Mar 07 2022

How State Governments Let Go of Their Relationships with Mainframes

Agencies seek options that lower costs, simplify support and build toward the future.

David Reeg, chief architect for Minnesota IT Services, laughs when asked whether states and agencies will soon hit a “tipping point” that forces them to move away from their legacy mainframes.

“We hit that point in 2012,” he says.

That’s when Minnesota began looking at options to replace the mainframe that supports the financial systems for the state’s education department. Licensing and maintenance costs were an issue, and the IT staffers trained in the COBOL programming language were approaching retirement age. But making a move was a daunting prospect.

“We’re talking about a system that’s been around for decades,” Reeg says. “There were two million lines of code to translate.”

It’s an issue that many states are grappling with, says Eric Sweden, program director for enterprise architecture and governance at NASCIO. He notes that mainframes offer security, reliability and durability, but acknowledges that the looming retirements of mainframe engineers will push many agencies to seek out solutions such as Mainframe as a Service (MFaaS).

“I don’t anticipate that states are going to be waiting for that last minute,” Sweden says. “But where’s that tipping point that pushes them over the edge? I don’t know.”

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Minnesota Breaks Up with Legacy Mainframe Applications

Minnesota opted for a Fujitsu tool called PROGRESSION, which allowed the state to convert its COBOL applications into C# and move applications to a Microsoft Windows SQL Server platform. The state initiated the project in late 2018 and finished up the migration in February 2020.

Testing and quality assurance were major challenges of the move, says Laura Wakefield, MNIT’s mainframe modernization project manager. “We had to make sure the system was going to work for users on day one,” she says.

In all, the state moved 28 applications from the mainframe to SQL and leaned heavily on the vendor to assist with testing, Wakefield says. “I can’t call out enough how well organized they were, and how well we worked together. Bringing those teams together was really powerful.”

Previously, application performance was limited by both the technical specs of the mainframe and the mainframe vendor’s licensing model, Reeg says. Running one important monthly report used to take up to four days. That shrunk to 12 hours after the migration, and now takes less than three hours.

“It used to be that, if there were performance issues on the mainframe, we would look at our queues and deprioritize some applications to give more processing time to others,” Reeg says. “We don’t have to do that anymore.”

RELATED: How modern IT infrastructure supports digital government services.

New Jersey Adopts MFaaS to Maintain Business Processes 

When New Jersey’s IT officials decided that it was time to move away from the state’s on-premises mainframe, they opted for IBM’s zCloud MFaaS offering.

New Jersey CTO Chris Rein gives three reasons for the move: First, the state was having trouble finding workers with the skills necessary to maintain mainframes. Second, with MFaaS, the state no longer has to plan for the capital cost of new mainframe hardware every several years. “Third, the timing is right,” Rein says. “The MFaaS market has matured, and we took advantage of some really highly skilled staff for the planning and execution of our migration to cloud.”

Although the shift to MFaaS was a major effort, users kept the same system access, credentials and interface that they were already familiar with. Switching away from mainframe entirely, Rein notes, would have required significant changes to business processes. “That would likely mean substantial training on the new system for staff.”

Chris Rein, CTO, State of New Jersey
The MFaaS market has matured, and we took advantage of some really highly skilled staff for the planning and execution of our migration to cloud.”

Chris Rein CTO, State of New Jersey

“It was a big challenge,” he adds. “I am so proud of the cross-agency team for the degree of planning, design, network changes, security changes — and then, of course, the critical go-live weekend.” Approximately 98 percent of the move was successful immediately, he says, and IT staffers were able to fix a few issues related to network addresses on a built-in second weekend.

“The new system is quite fast, and we can create our budget in a flatter, more predictable way,” Rein says. “And we no longer have to worry about hiring very specific mainframe-technology skill sets. Staff who had been performing these functions are now performing other job functions and delivering value in new ways.”

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Rhode Island Sees the Value in Embracing the Cloud

Just before the COVID pandemic, Rhode Island was experiencing record low unemployment, and yet the state’s tech infrastructure still struggled to support citizens seeking benefits. Then, in the spring of 2020, droves of Rhode Islanders lost their jobs, practically overnight.

“We knew we were absolutely going to be sunk,” says Abby McQuade, senior adviser and chief innovation officer at the state’s Department of Labor and Training.

The state had a legacy appliance, connected to a mainframe, that was able to handle only 75 live phone connections and 375 web connections at a time. As a result, the system kept crashing during the beginning of the pandemic. “It simply couldn’t handle the load,” McQuade says. “We realized that we had to pivot, and the cloud was there, so we decided to take advantage of it.”

Rhode Island turned to Amazon Connect, a cloud-based contact center solution, to handle the influx of traffic. The state stood up the new process in ten days, and on the Sunday after the move, 85,000 people certified their unemployment status on the system, compared with a few tens of thousands before the switch, McQuade says.

That number increased as the pandemic stretched on, with the state receiving up to 135,000 applications in a single week, and millions of applications overall. It would have been impossible, McQuade says, to support such a volume without adopting the cloud infrastructure.

The experience was a wake-up call and has highlighted the need for IT modernization in the state, McQuade says. “The eventual goal is to get all of the services that the department offers off of their antiquated, on-premises systems and have them all connected in the cloud. We know that this is a journey that is going to take years.”

EXPLORE: Follow these tips to modernize legacy applications.

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