Lawmaker: Agencies Don’t Need Billions in New Funding to Upgrade Legacy IT

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas Andrew Harnik/AP

Agencies should repurpose savings from data center consolidation, says Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s IT operations subcommittee.

The chairman of a House panel with oversight of federal IT issues, has a message for U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott: You may not be getting that $3 billion IT modernization fund you’ve been asking for.

During a hearing Wednesday on how federal CIOs are implementing federal IT reform, Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, said agencies could save billions by continuing to close down and consolidate data centers -- and they should plow those savings into upgrading aging tech.

“For those advocating for billions of additional funding to help modernize IT, I would suggest that savings from data center consolidation might be a better place to look than a new appropriation," Hurd said, in an apparent reference to the White House push on Capitol Hill for a multibillion-dollar revolving fund for IT.

Earlier this year, Hurd, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform’s IT operations subcommittee, hadn’t yet made up his mind about the administration proposal. In February, he told FCW the IT upgrade fund “could be an important tool,” although he stressed agencies should be replacing aging systems using regular annual funding as well.

The IT subcommittee met this week to release updated scorecards showing agency progress implementing the Federal Information Technology and Acquisition Reform Act. The scorecard measured a number of areas, including agencies’ efforts to shutter data centers.

» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.

Just how much could agencies save by closing down energy-guzzling data centers?

The Government Accountability Office, which says agencies have been consistently undercounting savings, reports the government is on track to save as much as $8.1 billion through 2019 by unplugging some of its 11,000 data centers. Since 2011, agencies have saved about $2.8 billion.

Steve Cooper, CIO of the Commerce Department, said his agency has redirected savings reaped from data center consolidation to replace some outdated IT systems.  

"We are working as rapidly and as effectively as we can -- quality with speed -- to replace those legacy systems,” Cooper testified. “But because, in most cases, we can't find readily available commercial off-the-shelf software, we still have to build it.”

A profusion of old equipment and software bedevils even agencies that have otherwise been noted for their strong IT management.

Commerce, for example, received the highest grade -- a B -- on the committee's recent scorecard. Yet, it still has 114 million lines of Fortran code -- originally developed for 1950s-era IBM mainframe computers -- powering some of its systems. In addition, Commerce has 37 systems using operating systems no longer supported by the vendor, lawmakers revealed at the hearing.

Dawn Leaf, CIO of the Labor Department, said her agency has resorted to buying replacement parts for some old equipment on eBay, although Labor has since replaced those servers.

Labor earned a C grade on the scorecard, which Leaf blamed in part on “decades of information technology underinvestment and the fragile state” of the agency’s IT infrastructure.

In addition to being at risk for simple system failure, outmoded IT is also a cybersecurity concern, lawmakers and administration officials agree.

At Commerce, officials have to “quarantine” some old systems the agency is no longer able to properly patch.

“We're doing that specifically to prevent cyber risk in the spread of something coming in through a vulnerability in those legacy systems,” Cooper testified. “We're trying to quarantine it, so that we can shut it off and it won't then propagate across our networks or across other applications."

The oversight committee, which has been probing agencies’ use of antiquated tech for months is set to hold a hearing next week on the topic. The title of the hearing is “Federal Agencies’ Reliance on Outdated and Unsupported Information Technology: A Ticking Time Bomb.”