Agencies can modernize by reusing, not replacing, core business assets, allowing for smart use of existing funds and faster time to market for new functionality and services.
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.