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FCW : November 30, 2013
Commentary | JON DITTMER Fifteen years ago, I was an agency program manager challenged with modernizing a legacy Cobol supply chain system. Today, I sit on the industry side of the fence await- ing the release of a solicitation for modernizing that same system. As part of that solicitation, the Defense Department is trying to convert 40-year-old Cobol code to Java. Imagine what that Cobol code looks like "under the hood." It has been modi ed by hundreds of developers over the years without a major architectural upgrade. How agile do you think software mainte- nance is in that environment? Add an aging workforce to the equation (including one employee who is over 80 years old) and even- tually a major crisis will occur. It s inevitable --- and probably all too familiar. In the past 15 years, there seems to have been little to no progress on the majority of the government s many legacy modernization efforts. IT systems are just as critical to the mission today, if not more so. So why can t we seem to get legacy modernization right? Organizations that fail to mod- ernize will become unresponsive to customer and constituent needs, and they will ultimately not be com- petitive in the marketplace. Perhaps most important, the gap between where they are and where they need to be will only widen, which causes a much more painful, expen- sive and scary future. So why don t more agencies embrace legacy modernization? The reality is we are facing incredibly tight and shrinking budgets, more so today than in a long time. How- ever, in almost any scenario, there is usually a path forward --- if the enterprise can agree on the impor- tance of following it or, maybe more important, the risks of not doing so. If agencies do not take the appro- priate steps toward modernization, they will almost certainly incur increased costs related to perfor- mance and maintenance. With a modernized platform, organizations can add capabilities and enhance overall performance while reducing their electronic footprint. However, IT organizations often fail to grasp those fundamental risks and rewards in terms of real business or mission impact --- or in terms of the costs associated with the cultural or operational changes that might be required. Furthermore, we often nd ourselves in the middle of positive change and modernization only to nd that someone loses patience, new executives change direction or 10 reasons surface for why we should stop modernizing --- for example, the actual or perceived cost or a newfound faith in the old system. Those reasons create inconsistent and overly complicated IT systems that are outdated and ineffective. They are the proverbial skeletons in the closet of legacy modernization. Organizations can t get rid of them, and over time, the IT organization loses credibility and the ability to effect positive change. We need to rid ourselves of those skeletons before they cripple our organizations. When a system no longer supports your business processes or when there is an off- the-shelf solution that meets your needs, consider a complete over- haul or replacement. However, modernization will usually be the right approach when your business rules still align with the system and your biggest issues are tied to legacy cost and lack of agility. Some systems will bene t from a minor platform tweak to enhance performance and lower the cost of operations, while others will need to be fully redesigned, often including a full source code translation to a modern baseline along with functional and technical engineering. All modernization is not created equal, but delaying the effort will only put more skeletons in the closet and increase the size, scope and scariness of the modernization that s required down the road. ■ The scary truth about modernization Delaying efforts to update or replace legacy IT systems has serious implications for agencies' ability to achieve their missions Inconsistent and overly complicated IT systems are the proverbial skeletons in the closet of legacy modernization. JON DITTMER is vice president and general manager of the defense sector at Array Information Technology. 12 November 30, 2013 FCW.COM
November 15, 2013