Dec 07 2021

Types of Legacy Application Modernization Strategies: Which Approach Is Right for You?

Find out how and why your agency should update applications to run on more modern architectures.

Editor's note: This article is part of StateTech’s 2022 Tech Trends coverage. For complete coverage, click here.

The pandemic opened state and local government IT leaders’ eyes to the fact that many mission-critical applications are running on legacy architectures or in outdated programming languages that cannot be easily changed or scaled up. Going into 2022, IT leaders recognize the need for modern, digital government services and will be looking at different methods to modernize legacy apps.

“I think there’s been a wake-up call that there are those who were advanced, and they had a very easy pivot to increase digital service,” says Alan Shark, executive director of CompTIA’s Public Technology Institute. “Others were caught with aging infrastructure.”

Shark adds that IT leaders he speaks with want to “modernize and make everything digital-first.”

For state and local government agencies, there are multiple ways to approach application modernization and there can and will be debates about the best path to take. It’s less a matter of dispute that agencies need to modernize their applications, especially mission-critical ones.

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the fact that many state and local agencies are running legacy applications that cannot easily scale up to meet rapid citizen demand, such as unemployment insurance systems. State and local IT advocates have recently pressed Congress for federal funding and resources to help them modernize monolithic legacy applications that critical citizen-facing services depend on.

During a June 30 hearing of the Government Operations subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Doug Robinson, the executive director of the National Associate of State Chief Information Officers, testified that although states made progress during the pandemic, more needs to be done.

“There is no doubt COVID-19 served as the forcing mechanism for states to rapidly invest in short-term technology improvements and automation to ensure the continuity of government in a largely remote environment,” Robinson said, according to StateScoop. “Yet, as the worst of the deadly pandemic appears behind us, we are currently at a crossroads as to whether the technology and business practice lessons learned over the past 15 months are here to stay or were just short-term stopgaps.”

Application modernization sits at the heart of efforts to upgrade state and local government IT.

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What Is Application Modernization?

Application modernization is the process of moving or reformatting apps so that they can run in more modern IT architectures, typically the cloud, and be scalable and more secure.

The process applies to the roughly 80 percent of state and local government systems that were computerized and digitized 10, 20 or 30 years ago, says Will Carroll, a principal with Deloitte’s Government & Public Services practice. Those government applications and business functions are running in legacy architecture on older IT equipment.

“It has been automated in some way, but now it’s aging and now they need to start thinking about, what do we do with that?” Carroll says. “How do we move forward with that?”

That applies to everything from unemployment insurance systems to Medicaid claims systems, driver’s license management applications and more. “Those are big and some ways clunky, but those big mission critical apps, they’ve been in a computer for at least one generation already,” he adds.

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Types of Application Modernization Strategies

Tom Greiner, senior managing director for Accenture Federal Services’ technology capabilities, says there are two major schools of thought around application modernization and a third is rapidly emerging.

1. Open Source or Custom Modernization

The first is to explore whether the application can be custom-built using Java or an open-source software language that replicates the functionality of the app as it exists on a mainframe or other legacy technology.

2. Cloud Modernization

A second way of approaching application modernization is to convert legacy apps to the cloud via the Software as a Service model. Greiner estimates that about 80 percent of government applications revolve around benefit applications and adjudications and the distribution of funds to citizens. A SaaS model, he says, could perform the vast majority those apps’ workflow, routing and approval functions and come with mobile enablement and security out of the box.

“You can have less skilled developers point and click configuring,” he says. Agencies speed to value will be much quicker with SaaS, bit performance and flexibility might be less robust than with a custom-built solution.

RELATED: How should you approach legacy system modernization?

3. Application Modernization Services

The third tack involves partnering with a major cloud service provider such as Amazon Web Services, Google or Microsoft Azure for a Platform as a Service approach, in which the cloud provider delivers functionality that mirrors a custom-built solution or code from a developer on GitHub.

“You might go pretty heavy cloud native to try to drive the same kind of solution,” Greiner says. “So it might be a bit of a hybrid of a custom front end with a whole lot of cloud native underpinning it.”

Carroll says he generally agrees with those three options but says that agencies should choose the path that makes sense for them by first thinking about where they need their apps to be not now but in five to 10 years. If the application is for a government service that is dynamic and will likely shift a lot in the coming years, agencies should go with a more flexible, custom-built approach, he says. If the app is likely to be relatively stable, it may make sense to use a cloud-based approach in which a CSP is providing the ongoing maintenance and security of the app.

