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Looking to Its Future, Wyoming Is Optimizing Legacy Systems

Wyoming's departments of Transportation and Enterprise Technology Services are working with a vendor to map its in-house Revenue Information System while stabilizing the state's hardware by using mainframe-as-a-service.

The Revenue Information System (RIS) in Wyoming is an important one, containing as it does data related to drivers' licenses, vehicle registrations, voter registrations and state service applications. 

This is valuable information related to citizens, and so it makes RIS an important system for the state. RIS also operates on COBOL. COBOL is a green-screen operating system, and when Googled, it returns this as the top question, “Does anyone still use COBOL?” It is, simply put, a programming language that these days is widely found at use in legacy systems like RIS.

Replacing or modernizing legacy systems such as RIS is a recurring challenge for state government, especially as original designers and long-time users of the systems retire. New hires are no longer trained to use systems like COBOL, and so situations develop in which few people within agencies have extensive knowledge of the systems’ complexities. 

Wyoming CIO Gordon Knopp is well aware of this, and he said in a recent conversation with Government Technology that a replacement for RIS is overdue, a replacement that can communicate more effectively with other modern applications being used by the state. 

“People know that they type in these three pieces of data and out comes something else, but they don’t really know the programming behind it that makes that happen,” Knopp told Government Technology. “It’s a system that was built by a very talented group of people over time and then as we’ve lost those people, we’ve not been able to backfill, for whatever the reason might be, and we’re now in sort of a pinch as this system is on deprecated equipment.”

Outright replacing RIS is not an option, at least not yet, given that the state Legislature hasn’t approved funding for a new or updated version. So, as is the case in many states, Wyoming must work within its means to do what it can. 

The Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT), which is the agency responsible for the operating system, has been working with the Department of Enterprise Technology Services (ETS) to evaluate the state’s dependency on legacy systems, as well as to deploy temporary fixes and avenues to replace the RIS. WYDOT and ETS began a joint review of legacy systems after the agencies presented RIS replacement options to the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee in May.

WYDOT Support Services Administrator Taylor Rossetti said at the presentation that evidence at the time strongly supported a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solution, which would cost about $68 million to install and train staff over 10 years.

“From my standpoint, I don’t know that we’re trying to necessarily limit that discussion at this point in time,” Rossetti said. “What I think we’re looking at is what’s going on with vehicle registration, drivers' licenses and other overall licensing systems in other states to try to figure out what we are or aren’t doing in Wyoming that maybe we could.”

With outright replacing RIS limited, the state got to work optimizing the system it had. First, they enlisted the help of Virginia-based Mathtech Inc. to evaluate the operating system by identifying redundancies and optimizing workflows. Second, WYDOT and ETS moved the RIS from state-owned hardware to a mainframe-as-a-service provided by IBM.

“Right now, they’re creating data maps, data process maps and workflow maps that are associated with the RIS,” Knopp said. “We need to understand all the ins and outs of how that system operates in order to figure out how to improve it or if we’re just going to flat-out replace it. That’s what is in play right now.”

Knopp said Mathtech has allowed ETS staff to work alongside the vendor’s employees to document the intricacies of the RIS and to reduce the state’s dependency on contractors in the future. An improved understanding of the system will help his department provide better IT services and recommendations to other departments.

Knowledge gleaned from Mathtech, however, won’t cut Wyoming off entirely from vendor solutions, Knopp said. If his staff encounter a complex problem, then ETS would seek out the company for assistance.

“I think that’s a better use of the taxpayer dollar so that we don’t have to rely all the time on a third-party vendor, that we have some of that in-house expertise not just for any potential data upgrades, but just to make us a better service agency to those other agencies,” Knopp said. “It just makes good sense to do that. That’s something that I’m proud of that Mathtech is allowing us to sit shoulder to shoulder with them.”

Knopp said the decision to rid the state of failing hardware was underway when he came onboard as the state’s CIO in March. He said Wyoming officials were faced with either a mainframe move or a significant investment in hardware, and that the IBM mainframe-as-a-service satisfies privacy and regulatory requirements while stabilizing the RIS. Mathtech will discern how much time the move will buy the state before modernization becomes an absolute necessity.

Troy Babbitt, an emergency communications program manager with WYDOT, said his department must ensure that a potential software update doesn’t jeopardize the legacy systems and the information contained therein.

“I don’t believe we’ve settled totally on a COTS solution, that’s obviously one of the solutions that’s out there,” Babbitt said. “I think at this point in time we’re taking into account all options and I think the goal is to gather all those requirements so that we get to a point where an RFP does come back to find out what does come back as one of the best solutions.”

Babbitt said Mathtech’s findings, which should be ready in about a year, will provide WYDOT leaders with more concrete evidence to present to the Legislature.

Ideally, Knopp would like to see a replacement to the RIS that is user friendly, provides online and mobile services, and increases staff productivity.

“So that the agencies who are trying to provide help can focus on human beings helping human beings instead of workflow processes that are antiquated and outdated,” Knopp said. “To me, that’s a long-range vision. I don’t want to say that this is the vision for the state of Wyoming because we don’t know what that costs. We have to be responsible for the state’s resources and come up with the best balance of giving resources and being responsible.”

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.