Trump Said Government Has One 40-Year-Old IT System. It Actually Has At Least 10.

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The federal sector's technology problem is worse than the president's thinks.

In a meeting with prominent business executives Tuesday, President Donald Trump lamented the poor state of federal IT, telling CEOs, “We have a computer system in this country that’s 40 years old.”

Actually, Mr. President, we have at least 10 such systems—and they’re critical to U.S. civilian and military operations.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal is coordinated by the 54-year-old Strategic Automated Command and Control System, run on 1970s-era IBM mainframes that still use 8-inch floppy disks. President John F. Kennedy held your position when these systems were designed.

If that’s a scary thought, here’s something even more sobering: Two of the Treasury Department’s tax systems are even older. Collectively, the 57-year-old Individual Master File and Individual Business File house tax data for more than 100 million Americans, and they’re running on “low-level computer code” that predate the NASA moon landing by a decade.

Your promise to improve veteran care is an important one, but it won’t be easy. The Veterans Affairs Department's back-end system for tracking benefit claims is 52 years old, and its time-and-attendance tracking software will turn 54 this year.

Here’s a list of the 10 oldest critical IT systems in government, based on research from Congress and the Government Accountability Office, originally reported by Nextgov's Jack Moore:

1

Agency: Treasury Department/Internal Revenue Service
System: Business Master File
Reported age: Approximately 57 years old
What is it? The massive application that receives taxpayer data and dispenses refunds. “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,” GAO notes.

2

Agency: Treasury Department/Internal Revenue Service
System: Individual Business File
Reported age: Approximately 57 years old
What is it? The companion system that maintains data on business income. The system also runs on assembly language code and operates on an IBM mainframe.

3

Agency: Defense Department
System: Strategic Automated Command and Control System
Reported age: 54 years old
What is it? The system coordinates U.S. nuclear forces. It runs on 1970s-era IBM computer systems and uses 8-inch floppy disks. Each disk holds 80 kilobytes of data—meaning it would take more than 3.2 million floppy disks to equal the storage power of a “single modern flash drive,” GAO noted. The good news? The Pentagon is planning for upgrades, including updated data storage and desktop terminals by the end of 2017.

4

Agency: Veterans Affairs Department
System: Personnel and Accounting Integrated Data
Reported age: 54 years old
What is it? An automated time-and-attendance tracker. It runs on COBOL—the 1950s computer programming language—and on IBM mainframe computers. VA plans to replace it with an HR shared services platform in 2017.

5

Agency: Defense Department
System: COMPASS
Reported age: 53 years old
What is it? The Computerized Movement Planning and Status System is used to help determine when Army equipment should be removed, replaced, replaced or discarded. The system currently runs on a Windows 2008 server and uses a 2009 Oracle 11g database.

6

Agency: Veterans Affairs Department
System: Benefits Delivery Network
Reported age: 52 years old
What is it? The system, which currently operates as a suite of COBOL mainframe applications, is used by the agency to track benefit claims filed by veterans. VA has “general plans” to transition these capabilities into a new system but still lacks a firm date for the switch, according to GAO.

7

Agency: Transportation Department
System: Hazardous Materials Information System
Reported age: 47 years old
What is it? The system is used to track incidents involving hazardous materials. The system uses Classic Active Server Pages and the Microsoft.NET software framework—both late 1990s innovations—that have “become outdated and costly to maintain,” GAO reports. Transportation says all legacy components within the system are scheduled to be replaced by 2018.

8

Agency: Commerce Department/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
System: National Weather Service Dissemination Systems
Reported age: 47 years old
What is it? The investment is made up of three different systems used to provide warnings about severe weather to the public and emergency managers. They run on a number of different operating systems and software, including Windows Server 2003, which the company no longers supports. Some of the systems are powered by Fortran, the programming language originally developed in the 1950s. NOAA doesn’t have any plans for a major overhaul, instead opting for continuous updates to system components, GAO said.

9

Agency: Commerce Department/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
System: National Data Buoy Center Ocean Observing System of Systems
Reported age: 47 years old
What is it? These systems—NOAA’s “eyes on the oceans”—provide continuously updated ocean data to observe trends in sea-level heights and to forecast hazards, such as tsunamis. They run on both Windows and Linux operating systems, including an unsupported version of Microsoft server software.

10

Agency: Homeland Security Department/Immigration and Customs Enforcement
System: Hiring Tracking Systems
Reported age: 40 years old
What is it? The system, which is used to track hiring decisions at the agency, functions using COBOL and is run on a 2008 IBM z10 mainframe. The agency plans to replace the mainframe with a service-oriented architecture beginning this year—if the agency receives enough funding, GAO noted.

The point is, the government’s technology problem is worse than you think. Approximately 80 percent of the $90 billion federal IT budget goes toward outdated, legacy IT systems, leaving little cash for the development of new technologies commonplace in the private sector.

Your newly created Office of American Innovation would be wise to reach out for solutions to both industry and Congress, as improving the way government buys and runs IT is one of the few things both political parties agree on at the moment. Bipartisan legislation that would have addressed the government’s tech challenges called the Modernizing Government Technology Act passed the House last September, but stalled in the Senate during the lame-duck session.

Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the name of the Business Master File.

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Democratic counterparts including Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., are expected to put forth similar legislation in the coming weeks. These glaring examples of the outdated technology that underpin federal systems highlight the problem, but the pieces are also in place for you to lead the way in fixing them.  

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