Mark Haynie of MicroFocus

ANOTHER VIEW — Commentary

Moving Cobol applications into the cloud

Modern technologies such as cloud computing are evolving rapidly. And although the government is expectedly hesitant in turning to the cloud because of security and risk concerns, the benefits are hard to ignore.

While the private sector reaps the benefits of software-as-a-service (SaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS) technologies – benefits such as cost savings, capital expenditure-to-operational expenditure conversion, elasticity and more efficient compliance procedures – the fact remains: We live in a Cobol world, and many government agencies still rely on Cobol-based applications.

Years of code modified to meet the specific demands of individual government agencies can make it difficult for those agencies to move toward the cloud to operate in a Web-based environment. The good news is that Cobol-based government agencies looking to realize the benefits of cloud computing can make practical progress towards leveraging these benefits without jumping straight into the cloud – Cobol applications and all.

Application modernization can enable the transition. Modernization, a compelling alternative to rewriting or replacing critical applications, fosters communication between historical systems and contemporary solutions while preserving the unique value encompassed in existing information technology systems. Modernizing critical applications through a service-oriented architecture provides agencies otherwise bound to the mainframe environment with the ability to leverage modern technologies.

Using these solutions, Cobol-based applications can now operate in a Web 2.0 environment, providing a responsive Rich Internet Application without altering a single line of code. These now-Web-based applications work the same – because they are the same. They may have been moved to a Web environment, but development time is ultimately reduced because the application business logic remains unchanged. Modernization can also provide a significant cost advantage and reduce the time it takes to deploy an application; a modernized application is fully functional in a fraction of the time it would typically take to rewrite or replace critical applications. In these economic times, it is important to realize every cost saving as long as security and privacy are not compromised.

Security concerns are often cited as a primary focus when discussing implementation of cloud technologies. However, modernization can actually enhance security of important information stored on critical applications. A proper enterprise cloud platform provides security of all data in motion (between the desktop and the cloud over HTTPS) and at rest (when stored in persistent cloud storage). Data is secured with encryption certificates owned by the organization – not the underlying utility infrastructure. Government agencies looking to take practical steps toward cloud computing without making the full commitment can also opt to transition to a private cloud – leveraging the advantages of cloud computing, such as pay-as-you-go licensing and elasticity, in their own data center.

Modernization solutions enable government agencies to transition into the cloud at their own pace. Agencies eager to realize the full benefits of cloud computing can implement modernization solutions for a rapid, virtually risk-free transition without altering any Cobol code.

More often than not, agencies err on the side of caution when deploying new technologies. But hesitant government agencies can implement a series of practical steps in the direction of cloud computing.

For starters, agencies can move one specific Cobol application from a proprietary platform to a commodity platform based on Unix, Linux or Windows. With the proper API compatibility layer, the application will operate as it did before. The compatibility layer maps to the underlying operating system (Linux, Windows), framework (such as Microsoft .Net) and data (Cobol file I/O, relational database). This intermediate step operates within the agency’s firewall. Moving a single application demonstrates the ease within which applications can be transitioned to different operating environments while maintaining full agency control over the data.

And it is just as simple to map the green-screen interface or Cobol function parameter interface to XML and Web services. Mapping technologies carry out speed-matching from menu-based logged-on sessions to workflows visible as request/response. After an agency has the flexibility to move between platforms, one of the new platforms can be cloud-based – public or private. Hooking in the metering and monitoring functions of cloud computing, from the pay-as-you-go or consumption model, has the added benefit of giving an agency feedback as to the value of the applications they offer clients. If the new SaaS, cloud-based Cobol application becomes valuable, it will find its way into mash-ups, dashboards and browser applications.

Why bother? Making the decision to fully embrace cloud computing involves a thorough amount of time, research and confidence in the process. But as government agencies are looking to slash budgets now more than ever, cloud computing is an essential solution. Consolidation of desktops and data centers enables agencies struggling to do more with fewer resources to improve the speed of critical processes while providing more flexibility. The fact that cloud computing is highly automated enables more efficient processes, such as auditing. Government agencies often allocate weeks of effort by senior IT personnel to prepare for external compliance audits; automation enables a streamlined process, simplifying compliance analysis by reducing certification and accreditation activities.

Government agencies can also benefit from enhanced mobility. Cloud computing promotes location independence, which is critical as the workforce continues to turn to mobility to improve efficiency by enabling network access from home offices, conferences, meeting locations and other remote sites. Further, this modern technology increases communication, improving data sharing between previously siloed applications and systems. This can enable greater collaboration between government agencies. Instead of each agency operating from its own data center, shared services among groups allow them to share the costs.

It’s not surprising that government agencies are hesitant to make this drastic change by fully implementing cloud computing. Luckily, modernization solutions ease the transition process by providing practical steps toward cloud computing while still providing the benefits of the cloud. The bottom line is that the benefits of cloud computing are too great to ignore, and modernization solutions can help with the transition.

Mark Haynie is chief technology officer for application modernization at Micro Focus, a provider of enterprise application management and modernization solutions and a member of the FTSE 250. For more information, visit www.microfocus.com.

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