Railroad Retirement Board sets strategy to move off COBOL

Thursday - 1/30/2014, 10:42am EST

Ram Murthy, CIO, Railroad Retirement Board

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The Railroad Retirement Board is on a path to finally ditch the COBOL programming language. But moving away from mainframe computers and the computer language first developed in 1959 will take some time.

Ram Murthy, the chief information officer of the RRB, said he has a four-year plan to incrementally modernize the agency's systems.

"We just migrated to a new mainframe to sustain our operations for the next four years, so that gives me the window opportunity to move forward with our enterprise IT roadmap, focusing primarily on self service and enhanced identity management solutions for the railroad community," he said. "I'm also looking at mobile computing with the bring-your-own-device and possibly a private cloud for computing, storage and utilization to address legacy computing and storage capacity limitations."

The reason to move away from COBOL is two-fold.

One is because there are better, more efficient technologies to run the RRB's back-office systems. The agency has already migrated most of its customer-facing systems to a Microsoft .Net environment.

The second reason is a workforce issue. Murthy said many of his employees have 30 to 40 years of experience and soon will retire, and finding new workers who know COBOL is getting more difficult each year.

"We are more in the request for information stage, trying to see what's out there. I'm not looking at it pure lines of code to lines of code translation," he said. "I'm more looking at, can we use this also to modernize and streamline our operations? How can we move away from the batch processing to more real time?"

Murthy said the back office systems must be updated in order to provide access to data and systems through mobile devices.

"We need to make sure we have a stable environment for the next four years, so that's why we made the investment," he said. "We are in the process of implementing and putting it into production next month. In the enterprise roadmap we are working on, it's called office in the cloud. So in four years, we would like to change the culture here so that we embrace virtualization, people can work from anywhere and possibly we've solved some of the limitations on the compute side and storage side. So yes, four years is a long window, but I do have milestones to get us there."

He said in the short term, the RRB will launch a proof of concept to migrate a COBOL application to the new technologies.

"That's the target I'd like to establish by September. What that gives me is, am I right on budget planning? Do I need more?" Murthy said. "As well as some of the other things on the infrastructure side like strong identity management. Could we also do a proof of concept to see if these solutions will really work for us?"

In the meantime, Murthy said he's also planning to move the customer facing applications and other front-office systems to Windows 7 and away from XP and other older operating systems. He, like many federal CIOs, has to complete this migration by April, as Microsoft announced it will stop supporting the older operating systems.

"Our goal is to finish the project by April 8. It is challenging, but if you have a good standard image, a good process and good IT governance in place, then it shouldn't be too difficult," he said. "That is what we are enforcing as we are doing the migration from Windows XP to Windows 7. We also are looking from an IT governance point of view, making sure that we have a good catalog of the applications that are being used and we have a baseline of the standard image we are going to deploy."

As part of that migration to Windows 7, Murthy said the RRB will speed up the implementation of logical access using smart identity cards under Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12.

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