Federal Agencies’ Problem with Ancient Tech


The federal government spends the majority of its technology budget maintaining ancient platforms, including ones that still require floppy disks, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“Specifically, 5,233 of the government’s approximately 7,000 IT investments are spending all of their funds on O&M (operations and maintenance) activities,” read the summary of the report. “Federal legacy IT investments are becoming increasingly obsolete.”

How obsolete? The Department of Defense continues to use 8-inch floppy disks—for a system that coordinates “operational functions of the nation’s nuclear forces.” The Department of the Treasury and the Department of Veterans Affairs still rely on mainframes to carry out key functions, while the Social Security Administration and the Department of Justice maintain a snarl of subsystems written in COBOL, an ancient language (it was developed in the 1950s) that many businesses have stopped using.

As a consequence of its enormous size, the federal government is famously slow to adopt new technologies. That being said, it certainly has the budget to do so—provided it can source the technical know-how necessary to leap to new platforms. There’s also the small matter of new technologies following federal guidelines for security and record keeping, which can prove difficult for many types of commercial software to meet.

A few years ago, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a “cloud first” strategy for federal agencies, with an eye toward alleviating the need for aging infrastructure. While some agencies are migrating some or all of their systems to the cloud—for example, Amazon and IBM fought a bitter battle for the rights to build a private cloud for the CIA—others remain locked in legacy systems.

The report blames that lock-in on a systemic refusal to analyze underlying technology problems. Many agencies “did not assess their investments, which accounted for $7.4 billion in reported O&M spending,” the report added. “Agency officials cited several reasons for not doing so, including relying on budget submission and related management reviews that measure performance.” Budget and performance reviews, the OMB noted, are not a substitute for an analysis of the tech stack.

For those interested, the report offers a very detailed look into how agencies spend their technology budgets. If you’re involved in any way in government tech—or it’s an area you’re interested in serving as a contractor—the whole thing is well worth a read. And if you work in the private sector, the report will at least make you glad about one thing: no matter how outdated your business systems, you probably don’t need to rely on 8-inch floppy disks.

One Response to “Federal Agencies’ Problem with Ancient Tech”

  1. Steve

    I believe that banks, airlines, and other concerns with truly enormous databases also use mainframes. The code written for those systems is solid, well tested, and proven – unlike a lot of the stuff that less-disciplined people throw together today that lack decent security and are not tested adequately beforre turning loose on unspecting customers.