5 steps to developing an application modernization strategy

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Successfully modernizing application infrastructure is possible if agencies are meticulous about their plans and the problems they are trying to solve.

It’s been six years since the Office of Management and Budget began pushing agencies to modernize their applications. Yet IT spending continues to focus on the operations and maintenance of existing IT investments. In June 2019, the Government Accountability Office reported 80% of the $90 billion federal IT budget was to be spent to run and maintain legacy applications.

This situation is problematic for several reasons. These aging systems are becoming increasingly obsolete and difficult to maintain. They use outdated software languages and unsupported hardware parts -- some as much as 50 years old. As they age, they also introduce cybersecurity risk and are less effective at accomplishing their intended purpose.

While achieving application modernization takes time and isn’t without its challenges, the benefits -- agility, greater efficiencies, cost savings, improved security and compliance -- are considerable.

To help agencies focus their efforts, here are five best practices to follow when developing an application modernization strategy.

1. Identify mission-critical applications

Agencies must first identify their high-value assets and consider how they would benefit from improved scalability, performance, security and reliability.

To gain these insights, agencies must be clear about what each application does, the problems and opportunities it addresses, its maintenance costs and how it could benefit from modernization. From there, they can drill down into application specifics, such as how the service is delivered, who leverages it and the capabilities and limitations of the technology in terms of performance and function. Hard data can help with these insights, but it’s also important agencies get input from everyone who has a stake in the application.

With this information, leaders can make explicit decisions about which applications to invest in and then drive the initiative from the top down -- linking modernization goals and priorities to mission outcomes. 

2. Consider available resources

Application modernization is both a technical and cultural challenge, and successful strategies must account for both.

To guide transformation efforts, agencies should identify leaders who possess a granular command of the application environment and the holistic impact of any changes to the ecosystem on people, process and technology. This means having a firm understanding of the application and its interdependencies -- what the application is, how it works, what it connects with (databases, storage, network or other applications) and how it’s maintained over time.

Skillsets within the development team should also be considered. A keen understanding of modern application development methods and how IT can support the mission is essential. In the absence of those skills, the cost of contracting to a systems integrator must be accounted for.

3. Decide how modernization will be approached

Agencies must consider several different approaches. Responses can range from adding new features to the existing architecture to ensure it better aligns with the needs of end users, to completely retooling and reconstructing the infrastructure. With the help of containers, modern application stacks, microservices and the cloud, it becomes easier to develop, deploy, manage and scale today’s government applications to better meet demand.

Consider recent examples of legacy systems unable to cope with unexpected peak capacity, such as technical glitches at the Small Business Administration during the rollout of the agency’s COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program. Application modernization and cloud migration can address challenges like this by enabling applications to scale elastically and adapt to changing workloads.

4. Track performance improvements

After the initial modernization phase is complete, the ability to monitor infrastructure and applications, down to the code level, is critical to ensuring application performance. Modernized infrastructure and applications have numerous breakpoints. Any issues with the code, network, database, cloud environment and servers can impact end-user performance or operational continuity.

To understand how an application is functioning and remediate any issues quickly, agencies need tools to help them achieve full-stack monitoring from the infrastructure to the end-user experience across both legacy and cloud environments. Measuring application performance also helps agencies demonstrate success by informing how modernization has improved application functionality, optimized the IT environment and pointed to where additional optimization can help.

5. Plan for process change

There are many examples of agencies excelling at application modernization, including the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Personnel Management and the Social Security Administration. However, as the GAO uncovered in its 2019 report, most agencies lack complete plans to modernize their legacy systems. This can lead to cost overruns, schedule delays and project failure.

Successfully modernizing application infrastructure is possible if agencies are meticulous about their plans and the problems they are trying to solve. The resources are there, yet agencies are often handcuffed by process issues. By looking to their peers, adopting best practices and pairing people who develop the code with those who understand the mission, agencies can open the floodgates to modernization and build systems that are efficient, scalable and enhance mission outcomes.

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