Insight by Deloitte

IT modernization is evolving. It’s time to take another look

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Over half a century ago mainframe COBOL helped send men to the moon. Since then it has been used to develop and operate a myriad of government systems.  It is so prevalent that currently, 75% of the world’s financial transactions are processed though COBOL systems, according to Chris Ostrander, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP. Many organizations in the public and private sector have tried to modernize their COBOL systems and failed, while others have hesitated to even attempt it, as it runs the heart of their business. The current global pandemic has caused COBOL to again dominate headlines given the sudden surge of demand for access to the services it enables. How can federal government agencies, still working with the once-state-of-the-art language of COBOL, use inspiration from Neil Armstrong, to take one small step towards modernization, one giant leap toward next generation systems?

Thinking Differently About Modernization

“The technologies and approaches people think they know have evolved,” said Scott Buchholz, managing director and chief technology officer for Government and Public Services at Deloitte Consulting LLP. “People who have been down the journey once might want to take another look.”

In decades past, systems modernization projects often started by gathering user requirements based on their understanding of current processes and operations. Technology modernization specialists, like Scott, would create bespoke upgrades based solely on the requirements provided, and, once modernized, hand the new system back to users for testing. But users kept finding problems. It inevitably turned out that the users who had been providing the requirements did not have a full view of how the system worked, and successfully redeveloping the system actually required an understanding of all individual parts, along with a larger holistic view of how the parts worked together.

Similar to NASA realizing that COBOL, originally a necessity for launch, needed to progress into the future, CIOs also began realizing their IT systems strategies needed to make significant technological leaps, possibly leaving COBOL behind. In the last decade alone, IT Modernization trends have included:

  1. Understanding legacy system functionality using automated tools
  2. Speeding up development and system integration with Low Code Platforms
  3. Using Cloud to standardize platforms and reduce time to market

Helping understand legacy system functionality with automated tools

The risk of legacy modernization project failure often increases if there is not a complete understanding of scope, scale, and details of the legacy functionality they are attempting to replace.

“You can think about most legacy systems like the attic in my grandmother’s old barn – a dangerous treasure trove with sharp, rusty objects everywhere,” Buchholz said. “Picking anything up meant picking up a pile of stuff, and nobody really knew what was underneath.”

What do leaders know already or want to know when going into a modernization project today? Deloitte Consulting works with government agencies to help understand the valuable information embedded in their legacy systems, provide clear steps to migrate them to more current technology and establish a digital foundation allowing the organization to adapt more quickly to changes into the future.

Increasingly powerful code and data analysis tools automate a large portion of a formerly manual process to understand a system’s business logic and the data it uses, providing valuable information into a strategic approach for the organization to modernize while still functioning with business-as-usual.

Speeding up development and system integration with Low Code Platforms

For years, government agencies like NASA had a saying, “slow COBOL is still better than no COBOL.” Recently though, NASA and other organizations began to look at how legacy mainframes that once got them to the moon could now be transformed through automated tools. Tools such as low code platforms could accelerate processes, while at the same time reducing costs to get the new functionality up and running. Updating a myriad of interfaces to a legacy system happens to be something low-code systems excel at, as they can quickly build APIs and replace piles of file-based legacy interfaces.

“These platforms already contain a lot of the underlying processes, workflow and data collection that make building things like case management systems much quicker and easier,” Ostrander said. “And so in some cases, when people know what the system’s doing, or if they can just reinvent the way they’re working, it’s easier to start with some of these more modern platforms that accelerate the process, because they already have a lot of the functionality built in.”

Landing in the Cloud

Finally, while many public sector agencies have IT infrastructure facing unprecedented surges, through deep insights we know moving core applications to the cloud can improve operations through availability, reliability, and resiliency. A new Gartner survey predicts that worldwide spending on IT services will decrease 7% this year, even as businesses rely more heavily on technologies and people to support operations. As budget pressures increase—and many analysts believe they will— adoption of cloud computing is likely to accelerate.

Moreover, moving systems to the cloud can enable government organizations to take advantage of ongoing advances and investments being made by the major cloud providers in areas ranging from machine learning and emerging technologies to areas like security, stability, and scalability.

Taking another look at modernization

Application modernization and migration is more important than ever for government systems. Modernizing can create efficiencies that help to lower costs and build flexible, agile IT environments.  Then modernized applications can be migrated to the cloud for additional efficiencies and reliability, potentially reducing costs, enhancing scalability, and lowering operational spending—and that alone can help agencies adapt in the near term and thrive in the long term. So, as Armstrong might say, when it comes to modernization today, the eagle has landed.

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