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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

The time is now: Why government can’t put off modernization

In the last year, disruption has served as the main driver of change, and organizations and IT leaders have been challenged in more ways than many ever imagined. Between meeting the functional demands of a global remote workforce that essentially appeared overnight and ensuring that the proper technology and solutions are in place to support operations and services that drive mission success, the growing need for new strategies and accelerated transformation has been felt industrywide.

For the government sector in particular, the pressure to modernize has grown. At the onset of COVID-19 in the U.S., many state unemployment insurance systems met their match when the wave of claims crashed legacy systems running decades-old coding languages. Even months later in December 2020, upwards of 15,000 Vermont citizens received their unemployment checks late due to a technical error caused by their mainframes.

The Biden administration planned to take action right away. In his relief proposal, the president emphasized the need to “launch the most ambitious effort ever to modernize and secure federal IT and networks,” including expanding and improving the Technology Modernization Fund. The $9 billion TMF investment would have helped launch new IT and cybersecurity shared services for the Cyber Security and Information Security Agency and the General Services Administration as well as complete modernization projects at federal agencies, but it was recently pulled out of the COVID relief package.

Meanwhile, to help staff up, the new administration’s White House website included a “digital Easter egg,” calling for technology workers to help support modernization efforts by applying for the U.S. Digital Service, a technology unit within the White House. All are steps in the right direction for change.

Until now, many agencies have avoided the time, resources, cost and risk that come with transformation and have instead chosen to keep the status quo -- especially as it relates to application or mainframe modernization. In some ways, it’s understandable: These systems and the resources supporting them are complex and highly intertwined with core business operations and processes.

Still, several of the 10 most critical legacy systems in need of modernization “use outdated languages, have unsupported hardware and software, and are operating with known security vulnerabilities,” according to a 2019 Government Accountability Office report. The GAO findings also showed that a staggering 80% of the government’s $90 billion IT budget was spent on maintaining existing technology, including legacy systems.

Given these findings, and in the face of recent events, it’s increasingly clear that agencies and governing bodies must make a critical assessment of all facets of their outdated systems to address today’s issues -- and the foundational infrastructure is no exception to those broader goals.

Pandemic or not, the fact is that maintaining legacy systems will become increasingly difficult down the line amid challenges of diminishing talent, increased application development backlogs and money required for licensing.

According to GAO, “successful” IT modernization initiatives transform legacy code to modern programming languages and move legacy software to the cloud, ultimately contributing to improved savings. In fact, certain workloads run in a Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program-compliant cloud environment have been shown to require 8-12% of the expense of those run in a mainframe. Modernization could potentially save organizations $31 million if they upgrade the most urgent aspects of their legacy systems overall, according to the 2020 Mainframe Modernization Business Barometer Report.

One of the biggest hurdles for government today is the expedited timelines. Projects that once took years -- or even a decade in some cases -- to complete are now truncated into much shorter windows to quickly meet demand. It will therefore be especially important agencies conduct deep assessments and get their strategies air-tight before embarking on their transformation journeys.

While there are several modernization options to choose from (rehosting, rewriting, system replacement and automated refactoring), and certainly no one-size-fits all solution, automated refactoring is often the fastest, most cost-effective and safest route for government agencies. By leveraging IT experts and specialized tools to migrate systems’ procedural code bases to modern, object-oriented languages, automated refactoring effectively alleviates agencies’ reliance on the legacy infrastructure, databases and application code that supports them, thus enabling rapid migration to the cloud or cloud-ready application stacks.

For decades, the public sector has played catch-up with innovation, but in today’s challenging landscape, pushing off app modernization, digital transformation and security enhancements will only end in failure for many agencies, negatively impacting constituents. For agencies that expect to realize immediate and future success, the time to act is now.  

About the Author

Brandon Edenfield is managing director, app modernization, at Modern Systems, an Advanced Company.

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