California picks up LA’s mainframe workloads
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Apr 21, 2020
Ted Ross, CIO at the City of Los Angeles’ Information Technology Agency (ITA), has one less thing to worry about now that the agency has moved its mainframe applications to the California Department of Technology.
CDT’s State Data Center provides round-the-clock mainframe support, disaster recovery services and state purchasing power for licensing as part of a three-year, $10.5 million contract between the two government entities.
“We found it increasingly hard to find people with mainframe skills so we had to make the determination if mainframe was really a core service that we wanted to maintain in our department,” Ross said. “Looking at the costs for replacements and looking at the skillsets and the risks associated with that, we thought it was much preferred to move mainframe applications up to the state of California,” he said. “We’re effectively using them as a cloud service so that while we do some basic application support for our remaining mainframe applications, they do the infrastructure support.”
Since the switch became official on Feb. 26, things have run smoothly.
“I have to say, the day of the migration, to us it was just like another day,” said Veronica Gilliard, deputy director of platform services at CDT. Thanks to planning, testing and “constant communications” between CDT and LA. When the switchover day came, she said, “it was just so seamless.”
ITA has used mainframes since the 1980s, Ross said, and the latest instance was six or seven years old and nearing the end of its life. The agency had been shifting applications off it -- from 125 five years ago to fewer than 30 now -- in an effort to move off mainframe completely, shifting some of those applications to the cloud and consolidating or eliminating others. Some public-safety and business applications, however, still rely on the tried-and-true technology.
“I think what’s interesting about a mainframe is it’s an old piece of technology in many ways – it’s not the latest in advanced technology – and yet sometimes you’ll have critical applications running on it,” Ross said. “It’s this interesting dichotomy of critical work that’s coded in COBOL.”
Unlike the city, CDT has no plans to stop supporting mainframes, which many state agencies rely on for high-use applications such as health care or finance that involve personally identifiable information, Gilliard said.
“It’s still a viable platform that is flourishing,” she said, adding that the department actively trains employees and recruits new ones for succession planning. But there is also room for cloud technologies. The department is working with customers that have applications on the mainframe to have middleware components that interact with the cloud, creating something of a hybrid solution.
“From my perspective, mainframe was the very first cloud because you can have multiple logical partitions defined within a mainframe and run multiple different types of workloads,” Gilliard said. “The beauty of the mainframe is that it is a stable technology. It’s very secure. The response time, if you have a lot of processing that needs to occur, you can’t beat the mainframe’s processing power.”
She and Ellen Ishimoto, the state’s acting CTO, credit the success of the project to planning and communication.
“We made sure that we had communication going at multiple levels,” Ishimoto said. “We had the technical team meeting frequently, at least once a week, and so were the executives.”
Testing was also important to ensuring CDT had all the data it needed from ITA, she added, but once the department was continuously copying the data, the two agencies selected a cutover date that met both their needs. “They turned off their applications and we started running here,” Ishimoto said. “We did it all in one day.”
One benefit for ITA is cost savings because the contract is less expensive than running its own mainframe, plus it eliminates the need to buy new hardware and allows the agency to retire all related equipment, including the tape library and mainframe hardware.
The biggest benefit for ITA has been risk reduction, however, Ross said.
“We’ve reduced the risk of old equipment and old components failing and impacting some key systems,” he said. “Secondly, we’ve dramatically reduced the risk when it comes to having to maintain staffing and staff skills. They’re very, very hard to find.”
The migration also allowed LA to transform its data center. “It used to be that our mainframe was called the ‘enterprise system,’ but we haven’t built anything on the mainframe in the last 15-plus years,” Ross said. Now that the workload has moved to the state, the staff “can refocus on cloud-hosted software and virtual systems.”
The city now has “the ability to modernize our workforce and modernize our focus in our data center to support the technology that we’re building on today as opposed to focusing on the technology that we’re just trying to maintain,” he said.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.