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Modernizing State Mainframes — and Why It Matters (Contributed)

The pandemic proved that to keep up with advancing need, states need to modernize legacy mainframe systems, and fast. These four strategies can help avoid calamity when the next crisis hits.

It’s no secret that many essential technologies utilized by the government are out of date, and while some modernization projects have been in talks for years on end, the pandemic proved that there isn’t a second left to waste when getting these projects in motion. This is because these technologies were not designed with on-demand scalability and modern business agility in mind, and as a result, were overwhelmed by increased demand and ultimately taken offline entirely at a time when citizens needed them most.

The timely completion of modernization projects for states can also directly impact modernization initiatives at the federal level, as well. When lawmakers recently proposed a bill that would require individual states to take complete responsibility for handling the payouts of unemployment benefits to their citizens, this plan was unable to be put into action as many states are operating on mainframes that are over 60 years old and were never designed to integrate with the Internet or emerging technologies. As a result, changes to these systems could not be made in real-time — rendering the entire approach ineffective and incompatible with their modern business demands.

In order to better serve their citizens and comply with the plans laid by the federal government as a whole, how can states avoid the challenges faced by so many just in 2020 alone? The solution is to modernize their mainframes.


The first state to battle its own unemployment system was New Jersey, which resulted in the governor releasing a call for developers specializing in COBOL to help them wrangle their failed IT system and get it back up and running. However, the challenges for states didn’t end here — and before long, California, Oregon and more found themselves relying on archaic systems that weren’t able to keep up with unprecedented spikes in demand. With this in mind, it’s vital that states get ahead of any potential issues within their legacy systems; but as only 16 states have fully modernized their unemployment systems, any states that further delay action can expect similar challenges at their doorstep. 


Modernization projects can’t be completed overnight. Rather, an organization’s modernization journey can require up to a few years to complete —  and that’s assuming that the project goes according to plan.

As not all modernization projects are successful, it’s absolutely vital that government agencies set, and stick to, clear and defined timelines. To understand how to set reasonable modernization milestones, it is important to complete an assessment to establish an in-depth understanding of the environment and its interdependencies. Assessments should be performed by modernization experts using automated tools. This exercise exposes mainframe artifacts that organizations did not know they had, relationships they did not realize existed, and assets that are no longer in use.  An assessment provides stakeholders with valuable insight to inform application modernization decisions such as disposition strategies and target environment architectures. It also mitigates cost and risk by highlighting potential challenges and how to overcome them. Modernization expertise is an important component of translating assessments into action because migrations across platforms can pose challenges that may not be intuitive to those who have not undergone such an exercise in the past. 

Four Ways to Modernize Mainframes

An organization’s IT systems are as unique as the organization itself. As a result, there is no blanket approach that’s suitable for any and all modernization projects. Rather, these systems are built for the specific purpose or function, and between decades of ad hoc updates and changes performed by developers who have long since retired, it’s vital that the first step government entities take when pursuing modernization is consulting with IT experts. 

Through conducting automated, in-depth assessments of their systems with a dedicated team familiar with the technology, organizations will be better positioned to determine and pursue the modernization strategy that makes the most sense for the system’s exact needs. Traditionally, organizations would pursue one of the four following approaches to modernization. 

The first strategy is system replacement. This is one of the highest-cost modernization strategies and is often viewed as a last resort. In this process, a government agency’s legacy system and applications are taken offline and replaced with off-the-shelf solutions from a third-party provider. While this strategy allows organizations to begin with a fresh start for their IT departments, it eliminates many benefits related to customizing the system in real time.

Alternatively, some organizations may prefer the rewriting approach, in which professional developers work to manually re-create the legacy application in a computing environment that is capable of surviving in the modern business — but this is is by far the costliest modernization strategy. This is because the approach holds a higher risk of failure, and because rewrites almost always suffer from explosive “scope creep,” or added features and functionalities without regards to cost or timeline, and require extended code freezes to be effective, which is essentially impossible with business-critical systems. 

In addition to the above strategies, organizations can pursue safer and more cost-effective strategies like rehosting, which allows them to break away from their aging mainframe while its procedural codebases and core functions are transferred to a newer environment that is suitable for today’s business demands; or automated refactoring, where a team of experts migrates procedural codebases to object-oriented equivalents via automated and specialized technologies.

However, as no two systems are the same, it’s imperative that organizations take the time to perform a detailed analysis of their specific systems and identify the strategy most likely to meet their needs — and to do so before it’s too late. 


If states continue to postpone essential modernization projects, then the issues faced by so many states before will come to the surface once again. As a result, it’s key that states make the effort to get ahead of any issues with their legacy systems and mainframes before they malfunction and ultimately deprive citizens of the essential services that they are designed for. Whether fueled by a pandemic or technological innovation, the next disruption to IT is on the horizon, and states are running out of time to address these challenges.

Brandon Edenfield is the managing director of application modernization at Advanced. Beginning his career as a developer, Brandon has since driven IT efficiency, agility and competitive advantage for customers through core application and database transformations for more than 28 years. You can follow him on LinkedIn.