What Companies Can Learn From New Jersey’s COBOL Disaster
In April, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy quickly found himself in an IT nightmare when the state’s unemployment system was hit with a sudden wave of COVID-driven claims. An unprecedented 362,000 residents had applied for unemployment in just two weeks’ time, putting a severe strain on the mainframe applications that support the backend system and causing a state-wide cry for programmers fluent in its 60-year-old legacy language, COBOL. As website outages and system failures ensued, residents already fearful of a worldwide pandemic were simultaneously left without access to a very important lifeline.
While this scenario more publicly exposed the state’s outdated technology, one of the more eye-opening facts is that it’s not the first time the mainframe’s stability has come into question. Not even close.
In fact, according to NJ.com, the state’s Department of Labor described “the dire need to modernize the state’s archaic unemployment website” and how “the failure to do so could lead to catastrophic problems in the event of a spike in unemployment” in a report that was published in 2003. Nearly 20 years have passed without successful modernization for such critical systems.
Unfortunately, these antiquated mainframes are rampant particularly within the government sector — New Jersey isn’t the only state that has succumbed to the error of avoiding modernization. Oregon’s Employment Department also failed to update its legacy systems after years of concern, leaving thousands of Oregonians without access to unemployment. Other states, such as New York and Connecticut, rely on unemployment systems that are over 40 years old and that were similarly overwhelmed and burdened by the influx of unemployment claims.
As the pandemic rages on, many organizations have recognized the severity of the threats associated with delaying modernization. Even without unemployment benefits to distribute, companies of all sizes and across all industries that willingly choose not to migrate their applications toward more modernized environments are at greater risk of system failure, often lack agility and strong competitive edge, and are essentially burning money that could be used elsewhere.
The 2020 Mainframe Modernization Business Barometer Report actually found that 33 percent of the 400 respondents who pursued modernization were better enabled to react to market changes, and those that choose to modernize essential parts of their legacy systems could ultimately realize around $31 million in savings over 12 months.
Whether caused by a pandemic, an executive order, or market shifts, organizations clearly need agile systems that can adapt to demands in real time and that can keep up with the one constant in IT: disruption.
To do this, it’s important that they consider the following.
The Biggest Issue Starts with Mainframe Architectures, Not COBOL
While programming languages like COBOL were created well before the inception of “the cloud” and — as we’ve seen — can be a detrimental factor for organizations, the core issues of legacy mainframes go much deeper than the coding used and are rooted in the infrastructure they physically sit on.
In order to enable horizontal scalability required for every modern system today and integrate newer software and applications, addressing the infrastructure is the main first step toward overall innovation.
COBOL Isn’t the Only Language of Which to Be Mindful
COBOL has taken the brunt of criticism within the last year, but the truth is, it’s not the only programming language that can become a giant headache.
Code based in CA-Gen, CA-Telon and Natural — or Computer Aided Software Engineering (CASE) application development environments — are essentially COBOL’s evil step-siblings. Developed in the 1970s and 1980s, these languages offered significant agility for developers at the time, but today have even less fluent programmers and therefore smaller pools of talent that can handle updates and maintenance — all challenges that can result in disaster.
How to Identify the Right Modernization Strategy
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to modernization and not all organizations require a complete rewrite, which is almost always more expensive and prone to failure than other methods.
Through in-depth, automated assessments with experts, companies can best decide their new target environments and the timelines and key steps to get there. And whether they choose tactics such as automated refactoring, rehosting, or replacement, they will be that much better positioned to migrate their applications to the cloud, integrate other critical applications and software, and find greater business growth and success as a result.
While modernization is often viewed by organizations as a daunting, time consuming, and costly task, today’s current events have further exemplified the importance of digging in and overcoming those fears to ensure their long-term futures. As state agencies can attest, it’s only a matter of time before the legacy mainframe bubble bursts, and for those organizations that take it seriously now, they’ll be much more prepared for whatever comes their way.