Grandpa COBOL ain’t goin’ away any time soon

ANNAPOLIS — As a child, I had a toy consisting of a gray, plastic mountain maybe 10 inches or a foot tall. It had a series of holes into which you would drop marbles. Here and there were exits where the marbles would emerge.

I don’t remember the point of the game actually, but the mountain contained some sort of internal, mechanically-rendered logic governing exactly where the marbles would emerge.

That’s kind of like programs the government and other large organizations have that were programmed long ago in, say, COBOL. The inputs and outputs are stable and conform to the rules of the program they support, but the internal logic is opaque.

That toy came to mind while hearing two federal technology executives discuss modernization. My distinct impression is, if you think modernization of federal systems means COBOL will at last disappear, well don’t hold your breath.

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The topic — at the Government Information Technology Executive Council summit here — was shared services, and which application workloads agencies can reasonably hope to migrate.

Agriculture Department Chief Information Officer Jonathan Alboum said many of these oft-derided programs are in fact quite stable, and that USDA has both employees, albeit slightly mature ones, and contractors who update them and keep them going. He said it’s a tough sell to program owners to move such applications to the cloud, just for the sake of moving them. This is especially so when money for such moves is scarce and the payback not so clear.

Alfred Rivera, director of the business and development center at the Defense Information Systems Agency — no cloud slouch — said his group hopes to evolve some of these applications to where they might become candidates for cloud migration. But, he said he doesn’t see the underlying systems changing for the long term.

So what can modernization mean for federal systems if not getting rid of COBOL applications?

Lots of things, actually.

You can extract the data from the databases that populate such systems and use it for digital services. This is how some organizations like banks and airlines, also saddled with billions of lines of old code, appear to do the elephant dance.

You can use the cloud to replicate images of systems that require wide distribution. Rivera said DISA is doing just that, rather than airlifting physical disks to the combatant commands.

You migrate to a commercial off-the-shelf application, like the Defense Department is doing with a COTS electronic health record its piloting at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane. Veterans Affairs acting CIO, Rob Thomas said VA has been watching with interest what’s going on at Fairchild while the ice mountain of VA’s devotion to its venerable and homegrown Vista system shows signs of melting — and while VA itself pilots a commercial scheduling system at its medical center in Boise, Idaho.

In fact, Dr. Paul Cordts, director of the Military Health System, is the guy behind the MHS Genesis project, based on the commercial product of Cerner Corp. of Kansas City, pointed out that Genesis will run on a single system instead of 50 separate systems that now exist. But for a variety of reasons the Defense Health Agency will still need to run the 50 systems for the foreseeable future. Genesis will bring many virtues to the care of service members and their dependents, but instant elimination of legacy systems isn’t one of them.

And you can undertake to redevelop the COBOL systems themselves. That’s where the agile approach comes in. Take one single function and replicate that in new (well documented) code. Then go onto the next, then the next.  It’s easier said than done. Upfront investment dollars may not be there. And you’ve got the challenge of integrating modules so the eventual to-be state has the stability and reliability of the old one.

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