IT modernization still vexes many agencies

Sources say budget constraints make modernization difficult

The process of modernizing legacy IT applications remains an ongoing problem for the federal government, and senior IT managers say outdated applications could put agency missions at risk, according to a study released today.

Meanwhile, observers said modernizing legacy IT applications at agencies is a significant undertaking that can't succeed without proper leadership or funding, which will be difficult to achieve in a time of constrained budgets.

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Common obstacles to updating legacy applications include the systems' inability to interoperate with other systems, the use of language or code that is outdated and difficult to understand, and the tendency of the modernization process to take years, according to sources. 

The new study by MeriTalk and the Unisys Center for Innovation in Government highlighted similar problems. The study was based on a survey of 166 chief and senior level IT managers and examined the state of application modernization in the federal government.

Application modernization, for the purpose of the study, was defined as “a range of IT activities that transforms core applications into modern and flexible business applications and processes that increase alignment between the applications that run an organization and the goals of the organization.”

The study found that agencies spend almost half of their annual federal IT budgets, an estimated $35.7 billion, on supporting legacy applications and that about 47 percent of the government’s existing IT applications are based on legacy technology that needs modernization.

However, only a third of respondents indicated that application modernization is a priority at their agency. And four out of five IT executives said mission-critical capabilities will be threatened if their agency doesn't modernize legacy applications.

Also, half the respondents said their agencies are still in the planning phase of modernizing legacy applications. The study also said a lack of communication between senior IT leadership and their teams presents a major problem for modernization programs.

The study also offered recommendations on how agencies can make progress on application modernization, such as starting an asset reuse strategy, using a service-oriented approach to spur innovation and continuous improvement and developing a modernization blueprint with near-term goals.

Those who conducted the study said it should serve as a call to action.

The study "helps identify that the current process for modernizing applications is broken,” said Peter Gallagher, a partner at Unisys Federal Systems. “It’s not sustainable.”

Phil Murphy, a principal analyst at Forrester Researcher, said funding vehicles for the government are subject to the whims of the current administration and are influenced by politics.

He said the longer an IT system has been around, the harder it is to break apart and add new technology, and he said changes in administration can contribute to delays in modernization.

“The turnover at the top of the hierarchy command contributes to the way information systems are pieced together and not flowing from a grand design,” Murphy said.

Trey Hodgkins, vice president of national security and procurement policy for TechAmerica, said some IT systems contain critical data and the government is apprehensive about causing hiccups by updating them.

“What has happened to some systems is, well, it’s out of date, but it’s functioning and it’s critical, so we’re going to leave it alone for now,” he said.

However, some sources said more agencies are moving operations to the cloud, as recently called for by the Office of Management and Budget, and that eventually systems will have to be updated because the technology needed to maintain them will no longer be around.


About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.

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Reader comments

Tue, Dec 22, 2015 Mona Singleton

Budgets shortfalls are often the cause of nixing modernization efforts. A good practice for IT and program managers is to make a compelling business case to executive leaders outlining why it's critical to modernize. Highlight the benefits of modernization such as cost savings or cost avoidance advantages, risk mitigation, business continuity and other important factors. It's critical for leaders to understand the true cost of limping along on legacy applications and the real risk the application will fail or become unsupported. The bottom line... Do some advance home work and at least conduct a modernization study so that you have viable options and cost estimates identified even if there isn't immediate approval to upgrade. It's help to have a plan in hand. Funding and plan execution are other matters!

Wed, Jan 12, 2011 Lawrence Fitzpatrick US

This article is important and timely. The most recent issue of Cutter IT Journal is focused on this very issue and contains eight insightful papers on the subject ( In full disclosure, one of them is mine, which outlines ten best practices based on a decade of successful delivery of a number of complex modernizations (

The approaches taken by the larger federal modernization programs, with which I am familiar, violate routinely most best practices. It's time to recognize that there are methodologies that ensure success, and that there are practitioners steeped in these methodologies.

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