administration

  • System: Title II Systems
  • Age: 31
  • Function: Determines retirement benefits eligibility and amounts. The investment is comprised of 162 subsystems, some of which are written in COBOL.
  • Replacement coming?: Yes -The agency has ongoing modernization efforts, including one that is experiencing cost and schedule challenges due to the complexities of the legacy software.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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