The US Government Accountability Office released a report about legacy systems that various federal agencies still use…including one mainframe-based system used by the Treasury Department coded in assembler. Sounds scary, especially when Ars Technica headlines it as “Government agencies keep sacrificing cash to zombie IT systems, GAO finds”, right?
Well, if it’s that scary, then you should close out your bank accounts, credit cards, and insurance to name a few sectors that still use mainframe at the core of their business processes. We tend to see a system gain a number of years on it as “old” and “obsolete” since technology does change constantly. Mainframe systems are viewed in a negative light mainly because they’ve been around for so long and continue to do their job (mass transaction processing) quite well. In fact, the mainframe continues to evolve to keep up with the pace of technological change and the growing demands of mobile technology.
That’s not to say that these systems can run indefinitely. Things break. Weird things happen when you put data in the wrong place, and you need people who are knowledgeable about the business function and systems in order to maintain a happy, healthy system. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a z Series mainframe, Windows box, Linux box, or Mac box.
One thing the GAO report does point out is the lack of skills necessary to maintain these older systems. COBOL, High-Level Assembler (HLASM), and other mainframe skills aren’t cutting edge and they’ve been around for a while. Of course, the UNIX operating system (which Linux and Mac OS both owe their lineage to), C programming language, and Objective-C (which, until recently, iOS applications used as their base language) have been around over 30 years.
The lack of skilled talent is a symptom that affects both the public and private sector, and it’s something that both our education system and private industry should be working in order to fill the talent gap.
Technical systems need to be updated for sure (ain’t nobody using 8″ floppy disks any more), but I would be cautious of folks promising huge cost savings from converting tried-and-true legacy systems to “modern” platforms. It’s an expensive process that may or may not have a long-lasting total cost of ownership. Remember, it’s still your money at work.
Of course, Lawton suggests letting the brainiacs at GA Tech take a whack at it, but I’m sure they’ll just say “send it to the cloud.”