modernize federal government IT
September 23, 2016 COBOL, Mainframe Agility

How Mainframe Innovation Can Help Modernize Federal Government IT

In an effort to reduce the $86 billion a year the Federal Government allots to outdated or obsolete IT systems, Congress introduced the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2016, or the MGT Act, on the basis of replacing those IT systems with more reliable, secure, modern technology.

The government wants to modernize its IT systems to make better use of taxpayers’ funds expectedly used to enhance security and well-being. That is fantastic, but first, let’s make sure we are optimizing our systems that work well for our citizens.

The MGT Act allows for funds to be used to improve, retire or replace existing IT systems. Taking full stock of what works and improving the citizen system of engagement will help better serve Americans and optimize our tax dollars. Amalgamating disparate technologies into one body classified as outdated or obsolete is a potentially misguided move.

Rather than assuming all of the Federal Government’s older IT systems are outdated or obsolete, federal technologists must consider where they can improve existing systems that still function better than alternative platforms—migrations to which could prove expensive, risk-prone and time-consuming.

For example, grouping a historical IT system like the mainframe in with actual legacy IT systems doesn’t present an equitable comparison. In fact, the mainframe is a prime example of an IT system the Federal Government must work to preserve and modernize.

The Necessity of COBOL

Since the mid-20th century, the mainframe platform has been continually innovated to meet the accelerating demands of the global economy. Today, the largest version of the IBM z13 mainframe is capable of processing 2.5 billion transactions a day, and can store 10 terabytes of memory—enough to load the entire Library of Congress.

As the language of the mainframe and the foundational language of the global digital economy, COBOL is the most efficient language for driving the critical applications and data residing on the mainframe, which companies, the Federal Government and citizens rely on daily.

The mainframe’s incredibly complex and critical applications and data, many of which were instituted decades ago, still run well because of the ingenuity of COBOL. Re-platforming these applications and data would cost enormous amounts of time and money, and would pose a major risk of losing or leaking irretrievable data that acts as DNA for enterprises, and likewise for the Federal Government.

The mainframe platform and COBOL are insignificant, false problems. To optimize the tax dollars we have across the spectrum of federal technology, the culture, processes and tools the Federal Government’s mainframe IT teams currently use can be tuned to truly drive innovation.

Using Incremental Development Processes

Historically, the mainframe environment has included slow, drawn-out development lifecycles within a partisan silo apart from the rest of IT. This type of development is impractical for success in today’s Agile digital economy.

Just as companies must become Agile to stay competitive in hyper-competitive digital markets, the Federal Government’s mainframe IT teams must continually increase the speed and efficiency of application development and delivery and data management to be as fast and efficient as the companies and citizens it supports, let alone the governments of other world powers it competes with.

With Agile, the Federal Government can use incremental development processes like the two-week sprint to produce minimum viable products that benefit citizens based on their feedback, and continue building on those minimum viable products over time to produce a combined, larger solution that answers many specific needs of citizens.

Many assume this incremental development isn’t viable on the mainframe. However, Compuware is a prime example of how feasible mainframe agility is if the right modernized mainframe development tools are available. As such, the Federal Government must take a fresh look at the tools it uses on the mainframe if it wishes to truly modernize the platform.

Driving Innovation with Modern Tools

Modern mainframe development tools look and feel like the modern distributed development tools Millennials rave about—tools used to develop and manage our web, mobile and cloud applications. These modernized tools go against the grain of the siloed, slow development inherent on the mainframe.

Whereas mainframe tools were once sequestered to mainframe development, and distributed tools to those systems, modern mainframe development tools leverage DevOps to be functional across platforms by integrating with and leveraging the capabilities of non-mainframe tools and environments.

Enabling cross-platform development between the mainframe and distributed systems is the essence of mainframe modernization, and aligns with the motives of the Federal Government’s efforts to modernize its IT systems.

Preserve and Modernize the Mainframe

The mainframe platform and COBOL aren’t the issues the Federal Government must deal with in order to improve the efficiency of its IT systems. Large enterprises have been running their most business-critical applications and processing heaps of sensitive data on the mainframe for decades, and the majority have already determined its vital relevancy into the future as the digital economy accelerates.

Let’s all work together to follow industry trends, optimize tax dollars and focus on what our citizens rely on most: a government that works effectively and efficiently. With the MGT Act, the Federal Government is positioned to do just that: focus on implementing a new mainframe culture with incremental development processes and modernized development tools that support modernization across all IT systems and streamline access to critical federal applications and data.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how the Federal Government can enable this modernization and streamlined access even more by strategically leveraging the mainframe with the cloud after answering a few important questions about where applications should exist.

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

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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.