Mar 21 2022

How Can State and Local Agencies Effectively Move On from Mainframes?

There is no simple, easy or inexpensive way for government agencies to modernize applications on mainframes, but there are paths forward.

Last fall, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers and Accenture released a report, “A fresh look: Capitals in the Clouds,” which included data from 35 states. The NASCIO report was eye-opening, as it found that many states are still using legacy mainframe technology.

“The switch from mainframe on-premises to a Mainframe as a Service (MFaaS) is slow — as nearly all states, 89 percent, report that they have a mainframe computer and 71 percent indicate that they have not moved any applications to MFaaS,” the report notes. “The primary driver for moving to MFaaS is cost savings.”

Mainframe as a Service allows state governments to leverage external, cloud-provided mainframe management services. State CIOs identified four main hurdles to cloud adoption, including budget and financial concerns, cybersecurity management, procurement, and lack of a skilled workforce.

While the number of agencies still using mainframes may seem shocking in 2022, it’s not entirely surprising from an agency point of view. Governments have longstanding relationships with mainframes and rely on them, and their proprietary operating systems, for critical applications. Agencies often lack the staff to rewrite or refactor those applications in modern computing environments. It is also expensive and time-consuming to move an app off a mainframe.

Unfortunately, there is no magic wand government IT leaders can wave to migrate a mission-critical legacy app off a mainframe and into the cloud. However, there are strategies IT leaders can employ to get more flexibility in their IT arrangements and computing environments. That first requires knowing what the obstacles are.

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What Keeps Government Agencies on Mainframes?

The heyday of mainframes was the 1960s and 1970s, with IBM, UNIVAC and a handful of other companies providing mainframe computers to governments and businesses of all kinds. Mainframes were used to modernize crucial applications, such as accounts receivable, inventory control, and major financial and administrative functions. Governments have used them for everything from processing unemployment claims to finance and handling Medicaid eligibility.

On the positive side, mainframes proved incredibly reliable, with an incredibly long average time between failures. They were also very secure, since an attacker would need to have knowledge of the proprietary OSes many mainframes use to leverage a cyberattack.

On the other hand, there are many downsides to mainframes. Agencies become totally reliant on the mainframe vendors for maintenance and upgrades, which often can leave them paying higher costs than necessary.

DIVE DEEPER: Find out how three states have moved on from their mainframes.

Mainframe applications are also pretty inflexible and cannot easily accommodate changing needs or customer demand. Over time, as staff members who have knowledge of mainframe programming languages retire, it becomes prohibitively expensive to find personnel with the requisite knowledge to work with the machines.

It can also take millions of dollars and years for agencies to migrate legacy apps from mainframes. The cost can often be much higher than an agency would pay just to maintain the mainframe. Agencies might not have the staff to explain the mainframe to developers who to rebuild or refactor an application for the cloud. Most people graduating with computer science degrees these days are learning IBM’s z/OS or COBOL.

Agencies also need to ensure mission-critical apps, such as those for taxation and finance, that are running on mainframes aren’t interrupted during a transition.

RELATED: What are the main options for migrating off of a legacy mainframe?

How Agencies Can Overcome Barriers to Mainframe Migration

So, how can state and local IT leaders break free of the mainframe and get access to the elastic nature of the cloud? It isn’t easy, but there are a few routes forward — not all of which are within the control of IT leaders.

In one model, agencies can simply lift the data from the flat-file data repository in a mainframe into a new environment and basically try to rebuild the app. That requires staff to understand how users access information in the app so that legacy processes can be replicated in modern environments. It’s essentially trying to teach the app the language of itself all over again.

Artificial intelligence tools can help in this process, teaching the new application how queries were made and how results were produced. However, the technology is still nascent, and in the meantime, legacy apps need to keep running.

To make a migration successful, IT leaders should pick an operating environment the agency will be comfortable living with moving forward that is not dependent on any single manufacturer or hardware setup. Today, most IT leaders think a Linux-based environment is fairly portable and flexible.

From there, IT leaders should select a series of application tools, databases and messaging systems that are supported under that new operating environment. They should enable the agency to replicate legacy processes in the new environment.

EXPLORE: What are some myths around cloud migration that should be dispelled?

IT leaders also need to decide whether they want to use a public or private cloud to host the new application, which boils down to whether they want their own staff to run and maintain the apps. Mainframe as a Service is also another option, providing what is essentially a private cloud managed by a third party, with the government paying a monthly usage fee.

It’s important to note that, despite the importance of modernizing legacy apps and ensuring they are scalable enough and user-friendly enough to meet the demands of citizens in 2022, many state and local budgets have, until now, not prioritized mainframe modernization. There are other major priorities, such as hiring teachers, expanding broadband and fixing roads and bridges.

IT leaders should make the case to elected leaders and legislatures the long-term cost of maintaining mainframes is greater than what it would cost to modernize applications. Make no mistake, whatever form that modernized environment takes — public cloud or MFaaS — it will require significant funding. Some states, such as Montana, have gone down this path.

Citizens have rightly come to expect that receiving government services will be as flexible, accessible and user-friendly as their experiences with modern commercial tools, such as shopping on Amazon or doing web searches on Google.

To enable that, IT leaders and agencies will need to find a way to break up with their mainframes. As the saying goes, breaking up is hard to do. That doesn’t mean state and local agencies shouldn’t try.

This article is part of StateTech’s CITizen blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #StateLocalIT hashtag.

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U.S. Census Bureau/Wikimedia Commons

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