Scot Paltrow has a new piece out for Portfolio on a Pentagon accounting system that is so antiquated that it is unauditable. This graf perhaps captures it best:

To enter the Indianapolis center is to pass through a time warp, to a place where the most critical software programs date from the dawn of the computer age. They run on old-style I.B.M. mainframes and rely on Cobol, the ancient Sumerian of computer languages. “This was a bunch of systems patched together,” says Greg Bitz, a former director of the center. “I never went home at night without worrying about one of them crashing.” Bitz predicts a crisis as older programmers retire. “Try to find somebody today who knows Cobol,” he says.

Late Update: Who knew so many COBOL programmers read TPM? Here’s a sample of the response, from TPM Reader MP, who is not a programmer per se, but it captures the reaction:

Just a comment re: the DoD COBOL item (I work in the IT industry):

While I have no doubt that the Pentagon’s IT systems and processes are awful, it’s worth noting that the use of IBM mainframes and COBOL for core computing is by no means unique. The primary backend applications of nearly every major business run in these types of environments: think core banking systems, insurance claims processing, shipping logistics applications. As a coworker says, with only mild exaggeration, every “regular” PC and server could blow up one day, and it would be an inconvenience; if every IBM mainframe stopped working, the world would basically shut down.


David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.