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Overview

The United States Air Force (USAF) operates a mission critical maintenance & logistics system serving over 260,000 users in support of global warfighting capabilities. IT leaders in the organization sought to increase agility and establish a platform for digital transformation while preserving decades of investment in existing application code.

A 2019 report from the US General Accountability Office (GAO) identified this system as being among the Federal Government’s top 10 most critical legacy systems in need of modernization. Key concerns expressed by the GAO were escalating system costs, aging hardware, potential security vulnerabilities, and a lack of qualified personnel to provide long-term support for legacy technologies.

In addition, the existing mainframe system was unable to effectively support digital transformation technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Air Force leaders sought to increase overall agility so that system enhancements could be deployed more frequently, positively impacting front line warfighters.

Given the mission-critical nature of this system, the Air Force had stringent requirements for security and disaster recovery. They selected Microsoft Azure as the platform that could best serve these needs, while providing a robust foundation for ongoing innovation.

The USAF chose to work with Astadia because of the company’s reputation as the world’s foremost experts in mainframe modernization. Through the course of numerous Unisys modernization projects, Astadia has developed a set of tools and project management methodologies that maximize efficiency and thoroughness while minimizing risk.

The Air Force chose to work with Micro Focus Government Solutions because of their holistic suite of tools and their leadership position in enabling digital transformation and modern DevOps practices for government clients.

Challenge

IT leaders responsible for the maintenance & logistics system faced some formidable challenges:

  • Steadily increasing operating costs were expected to surpass $29 million annually in 2020, with further steep increases predicted in the short-term.
  • Dependence on a shared-services mainframe environment placed constraints on the timing and scope of system enhancements.
  • The diminishing availability of skilled mainframe workers introduced increased cost and risk to ongoing maintenance and enhancements efforts.
  • Limited integration and analytics capabilities served as a hard obstacle to innovation.

The organization had invested heavily in developing the system over its lifetime and could not afford the disruption and risk associated with re-writing or replacing major portions of the code.  Because the system provides mission-critical support for US warfighting capabilities, this project called for re-platforming to the cloud under a “least disruptive” approach that could assure continuity of operations without the need to re-train the system’s 260,000 users deployed around the world.

For IT leaders in the Armed Forces, this project served as a “pathfinder” initiative; that is, a demonstration of what can be achieved when strategic vision, planning and outstanding execution are applied to an especially challenging problem.

Solution

IT leaders within the Air Force put forward a vision of re-platforming their mainframe system to the cloud, preserving existing investments in the system while modernizing and preparing the way for digital transformation.

They selected Astadia because of the company’s proven track record in mainframe modernization, including very challenging Unisys migrations. Astadia’s assets also include proprietary tools and methodologies for planning and executing complex, high-profile projects. The company has established working relationships with key project participants Microsoft and Micro Focus Government Solutions, enabling them to bring even more value to a project of this scope and complexity.

“We are extremely proud of what we have achieved for the US Air Force, producing a successful outcome on a project that many people thought might not be possible,” said Scott G. Silk, Astadia’s Chairman and CEO. “We are even prouder to have contributed to an outcome that will help the men and women of the US military to better fulfill their mission.”

The client selected Microsoft Azure because of its scalability and performance, its advanced disaster recovery and failover capabilities, and its globally distributed architecture. “This is only the beginning; by moving to a PaaS database service, the USAF can utilize additional capabilities including AI/ML to provide anomaly detection and predictive maintenance in order to increase aircraft uptime.” said Bob Ellsworth, Microsoft’s Director of Mainframe Transformation. “This migration is a great example of bringing together a partner with innovative capabilities, a cloud platform with continuous innovation, and a mission-driven organization with a strong desire to innovate.”

Astadia’s Database Management Software (OpenDMS) has enabled existing application code to work seamlessly with Microsoft’s modern relational database (AzureSQL), dramatically reducing project risk and paving the way for predictive analytics and other digital transformation initiatives.

The team also leveraged Visual COBOL and other tools from Micro Focus. Kevin Hansen, Chief Technologist for Micro Focus Government Solutions, explains: “The client’s existing COBOL application code now runs within Microsoft’s .NET framework in the cloud. This not only eliminates the significant risks associated with rewriting code; it also paves the way for continued improvement of the system using a fully integrated DevOps approach.  It enables the Air Force to deploy legacy COBOL code together with a range of modern programming languages and technologies.”

Results

This modernization effort was an especially complex, high-profile project, highlighted as a top priority by the GAO and the military. It involved migrating the USAF’s most complex Unisys 2200 COBOL application to the cloud, while making minimal changes to application source code. In addition, the system’s legacy Unisys DMS data was moved to AzureSQL, also without requiring substantial changes to legacy code.

Astadia worked together seamlessly with military IT staff as a unified team, alongside partners Microsoft and Micro Focus Government Solutions. Together, the project participants delivered a successful outcome for this very high-profile initiative. Their efforts included a full DevSecOps process, as well as the deployment of DevOps and Agile methodologies to reduce release cycle frequencies from 2 to 4 per year to an agile on-demand release process. This resulted in a 92% improvement in the team’s capacity to respond to the USAF’s changing needs and requirements.

Security, monitoring, and disaster recovery have been improved as well, with ACAS and vulnerability assessments now built into the process, DISA STIGs for Windows Server automatically enabled and updated, and Azure native cloud services providing key capabilities such as Azure Metrics and Application Insights, Azure Site Recovery, and more.

IT leaders in the Federal government have looked to this effort as proof of what is possible with mainframe modernization, and as a case study in what it takes to make highly complex modernization projects successful.

The Air Force has now paved the way for digital transformation initiatives that will have a direct positive impact on the men and women who have committed themselves to our nation’s security. Predictive maintenance programs, for example, will help to ensure that critical equipment are in an optimal state of readiness if and when they are needed. Azure Data Factories and batch & logic apps simplify and accelerate the delivery of artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and advanced data analytics.

The USAF is now positioned to transition their application code to C# within a native .NET environment. Legacy COBOL application can continue to run alongside C# modules, allowing for a gradual transition of application code to modern object-oriented languages.

With help from Astadia and Micro Focus Government Solutions, the organization has successfully aligned its mainframe operations with its enterprise cloud initiatives around a common DevOps model, paving the way for rapid innovation that will enable them to better serve the men and women who execute their mission on the front lines.

The Microsoft Azure platform provides a secure, scalable foundation for growth. IT leaders can draw upon a wider pool of available talent to maintain and improve the system in the years to come. Unlike the legacy system, the new cloud-based platform lends itself to a DevOps approach in which parallel development, repeatable automated testing, and continuous integration allow for rapid delivery of functional enhancements.

As a result of the project, system operating costs will be reduced by 82.7%.

In partnership with Astadia, Microsoft, and Micro Focus Government Solutions, IT leaders in our nation’s military have laid a solid data foundation for lasting innovation, growth, and mission readiness.