Feb 12 2021

North Dakota Has a Plan to Upgrade Its Legacy Systems

The state wants to move its legacy applications to the cloud and use modern coding and architecture to make them more scalable and secure.

North Dakota was in a bind. Job Service North Dakota was forced to look overseas to contract services from junior developers based in Latvia to help support aging Unisys software running a key unemployment insurance system application.

The bulk of the work is still done by North Dakota IT employees stateside, but the Latvian connection is emblematic of how continuing to support legacy systems and applications can put state governments in a bind. Often, such systems are written in now-obscure programming languages and there are not enough skilled workers to maintain such systems. They also often are unable to scale to meet rising citizen demands and can present cybersecurity risks because they cannot be easily patched.

North Dakota, however, has a plan to escape this quandary, according to CTO Duane Schell. The state has made legacy system modernization a priority, has support from Gov. Doug Burgum to get funding to modernize and has a clear plan of how it wants to proceed, he says.

“I would easily put it in the top five, if not a little higher than that, in terms of our priorities,” Schell says. “It’s absolutely something we’ve been talking a great deal about with our policymakers over the last two years, helping them understand the size of the problem, the magnitude of the problem. And more importantly, what is the path forward on how we get in front of these challenges and risks that are before the state of North Dakota?”

The Challenges and Risks Posed by Legacy Systems

Legacy modernization has long been a top priority for state IT leaders. The National Association of State Chief Information Officers has it pegged as the No. 2 priority in terms of 2021 technologies, applications or tools CIOs want to implement.

In North Dakota, most of the focus has been on legacy applications that reside on mainframe systems, Schell says. That is because they may be written in languages that the state no longer has the skill set to support or may simply be designed in ways that put them at risk of not meeting citizen demands.

“Are they in a spot where we can be agile with the business to respond to a need in a cost-effective, very fast, efficient way?” he says. “Not necessarily.” That is what spurred the state to seek help from Latvia.

North Dakota’s unemployment insurance system falls into that category, according to Schell, along with systems that handle applications from the state’s departments of human services and transportation.

“From a citizen-facing perspective, we have put the more modern interface in front of them for citizen engagement reasons, but the core line-of-business app, the business logic, still resides in these platforms,” Schell says. “And for me, that I think is our biggest priority — to sunset the core legacy business applications and provide them in a much more modern technology suite, something that is more aligned with our core strategies and directions around providing technology for the state of North Dakota and the citizens that we serve.”

Duane Schell
I would easily put legacy IT modernization in the top five, if not a little higher than that, in terms of our priorities.”

Duane Schell CTO, North Dakota

Legacy systems and applications present multiple challenges for North Dakota and other state governments. For one, they are not as scalable as modern cloud-based applications. The state “had to throw a lot of additional infrastructure” at older applications to keep them running, Schell says, and had to create more modern user interfaces to support self-service options for citizens.

“As we look across the technologies and the different services that we had to provide, I think there’s a very clear delineation between modern technology and legacy technology,” he says. “As I look at the amount of effort that we had to put forth for a number of these legacy technologies to be able to survive, in comparison to some of the other areas where we’ve got a more modern technology, it was almost a non-conversation. It was simply a monitoring conversation, and let the cloud do what it does.”

Cloud-based applications can simply scale up and down based on demand. Legacy systems have fixed infrastructure that cannot easily be altered, he notes.

Security is another factory spurring agencies to replace legacy systems. As technologies age, agencies run into risks related to whether vendors will continue to offer technical and cybersecurity support, and in those situations “the risk factors can climb very, very quickly,” Schell says.

Malicious actors may not target older systems because the volume of transactions or potential profit is not high enough to justify the investment in an attack, according to Schell. However, that would not matter for a truly motivated actor. “If they’re targeting you specifically, they’re going to find a way, and you’ve got to continue to care and feed for that technology regardless of its age,” he says.

LEARN MORE: How have counties modernized the tech they use to provide public benefits?

How North Dakota Plans to Modernize

There are multiple paths forward for agencies that want to update legacy systems and applications, including rehosting them in the cloud, using automated refactoring that migrates a system’s procedural code bases to modern languages, and rewriting the application or replacing the system entirely.

Schell notes that many states are launching modern, citizen-facing portals to help improve the customer experience of legacy applications. Such portals, he notes, can also “dramatically improve government operations. If you’re taking advantage of new ways of automating and providing a much more orchestrated experience for the citizen, you see the benefits on both sides.

However, refreshing the customer-facing web portal “doesn’t take away the core fundamental problem from an IT support perspective of maintaining that skill set, maintaining that platform, maintaining the infrastructure associated with it.”

Ideally, Schell says, North Dakota would look to modernize its legacy systems from end to end “using cloud technologies, leveraging low-code/no-code-type technologies, getting into the very segmented architectures, getting away from the large monolithic architectures, taking advantage of microservices in that distributed approach.”

Leveraging those tools would give North Dakota “the agility that we’re looking for” and also allow legacy systems to be replaced incrementally.

Duane Schell
It is important that we continue to chip away at this problem.”

Duane Schell CTO, North Dakota

As WorkScoop reports, in December Burgum put forth a biennial budget proposal that included about $105 million in technology upgrades across seven agencies, and it specifically called out the unemployment insurance application as one factor motivating the funding proposal.

“The current unemployment insurance mainframe has been miraculously patched together, at considerable cost, to get us through the pandemic surge, but this 1980s technology is beyond end of life and is almost impossible to manage,” the proposal states.

Burgum’s budget recommendation “was something we were exceedingly pleased with and are excited about,” Schell says. He and North Dakota CIO Shawn Riley and others are still at the beginning of the legislative process, but they have had the opportunity to explain to lawmakers about the size and scope of the problem related to legacy IT. “I feel encouraged that they understand the significance of the problem,” he says.

“I think I’m encouraged with their perceptions of IT and the value that IT brings, and I’m optimistic that we’re going to see them ultimately give us some resources to continue to move forward in solving this challenge,” Schell says.

The issue of legacy IT won’t be solved in the next two years, Schell notes, and even Burgum’s budget proposal, if fully enacted, wouldn’t replace every legacy system.

“It is important that we continue to chip away at this problem and continue to move the technology to a place that is giving the business of government what they need to serve the citizens of the state in a way that is efficient, effective and in a safe way to manage the data of our citizens,” he says.

tomazl/Getty Images