Ohio mainframe exodus wraps up in 84,500 hours

The Ohio Department of Public Safety chose to do all the work in-house when it moved from an aging mainframe to a .Net system.

Earlier this year, the Ohio Department of Public Safety successfully completed a five-year effort to move its mainframe applications to a Windows-based system, and IT personnel did all of the work in-house.

The agency began work on the switchover in 2007 and put the finishing touches on the project in March of this year. The mainframe is now unplugged.

Before embarking on the migration, officials knew the department's Unisys ClearPath Dorado mainframe had to be retired. It was nearing its end-of-life phase, and the MIPS fees that Unisys charged were a burden. Most of the applications on the mainframe were written in Pacbase, an old IBM programming language that became increasingly difficult to support as veteran programmers retired.

Nonetheless, there was much debate about how to migrate applications that had long run the agency's most important operations to a more modern system. Some feared that the task of rewriting mainframe code in Microsoft's .Net language would prove too difficult for the department's engineers and felt that an outside firm should be hired.

Keith Albert, the Ohio Department of Public Safety's chief of IT governance and strategic direction, said that in 2007, the mainframe was running 2,000 programs, about 50 of which no one knew anything about. As IT staffers retired, knowledge about many of the applications was lost.

Officials finally decided to handle the project in-house after hearing estimates that bringing in consultants to handle a transition to Windows could cost as much as $10 million, Albert said.

The planning process proved a bit disconcerting early on, because agency IT officials could find little information about similar migrations that had been successful. "We couldn't find anything out there that said we were going down the right path," Albert recalled.

The department launched the project by spending some $250,000 to provide .Net training to veteran staffers who were more familiar with mainframes and Pacbase, Albert said.

The core of the development team included about 30 in-house staffers and a few contractors who, by Albert's count, spent a total of about 84,500 person-hours on the project.

The team faced significant challenges related to code. In addition to the fact that there were 50 programs that no current staffers knew anything about, there was no inventory for 5% of the code.

Some of the code-related problems were resolved by using a Fujitsu compiler that let Pacbase code execute in Windows. The agency will still need people with Pacbase skills until all of the code is fully rewritten in .Net. "As long as my Pacbase programmers stick around long enough to keep things running, my .Net programmers can rewrite it," Albert said.

To help other IT professionals who are looking to migrate off of mainframes, Albert wrote an 18-page report detailing the steps taken during the migration and the issues faced by the development and management teams. That document is posted on the Ohio Department of Public Safety's website.

Albert did say that the department would have kept the mainframe if Unisys had extended the product's life and cut its MIPS (or millions of instructions per second) fees, which were about $1 million a year.

Unisys, in a written response to a query about the migration, said the agency "made its decision to transition off of its ClearPath system before Unisys introduced the new NextGen platforms and modernization technology."

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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