IT modernization strategy:  reuse rather than replace


IT modernization strategy: Reuse rather than replace

In recent testimony to the Senate Finance Committee, IRS commissioner John Koskinen rightly emphasized the importance of modernization when it comes to the technologies, systems and infrastructure that power the U.S. government.

It is true, as Koskinen points out, that, “in regard to software, we still have applications that were running when John F. Kennedy was president.” That said, while the underlying application infrastructure matters, government agencies should be focused on the value the applications ultimately deliver to the organization. 

Millions of citizens continue to rely on color television, for example, but this sixty-year-old technology has been continually modernized in order to leverage new innovative capabilities, while also adapting to changing user demand. In other words, an organization’s ability to maximize technology investments comes down to extending the value of applications over time and to adequate resource planning that will future-proof these investments.

The same can be said about the COBOL programming language, introduced in 1959 by Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper and still vital to government efforts to modernize so-called legacy IT systems that consume approximately 70 percent of the federal government’s $82 billion IT budget.  The use of COBOL within government has endured because it remains an optimal language for core business purposes – it’s scalable, efficient, precise and fast, particularly when it comes to high-volume data processing. For many government agencies, COBOL systems also contain valuable business processes and intellectual property (IP). 

Replacing this core business logic is both costly and risky to the agency. But just as we’ve seen advancements with color television technology, COBOL also has persistently evolved, allowing organizations to bridge their applications to new technologies including .NET, JVM and the cloud. 

Such advancements allow government agencies to modernize from a position of strength by reusing, not replacing, core business assets.  This approach also allows for smart use of existing budgetary funds and faster time to market for new functionality and services.  By bridging the old to the new, government can leverage what is truly vital to the organization – the core IP – and begin to map future strategy to new IT architectures, technology and innovation.

In a 2014 blog post, Terry Halvorsen, then CIO at the Navy, hinted as much, stating, “In many cases, however, maintaining an older system that fully supports our mission makes more sense than upgrading it or buying a new system that runs the risk of degrading our mission and requires a large investment. The DON [Department of the Navy] and industry still use a programming language developed in 1959 to operate major business functions in finance and personnel. In fact, nearly three quarters of the world’s business transactions are done in that venerable language, COBOL. Now with an estimated 20 billion lines of code, it still works.”

Koskinen’s testimony, for its part, was also on the right track when he said that, “…it is extremely difficult to find IT experts who are versed in this language [COBOL].” Despite the fact that 71 percent  of academic leaders say COBOL’s life expectancy is at least 10 years, only 1 in 4 (27 percent) universities teach COBOL according to a 2013 Vanson Bourne survey. This can be attributed, in part, to COBOL’s undeserved reputation as uncool, outdated and low-paying by the latest generation of developers.

The good news for the IRS, other government agencies and the commercial sector is that there are promising efforts underway to address concerns over COBOL skills development.

Through joint efforts between industry and the academic community, more than 350 new COBOL programming courses have been added to university programs over the past few years.

Industry is also going one step further, offering modern application development tools that make COBOL accessible to non-COBOL developers. From a maintenance perspective COBOL is easier to understand and manage than more modern languages. That allows today’s developers, with their knowledge of modern developer tools such as Eclipse or Visual Studio, to easily pick up COBOL, the latest versions of which also work within these environments.  This capability lets  non-COBOL developers quickly learn the language by leveraging their existing skillsets.

These tools also address a number of key organizational challenges – including the perceived shortfall in programming talent – while improving productivity, lowering costs and taking core agency applications into the future.

When it comes to the value of government technologies and systems, ageism is inevitably at work. Observers look at how many years the IT infrastructure has been in place and assume that the longer the systems are in use, the less modern they are. More often than not however, technologies and systems endure because they work, and work well, and effectively provide the flexibility to innovate and modernize so that agencies can effectively reuse, rather than fully replace, core systems.

About the Author

Ed Airey is product marketing director at Micro Focus.

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Reader Comments

Wed, May 20, 2015 Cute2Boot

CLAP CLAP CLAP I'm relatively young and decided to learn COBOL on my own. Guess what "The use of COBOL within government has endured because it remains an optimal language for core business purposes – it’s scalable, efficient, precise and fast, particularly when it comes to high-volume data processing" is SO true. This is partly due to the structure and constraints of the language. It does file processing very well and does not need or have bells and whistles, like auto memory management, and a ton of graphic capability. That type of stuff allows you to make a pretty web page really fast...that needs 10 servers to run on...but slows you down and is not needed. The mainframe's architecture also makes these machines suited to very fast and accurate data processing. I'd say DESIGN the overall applications better...maybe some are bolt ons that are not integrated...but don't replace a language or other technology just for the sake of it.

Thu, Apr 2, 2015

I have to say the color TV metaphor is rather absurd. Color TV is a concept--not a technology. And the technological means of achieving this concept has absolutely changed over the last 50 years. With existing COBOL codebases, the concepts--the business logic--should of course remain, but to not evolve the technological means of achieving them is to do a disservice to stakeholders.

Wed, Apr 1, 2015

The reason COBOL has persisted is only slightly a testament to its longevity and more a testament to the budget constraints on agencies over decades. Even if you think the technology is awesome, good luck recruiting top young talent when the private sector is using cool new technologies. And by new I mean post-Civil Rights Act and Medicare.

Fri, Mar 27, 2015 Diane Sykes

In a "throw away" world, it is more important than ever to recycle, repurpose and reuse. That is especially true of many of the software application software that had been running our military, banks and insurance companies; the majority of which are STILL in COBOL. It just makes sense in terms of cost and risk to reuse that intellectual property rather that to "replace" it in many cases. COBOL is alive and well at Micro Focus, and we can help you keep the stability and reliability of your existing systems while taking advantage of modern architectures and development environments.

Fri, Mar 20, 2015 Stephen F. Heffner USA

As the author of a computer language expert system, I view "legacy" applications as business assets to be mined for business rules and reusable code. It's sad that "legacy" has become a pejorative; it used to mean a proud heritage.

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