Haiyan Sui, Director of Engineering, Growth, and Strategy at Nava PBC
The Federal Aviation Administration system outage speaks to a larger problem—government agencies must continue prioritizing cloud modernization for their technology systems.
In January, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all domestic flights for 90 minutes due to a software problem. 11,000 flights were delayed, impacting countless passengers, flight crew members, and airline personnel, many heading home from their holiday travel. The error came down to a failure within the federal IT systems’ 30-year-old mainframe, Notices to Air Missions (NOTAM), brutally illustrating what can go wrong when federal technology fails.
A preliminary review of the failure revealed that a contractor accidentally deleted files while trying to sync a live, primary database with a backup database for the NOTAM system. The FAA has since ceased to work with the contractor responsible and it has introduced a one-hour delay for database synchronization, which should prevent similar outages in the future.
Meanwhile, the FAA is four-years-deep into a NOTAM system modernization effort that’s set to extend into 2030. This year, the FAA plans to spend more than $2.7 billion to maintain legacy systems and modernize and migrate legacy tech to the cloud.
It’s no surprise that such a highly visible incident would receive extensive news coverage. And as a result, the House passed a bill to study the NOTAM system, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is urging faster and more holistic modernization of the FAA's systems.
Though these measures are essential, it shouldn’t have to take a nationwide crisis to spur modernization of government technology. In fact, the FAA had been sounding alarms about its aging infrastructure before the outage occurred. In its 2023 budget request, the FAA wrote that modernization would “address issues with failing ‘vintage’ hardware and software modules associated with [the NOTAM system].” This speaks to civil servants’ tenacity—within the FAA and nearly every other government agency—to provide excellent services despite technological challenges.
At Nava, we believe that every government service deserves the attention the FAA is currently receiving, but without an emergency to catalyze it. By using a human-centered approach to build modular technology, government agencies can prevent outages like that of the NOTAM system, and they can be more responsive and adaptable in the face of a crisis.
Migrating CMS’s legacy technology to the cloud
As of 2020, the healthcare industry was the largest U.S. employer, and in 2021, health spending accounted for 18 percent of the nation’s GDP. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) operate at the core of the healthcare industry, providing essential services to roughly 140 million people. CMS has effectively run its technology ecosystem for decades. But in the event of an outage like with the FAA, the effects would be seismic. Luckily, CMS has been working to shift their technology ecosystem away from older, traditional data centers to the cloud.
In 2018, CMS made the strategic decision to transition away from traditional mainframe systems that can’t scale to meet increasing demands in our modern era. CMS’s system is powered by millions of lines of code in the programming language COBOL, yet few developers fluent in this language remain in today’s workforce. CMS is well underway tackling this by continuing to convert its code away from COBOL.
While over a hundred applications already run on CMS Cloud, the agency and countless vendors, including Nava, continue to migrate more applications, services, and other workloads to the cloud platform. This transition offers CMS application teams compliant, adaptable, cost effective, and highly secure ways of managing applications and data.
While traditional data centers are limited in their capacity for responsive change, cloud allows CMS teams to react and quickly pivot technology for the unexpected, such as a mass of new claimants triggered by a global pandemic.
By providing a modern cloud platform, CMS creates opportunities for more nimble teams that are able to compete for government work and produce better outcomes. Easing these early stage processes is foundational to building a CMS technology ecosystem set up to handle a rapidly changing world with increasingly complex needs, including crises or shocks to the system.
Building a cloud-native program in Massachusetts
While it’s crucial to migrate legacy technologies to the cloud, it’s equally as important to build cloud-native digital services. That’s why we helped the Commonwealth of Massachusetts build its brand new Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) program—the first digital-native paid family and medical leave system in the country—on the cloud.
Our work is supporting Massachusetts’ cloud adoption efforts by delivering solutions that follow modern software practices. Taking advantage of cloud services provides scalability, efficiency, and security to a service that supports an estimated more than 150,000 claims annually.
We ensure stable operations through our DevSecOps approach, which uses automation to build security and best practices into the deployment process, in turn enabling frequent and stable deployments, high-availability, and compliance. This means that PFML applicants can trust that the services will be there for them whenever they are needed.
Through user research and an agile approach, we were able to build Massachusetts’ PFML program in just 13 months. Since we launched in Jan. 2021, the program has paid out more than $1 billion in benefits. But perhaps more importantly, building the program on the cloud has guaranteed its longevity in the face of unexpected events.
It’s time for holistic modernization
Though efforts to prevent future NOTAM system outages are valiant, without significant investment in systemic change from the federal government, they’re only a Band-Aid.
"The broader context is aging systems and growing demand. I don't want this to be 'whack-a-mole' where we figured out one flavor of problem on one system...only to face another one later on." Buttigieg said of the FAA's systems. “What we really need to do is pick up the pace on FAA's wholesale system modernization—all the way down to the backbone of how the data moves."
The FAA isn’t the only government agency grappling with outdated technology. As of 2019, only 11 percent of federal IT systems run on the cloud, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.
But cloud migration continues to gain traction on both a federal and state level. The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO)’s 2019 state CIO survey showed that 34 percent of IT leaders had completed a cloud migration strategy and 51 percent had a strategy in development.
Government agencies, both local and federal, as well as vendors and other teams that work in these spaces, would be wise to continue prioritizing cloud adoption before another system failure causes massive ripple effects down the line.
Haiyan Sui, Director of Engineering, Growth, and Strategy at Nava PBC, has more than 15 years of experience in leadership and strategic planning in government, digital marketing, and technology consulting.
Nava is a consultancy and public benefit corporation working to make government services simple, effective, and accessible to all. Nava emerged from the effort to help rebuild HealthCare.gov after its troubled launch, and exists to address some of the most complex challenges in the public sector.
Reply to this post...