DIVE DEEPER: How have agencies deployed modern digital government services?

What Are the Benefits of Application Modernization?

There are numerous benefits state and local agencies can reap by modernizing their applications, Greiner and Carroll note.

One benefit includes moving apps to technologies that are more commoditized and easily grasped by a larger pool of IT workers, so agencies are making it easier to attract and retain those workers. In other words, if an app is running on cloud technologies instead of COBOL, agencies will not need to spend huge sums for outside consultative service for an older coder who still knows how to operate a COBOL system.

“Our competitors are literally hiring people at a senior citizen center to bring them back,” Greiner says. “You just can’t run that play for much longer.”

Modernizing applications also improves the citizen experience, which is increasingly important for state and local agencies as they move away from paper-based processes and to mobile-first platforms.

“Having to tab through a 1970s-looking screen … is not a viable customer service answer,” Greiner says. Modern applications can empower citizens to enter data and get government benefits or services more easily, he says.

“It saves the state money and the citizen is happier,” Greiner adds. “They’re self-serving and it’s kind of a win-win.”

Another benefit is modernizing apps enables agencies to clean up and expose their data to analytical and artificial intelligence tools, enabling new insights and capabilities, Carroll says.

Improved security is yet another benefit, Greiner says. More modern applications will not have known security flaws that are unable to be patched because the software is no longer supported.

“It is hard to stay on top of cyber hygiene” for technology that is so old it is no longer updated, he says. “The holes are known, they’re easily exploitable and the dark web is a robust library of known hacks. Most government agencies aren’t rigorous in patching their out-of-date tech.”

EXPLORE: Consider the benefits of app rehosting vs. refactoring and rewriting.

How to Prepare for Application Modernization Strategy

If an IT leader has decided to modernize applications, the first step before a single request for proposals is sent out is to conduct a thorough audit and discovery of the agency’s applications and data. “It’s usually been so long since someone with a business lens has looked at what their data problems are,” Carroll says.

Having an audit of an agency’s apps and the gaps between what exists and what the desire end state will be can help agencies make more informed decisions about modernization, according to Carroll.

Greiner agrees and notes that most data repositories these days are accessed by multiple applications. Agencies should then separate apps into different buckets of use cases.

Another key step to take, Carroll says, is performing a baseline assessment of applications’ performance, and not just technical performance. That includes response time, the time it takes to perform a business process, the volume of transactions via an application and others. Carroll notes that agencies can set the standard for what they currently do and what they want to improve. Conducting that assessment can help agencies make better choices about which route to take in modernization.

“They can start being able to say when they have those discussions, ‘Our goal is to do X, Y, and Z. How would you achieve that?’ and then get their feedback,” Carroll says.

CIOs also should determine whether they have the talent and expertise to perform a modernization in house or whether they should work with a trusted third-party service provider, Greiner says.

This might also present an opportunity for an agency to update its underlying IT infrastructure and determine which apps could be moved to the cloud to get a better user experience for citizens.

“How might I bucketize those into easy wins that can get some real citizen value right away while I started planning out the harder pieces of peeling away from the core processing engine of the mainframe, if that’s part of the solution,” Greiner says.

Top Application Modernization Services and Tools

There are numerous avenues that agencies go down to modernize their apps. Greiner notes that services from firms such as Salesforce and ServiceNow can help agencies.

Other tools include Microsoft Dynamics or Power Apps, which can help IT leaders navigate many of the architectural decisions around modernization, according to Greiner.

Major CSPs such as AWS, Google and Microsoft can also offer tools to help agencies develop, run and manage apps without having to worry about the infrastructure they would usually need to develop and launch an app.

For example, if there is an unemployment benefits system that third-party cloud or software provider has already built, and it includes claim adjudication and tires into a state’s payments, general ledger and grants systems, and is relatively “plug and play,” then 80 percent of the work is done already, Greiner says.

“To the extent that a CIO can make it somebody else’s problem and rent the software as a service, and to the extent that a provider has already pre-built the vast majority of it and it’s otherwise configurable by business users, that would be the ideal solution,” Greiner says.

Illustration by Jacey

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