Press release

Warning over mainframe and legacy technology

15 January 2019

A leading figure in the North East’s IT sector has warned companies and organisations across the UK must act now to tackle the growing risks from ageing mainframe computers. 

Many big mainframe computers were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s by companies like IBM. At the time, they were exactly what was needed in terms of mass batch processing and many terminal users being able to carry out basic transactional operations. 

But now these mainframes are approaching – and in some cases have passed – their ‘end of life’ stage. Virtually all mainframes use COBOL coding, which is almost 60 years old. The coding was often well written and is still working well, but it is outdated and there’s a real problem in finding sufficiently-qualified COBOL coders to keep mainframes going when problems arise. 

And more and more problems are arising. 

For instance, infrastructure components associated with mainframes are increasingly no longer being supported by suppliers or manufacturers. 

Getting the right people is a serious problem, COBOL developers have retired and the current generation of coders just isn’t interested in what many see as unsexy, uninteresting, archaic code. So there is a genuine lack of skills to maintain and support mainframes, which so often are mission critical to firms and organisations. 

It’s not just people, though. IT companies no longer support some of the software being used, while firmware and hardware spares can be almost impossible to find. Similarly, warranties are running out and cannot be replaced. 

A man wearing a plaid shirt holding a long sheet of code and smiling
"Only six per cent of UK financial service firms were aware when their infrastructure components will reach their end-of-life date and will no longer be supported by suppliers"

Lack of awareness

But despite the growing problem, there is a worrying lack of awareness of the risks involved. 

A recent survey revealed only six per cent of UK financial service firms were aware when their infrastructure components will reach their end-of-life date and will no longer be supported by suppliers. Worse still, this figure dropped to two per cent among smaller firms with fewer than 500 employees. 

So it’s not just mainframes, but a wider problem of ageing IT infrastructure, and it’s not just the financial sector concerned about issue. 

We’ve recently worked with the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) on migrating their mainframe. 

The NHSBSA provides a vast range of critical business services, which support the NHS as a whole in its daily activity. Among other responsibilities, the NHBSA manages the systems which ensure pharmacists are paid for all prescriptions issued. This involves processing around a billion prescription items. 

Opencast had previously worked with the NHSBSA on updating and repurposing systems dealing with the way prescriptions are funded, paid for and reported on.  

An Opencast team supplemented the NHSBSA team working on the mainframe migration at its Newburn site in Newcastle. 

The mainframe systems would have incurred a sizeable upgrade cost to keep them running – some of the COBOL code we’ve encountered was written me a very long time ago! 

Rather than transfer the mainframe services like-for-like, the solution was to transform these services to better fit the needs of the NHSBSA.  This included:  

  •          Removing the need for the mainframe from the end of December 2018 
  •          Simplifying and standardising information reporting 
  •          Harmonising technology stacks across the organisation to simplify support and cut costs 
  •          Modernising the way in which letters to the public are produced. 

The programme started in April 2017 and the final mainframe switch-off successfully happened in January this year as planned. 

It was a complicated process as Opencast had to have a comprehensive understanding of the complex and numerous functions performed by the mainframe before any migration could even be thought about. 

Over the years since it was first introduced there have been many patches and software workarounds that we had to fully understand. On top of this, as elsewhere, the mainframe had been layer caked with a more modern system to improve the interface so we had to fully understand the implications of this. 

Having tried and failed once before, then achieving the automation and conversion of the entire code base, working in collaboration between the NHSBSA and Opencast proved to be both pragmatic and achieved the desired outcome in an effective manner.  Opencast worked closely with the NHSBSA Programme team to understand, and where appropriate, rationalise both requirements and components needed.  

As a consequence of this achievement, the NHSBSA now has a much better platform to further enhance and improve its management of drugs databases and to respond to new and changing demands in a more flexible way. 

Our work with NHSBSA is just one example of the issue of mainframe and legacy technology – thankfully they recognised the potential problem and tackled it in a way that shows a great example of government working with SMEs to deliver change. 

Alarm bells ringing

Elsewhere in government, however, alarm bells are ringing. Recently, the Science and Technology Committee into digital government was warned the Treasury needs to offer urgent funding in the next spending review to eliminate ageing technology in Whitehall. 

MPs on the committee were told the plans need to be given top priority, even though there are no specific standards on how the problem should be handled or mandates to enforce or oversee the modernisation. 

The Government Cybersecurity Group is working with the Government Digital Service and the National Cyber security Centre to help departments find the cash needed to tackle legacy technology as part of the spending review, which will be completed later this year 

So government is waking up to the issue, but generally there is still a serious lack of awareness of the need for mainframe migration and the need to think about and plan to overcome legacy technology problems. 

It’s a serious and very real threat that isn’t going to go away – it’s only going to get worse. 

It’s time to act now. 

Government is waking up to the issue, but generally there is still a serious lack of awareness of the need for mainframe migration and the need to think about and plan to overcome legacy technology problems

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