It's time to trash your legacy system and rewrite from scratch

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The conventional wisdom – that modernizing legacy IT is a lengthy process, adequate funding is impossible to get and feds will resist change at every turn – may all be bunk.

"A year and a half ago, I probably thought that we could solve this problem [of severely outdated legacy IT] through incremental migration," said Rob Klopp, CIO of the Social Security Administration, at 1105 Media's Acquire show June 8. "Now I'm pretty much of the opinion that what we need to do is understand the business rules and the business process that's embedded in these legacy systems and just rewrite."

Incremental improvement has been a defining feature of major, decades-long modernization projects, such as the IRS Individual Master File replacement.

But Klopp's experiences have left him thinking it's just as good to scrap the old system wholesale.

"What I believe is that we're getting to the point where the amount of effort to take 30-year-old software and migrate it into a modern environment," Klopp said, "is equal to or greater than the amount of effort to just sort of get your head wrapped around the business rules that are encoded in that monolith and [then] just rewrite from scratch."

Klopp also said federal programmers, many of whom helped build the legacy systems they run today, will likely love a chance to leap ahead on the tech curve, as SSA is doing with Windows 10 adoption.

"The reality is that programmers are geeks whether they program in COBOL or program in Node.js," Klopp said. "When I came to these folks and said, 'Look, there's a new way of doing things, and you probably missed a couple of generations and let's just skip right to the modern way of doing things,' I found that the excitement was palpable."

He added, "All of this talk about culture being a gigantic barrier to moving forward is really kind of a bunch of fluff."

Richard McKinney, CIO of the Transportation Department, echoed Klopp's assessment of agency techies, noting they could be valuable allies against program-level administrators who might balk at change.

McKinney and Klopp agreed that the proposed government-wide $3.1 billion IT modernization fund would provide exactly the sort of seed money needed to jumpstart legacy overhauls.

"The cost of modernization probably isn't what you think if we do it in a modern way," Klopp said.

Instead of giant billion-dollar projects, modernization builds can be broken down into several $25 or $50 million modules, he said, noting that, "in Silicon Valley, there are no $100 million software startups."

While McKinney didn't endorse complete system rewrites with Klopp's gusto, he did stress the importance of rethinking processes during modernization, instead of blindly copying old code into new formats.

He remembered "paving the cow path" decades ago by coding paper processes directly into electronic systems.

Now, he said, it's time to do more than just layer new code on the old paths. 

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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