Like many other governments, Greensboro, N.C., relied for years on obsolete mainframe technology to handle many agency processes and applications. IT staff knew the clock was ticking on the system, said Larry Kerr, ERP director, so the city hired Gartner to analyze its IT environment in 1998.

Imagine their surprise when analysts told city officials only two people in the entire United States could support their mainframe's operating system.

The consultants recommended the city migrate off the mainframe pronto because so many critical lines of business depended on it.

Greensboro took their advice and began implementing an ERP package, and the last of the old mainframe applications will be gone this year. Although Greensboro is updating its technology, plenty of jurisdictions continue to rely on aging systems for mission-critical functions.

A combination of factors -- such as tight budgets and fear of failure -- prompts some government agencies to hold on to systems well past their prime. Some technology is so obsolete, however, that vendor support is evaporating.

That was the case in Greensboro.

"We finally hit that time when the vendor said, 'No thanks,'" Kerr said. "Our MIS folks had great difficulty getting a one-year contract for the year we're in now -- this calendar year -- so our support plug is going to be pulled at the end of this year."

All of the city's mission-critical systems were on that mainframe, he said, and the only stand-alone systems in the city's infrastructure were operational systems for particular departments.

"The core that drives the whole organization was on that system," he said. "Every one of them were custom-written programs. Every one of them ran on that same operating system. We were extremely dependent on that combination of hardware and software. We were fortunate in the last 10 years of its life it was very, very stable."

Behind the Curtain

Typically the public isn't aware of the archaic nature of some government IT systems. Some of the oldest applications are in drivers' services, vehicle title and registration services, unemployment insurance, and child welfare.

As long as people get their new drivers' licenses in a timely fashion, nobody realizes the data on that shiny new license comes from 20-, 30-, and in some cases, 40-year-old mainframes.

According to the Center For Digital Government's Integrated Registry: Motor Vehicles, a 2003 survey of 33 states and three provinces of Canada, Indiana relies on a 43-year-old system to process drivers' services information (its last major enhancement was in 1999); Louisiana's system is 34 years old (a major enhancement is in progress); and three other states' systems are 33 years old.

The average drivers' services system in states surveyed is 19 years old, according to the center's research.

On the vehicle title and registration side, according to the same survey, California is using a 38-year-old system (last major upgrade in 2000); Missouri's is 35 years old (last major enhancement in 2003); and three other states are using 33-year-old systems.

The average age of vehicle title and registration systems in states surveyed is 18 years, the center's research found.

While the numbers are close, the majority of states surveyed are planning major enhancements to their drivers' services systems rather than system replacements. Yet for vehicle title and registration systems, the opposite is true -- more replacements are planned than enhancements.

State and local governments may not be eager to publicize the gory details of the old, and potentially cranky, IT system processing such things as driver's license information or unemployment insurance claims. This isn't to say CIOs or IT managers have their heads in the sand -- if a system goes down, everybody knows there will be hell to pay -- but the systems work well

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor