How states can avoid New Jersey’s legacy systems meltdown

Earlier in the pandemic, New Jersey made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Following a crash of its unemployment system, the state sent out an open call for COBOL developers to help shore up its overwhelmed legacy technology. The root of this failure wasn’t just with the programming language used to develop the system;  the unemployment application was also running on an outdated mainframe. In government, this situation is par for the course. Before long, other states like Oregon and California also found themselves in similar predicaments as their outdated technologies crashed and deprived citizens of essential services.

Today, the only constant in IT is disruption. Whether sparked by an executive order, a pandemic or simply shifting business goals, government agencies need agile systems that can adapt and respond to changes in real time, no matter what causes those changes. Yet as of today only 16 states have fully modernized their unemployment systems, meaning the issues and challenges faced by New Jersey, Oregon and states will likely soon resurface.

The countdown is on. So how can government agencies get ahead of these challenges and mitigate risks to their overall business function?

Time is of the essence

Change is on the horizon for most government agencies. While many have long-term plans to eventually address their aging technologies, the fact is that most agencies don’t have time to wait for the next pandemic or worldwide challenge to take action. This is because modernization projects can’t be completed overnight, some requiring years to fully implement.

As a result, an agency’s strategy for a successful modernization project is to set, and stick to, clear timelines. By breaking a project down into small, measurable steps, agencies are better positioned to ensure that they are completed as quickly as possible and according to plan. However, dire consequences for business functions can ensue without proper attention to detail and action.

Legacy technologies not only limit capabilities of individual states, but they can bring federal programs to a screeching halt. In fact, Republicans recently pushed to have individual states take full responsibility for processing unemployment payouts to their citizens, but this very approach is impossible without technical intervention for most states. As many of these systems were built over 50 years ago on mainframes not designed interact or integrate with the internet, making updates at the speed to which the world has grown accustomed can’t be completed without the tools and integrations necessary to be successful in the modern era.

Which strategies make sense?

Modernization is never a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, legacy systems are entities that are fully customized to the specific organization or function they serve. What’s more, these systems are held together by a patchwork of alterations and updates designed and implemented by individual developers who have likely aged out of the work force, meaning agencies will need to turn to outside professionals to identify the best approach and determine next steps.

There are a variety of different modernization strategies that agencies can pursue. By conducting in-depth, automated assessments of their systems with experts, states will be better positioned to identify and implement the solution that best suits their specific needs. In these situations, typical modernization strategies include:

  • Automated refactoring, where procedural codebases are migrated to object-oriented equivalents using specialized automated tooling fine-tuned by experts.
  • Rewriting, where seasoned developers manually recreate the legacy application in its entirety in a newer, more desirable environment, an option that can be especially costly and risky.
  • Rehosting, where the outdated mainframe is retired, but its procedural codebases and core functions are transferred as-is and stored within a computing environment suitable for modern business functions.
  • System replacement, where all legacy applications are taken out of service and replaced with commercial, off-the-shelf software solutions from a third party. While typically reserved as a last ditch effort, this approach can also require significant financial investment.

As no two systems are alike, it’s vital that agencies select a strategy best suited for their specific needs and challenges. While modernization can be a daunting process, it is significantly more effective than attempting to continually utilize systems that are no longer effective – or functional.

Lessons learned from New Jersey, Oregon and California

Government agencies can no longer afford to delay technical innovation. After the public challenges failing legacy systems presented for California, Oregon and New Jersey, states must get ahead of potential pitfalls in their legacy systems and deliver key systems and services that citizens can rely on before it’s too late. This next issue major IT issue is lurking just around the corner. How will states take this opportunity to get ahead of it?

About the Author

Brandon Edenfield is managing director, app modernization, at Advanced.


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