Federal Government cloud
October 6, 2016 Workforce 0 Comments

Should Federal IT Have Its Entire Head in the Cloud?

As the Federal Government works to modernize IT systems through the passing of the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2016, federal technology leaders must be careful not to wrongly label all existing IT systems as legacy, meaning obsolete and outdated.

IT is a field of myriad platforms and coding languages, each performing unique functions. In the case of the mainframe, it simply can’t be beat in its power, reliability and securability, even as new technologies like the cloud arrive. But the mainframe also shouldn’t be expected to accomplish everything the Federal Government needs. Other systems, like the cloud, perform better for particular operations. The secret to success is harnessing the best compute capacity, which the public demands.

When the Federal Government needs to be optimizing tax dollars for government systems, how does an effective CIO make the choice of when to migrate mainframe applications to the cloud?

Is the Application Mission Critical?

When asked about moving “a number of operations from SEC.gov onto the cloud” in an interview with Federal Times, Pamela Dyson, chief information officer for the Securities and Exchange Commission, said, “You have to make sure that the governance and strategy piece is well thought out within collaboration with the business to ensure that as you move instances to the cloud that you know it will not have an adverse impact on business operations.”

For example, migrating mission-critical applications and data to the cloud could introduce them to another layer of complexity for management and maintenance, having an adverse impact on business operations. You become reliant upon the cloud provider for maintenance windows, updating the app to your specification if you are utilizing software as a service, and when you need a specific modification that is not part of your code base today. These things require waiting for resources to be allocated, and requesting it sooner than everyone else who is waiting can translate into additional dollars.

Federal IT must determine when it makes sense to migrate mainframe applications to the cloud. As Dyson said in her interview, “Can we use the same tools and get the same performance from a cloud instance that we can on prem?”

As Dyson elaborated later:

“We’ve made a lot of investment in building a lot of our mission critical applications [on] our own prem, and what would it take to forklift those to the cloud and does it make sense to do that for systems that are so critical to our operations that we use them on a daily basis. Will the retrieval of the information, will the ability to access information yield the same performance in the cloud as it does on prem?”

Is the Application Unique to My Executive Department or Agency?

Moving certain operations to the cloud can be an effective strategy. The cloud serves non-mission critical applications well. Dyson found this out for SEC.gov, and Compuware has implemented its own Two-platform IT strategy between the mainframe and cloud.

Commonly used systems across the Federal Government could be migrated to cloud solutions, which in turn would produce savings in staffing, operation and administrative costs. The Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions that address constituent or customer information, human resources and accounting systems, or general and administrative systems are all good examples of non-critical programs worth migrating to the cloud.

What Are the Security Requirements?

No platform exceeds the mainframe in security. Mainframe security breaches only occur when data is moved off the platform, or when security policies for effective password and access management are ignored. The cloud, however, faces its own broader set of security risks that should be taken into account.

What Compute and Calculation Processing Capacity Is Needed?

To paint a picture of mainframe capacity, the largest IBM z13 mainframe is capable of 2.5billion transactions a day; can replace hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Linux servers; is twice as fast as the typical x86 server/SAN; and processes 10 times more transactions than iTunes downloads, Instagram photos, tweets, YouTube viewings, Facebook likes and Google searches combined.

Nothing beats the massive compute capacity available on the mainframe. Most mainframes also have a Capacity on Demand feature, an option that facilitates automatic capacity upgrades so companies stay covered when sudden surges caused by instances like Brexit occur (when the world markets reacted to the Brexit decision, the capacity surge was handled seamlessly).

Why Do You Want to Migrate?

This is the most important question. When working code is gold, why would the Federal Government spend precious tax dollars to migrate off of the most secure, highest-processing-capacity platform? Instead of migrating something off the mainframe, why not leverage it in a new way?

For instance, in his Nextgov article, Michael T. McHugh, president of the Government Digital Solutions Group at DMI, wrote, “Inspector productivity was being negatively affected by a federal agency’s legacy inspection application. By leveraging an agile approach, the agency built a mobile inspection solution to streamline and automate the inspection process.”

Amongst other benefits, McHugh noted:

“Its [the mobile inspection solution] integration with legacy systems helped leverage existing investments, therefore justifying the innovation, which was based on a tightly defined test and learn cycle.”

Think Twice Before Re-platforming

Dyson’s and McHugh’s examples offer a view of how federal agencies can leverage the capabilities of their existing non-legacy systems, rather than doing away with them. Before federal IT makes the decision to migrate mainframe applications to the cloud, let’s make sure our federal technology leaders consider how beneficial their current investments are in existing IT systems like the mainframe.

Legacy is defined as obsolete and out of date. COBOL, of which 220 billion lines exist today, has been continuously updated since it was first released in 1959, with the latest update (COBOL 6.2) delivered in 2016. Considering the compute capacity of the latest IBM z13 series mainframe and the ingenuity of COBOL, mainframe technology is light years from being classified as legacy.

There’s a reason the mainframe and COBOL are used to ensure the efficiency, security and reliability of billions of daily transactions. With innovative tools available today that demystify the complexity of the mainframe, federal IT can master the coding environment and harness the power of COBOL to maintain and advance the critical applications the mainframe holds for federal agencies.

Learn more about what the Federal Government can do to modernize the mainframe. Read the other posts in my “Modernize Federal IT” blog series:

Photo: Flickr: Marian

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Claire Bailey

Claire Bailey is the director of federal, state and local solutions for Compuware. She was previously the CTO of Arkansas for eight years.
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