Tuesday, February 03, 2015

IRS still runs on COBOL. For real.

Chief of the IRS admits his department of the government is hopelessly, hilariously broken.

At a Senate Finance Committee Hearing today, IRS commissioner John Koskinen testified on IRS funding requests for the upcoming fiscal year. Koskinen admitted that the IRS is stuck in the past when it comes to technology:

"Despite more than a decade of upgrades to the agency's core business systems, we still have very old technology running alongside our more modern systems."

Some of this software is so old that it is the same technology being used in 1963, a full 52 years ago:

"In regard to software, we still have applications that were running when John F. Kennedy was President."

In fact, Commissioner Koskinen stated that the IRS still uses a programming language — COBOL — that was considered obsolete 15 years ago. As his testimony stated, it is now difficult to find anyone with expertise in this programming:

"And we continue to use COBOL programming language. COBOL was considered outdated back when I served as Chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion and it is extremely difficult to find IT experts who are versed in this language."

They have software from 1962 running on hardware from the 1980's, is what he means. He has COBOL running on machinery so old the whole thing could be replaced with a PHONE. I seem to recall seeing a couple years ago that the IRS had -finally- phased out punch card machines. Awesome.

Anybody still remember the Millennium Bug? January 1st 2000 at 12:01 AM all these ancient systems were going to hit the end of their 8 bit date address spaces and crash hard. The IRS spent a cubic buttload of money updating all those 1960's technology systems, instead of replacing them as any actual business would. Because they're the government. They don't care how much it costs.

Well that was the 1990's. Its 2015 now. Its been FIFTEEN YEARS since they touched any of this crap, all of which should have been jettisoned in the 1980s and done over properly.

Canadians should not feel smug however, the Canadian government remains the largest purchaser of DEC TK50/TK70 tape drives in North America. They standardized on the DEC VAX system back in the 1980's and are still running them. Just for comparison, the  storage and processing of an entire room full of VAX 11/780s could be handled by an iPad.

The extent of this failure is truly epic.  Except it isn't much on the scale that the Barack Obama administration is failing on. Compared to the Immigration department the IRS is a model of efficiency. I mean, they actually do process tax returns, eventually. The INS doesn't process anything, they just ignore you until you go away. Unless you're an illegal Mexican, then they hand you a Green Card and say "Mi casa et su casa, amigo!"

The Phantom


WiFi Lunchbox Guy said...

As someone who knows nothing-nothing-about COBOL coding, it's not much of a surprise a lot of it is still around, for three big reasons:

a) Money--as in arbitrary dollars and cents--is a fundamental COBOL data type. Java and C*...not so much.
b) The hot new NoSQL data stores...were once known as VSAM files.
c) They had programmers and managers working 9-5 jobs, instead of relying on "superprogrammers" and/or offshore slave labour. Good luck replacing that.

Anonymous said...


COBOL is universally loathed by those who've had to work with it and if you search around you can find lists of "COBOL programmer jokes" from the 1980s.

I know a lot of .gov still runs an IBM VMS environment (for those not familiar, in the 1970s IBM saw UNIX(tm) growing like a vast writhing kudzu plant and said "we can do that too" and made a not-quite-knockoff 32 bit mainframe operating system of their own, just enough like UNIX(tm) to cause confusion; VMS is now largely forgotten except for bits of the security model which they put into a now-forgotten desktop OS called OS/2, from which MicroSoft borrowed--heh heh--much of the Windows NT user account security model).

Anyway, I find this hilarious.

Here's my prediction, for what it's worth: in the name of "budget savings," and also to suck up to the government of India, our wise men in Foggy Bottom are going to outsource the maintenance of these systems to offshoring companies and these jobs are going to end up being done by Habeeb from Bangalore, who is going to get paid two cents a day for his trouble.

Habeeb generally isn't a very good programmer, even though he's got a sheepskin from Rubberstamp U of Hyderabad that says he is, and Habeeb has probably never heard of COBOL because it's not in that dog-eared copy of "Windows 95 for Dummies" in Urdu that was his main classroom reference material. Habeeb no speakee mucha da Engrish. And because Habeeb makes two cents a day, and comes from a culture where behavior we disapprove of and call "bribery" and "corruption" are normal and not morally condemned, the Russian Mafia has already found out that Habeeb can be bribed to give up all the passwords and everything else he knows about any systems he works on for a ten dollar bill--which is the main cause of all these mysterious "sophisticated hacker attacks" on banks and department stores and other online businesses you keep hearing about in the newspapers.

This is going to be hilarious. Make some popcorn--but first close all your bank accounts and put your cash in your mattress.