One of the most frequent topics of conversation among government IT leaders today is how to manage legacy systems at a time when the pressure to modernize is at an all time high but budgets remain tight. But what exactly is a legacy system, and why are they creating such problems in the federal government?
Simply put, a legacy system is one that is outdated. The term “system” can refer to computer systems, programming languages, application software, or any platform or infrastructure that is used instead of an upgraded version. As federal CIO Tony Scott pointed out in an interview late last year, for federal government agencies, it’s not that systems are just a few years out of date; it’s that they’re trying to operate with “decades-old systems.” In fact, he’s often referred to the impact of legacy systems on the federal government as a problem that is “bigger than Y2K.”
While the most commonly referenced issues with legacy systems have to do with compatibility, interoperability, and security, most government legacy systems are at high risk of failure because of an inability to handle the demands of how agencies are now using IT to drive and deliver on the mission.
At the root of the continued operations of legacy is clearly a financial issue. With budgets already tight, and with 80 percent of IT spend directed towards maintenance, there’s virtually no opportunity to invest at the level required to completely overhaul a legacy system. There is a bit of hope on the horizon, however, with news that the White House is continuing to push Congress on the IT Modernization Fund (ITMF). Despite the fact that the funding was stripped from the 2017 federal budget a few weeks ago, the “White House is preparing to send Congress new legislation that dives further into the revolving $3.1 billion IT modernization fund.”
However, as Tony Scott has pointed out, while there needs to be budget to facilitate modernization, there also needs to be a plan to move agencies off legacy architectures. So, what are the essential steps to planning a comprehensive modernization effort? FITARA is obviously a key part of the process, but before agencies dive into procurement there are some questions that should be asked.
Here are our essential questions to ask:
- Do you know what’s in your IT portfolio? With portfolio management tools, your team can assess the current portfolio, align IT portfolios to business strategy and mission, expose current and future dependencies, provide stakeholders with collaborative planning tools, and allow budget to be targeted to areas where it’s most needed.
- Can you leverage elements of your existing infrastructure and reduce total cost of ownership? While no agency will escape the need to upgrade infrastructure, do all parts of your current infrastructure need to be upgraded right now? Can the oldest or most outdated elements of your system be replaced and functional systems connected together, rather than facing a wholesale rip and replace? If you think the answer might be yes, it’s worth exploring integration technologies.
- Are you able to reconfigure current systems to handle more capacity? One of the greatest challenges facing federal agencies in mission delivery is coping with the massive increase in the amount of data traveling across networks, both within the agency and from citizen-generated demand from website and app use. But with In-Memory Computing big data is no longer a big problem and instead becomes a way to make agency IT highly efficient.
- Do you need to reduce the risk of modernization? Consider connecting your existing applications into a digital business platform that will guarantee all of your data can be easily shared across the enterprise. Then, look for rapid application development tools that can expedite the automation of manual processes ideally with built in “on-ramps” to your digital business platform. Finally, start small. Find a prototype application project that will allow your agency to highlight a successful agile implementation. Regardless of your experience with a given vendor, have them prototype and prove out their solutions in your environment first. Never buy in to PowerPoint-based promises of success – always prove it first. This will help any agency minimize the risks associated with their efforts.