Coming off legacy, one step at a time

Frontline workers at the New Brunswick Motor Vehicle Branch might not notice, but the provincial agency’s IT infrastructure and business processes are midway through a multi-year rebuilding process.
Despite the fact that its legacy mainframe environment has been migrated to a client-server infrastructure, the agency has replicated the original green-screen interface in a browser window to minimize business disruption.
“Although we’re talking a lot about technology, it’s a business-centric project,” said Robert Cyr, program director with agency. In 2006, the business was viewed as unsustainable; not just technology, but business processes, people and even legislation had to change to support the administration of the province’s 500,000 drivers and 700,000 vehicles. An aging workforce was taking business knowledge out of the agency; too many processes were paper-based; and legislation was outdated, Cyr said.
 The soft-start of the project involved Cyr and a colleague trying to map out what exactly the MVB should be as a business. “It took us a while to get comfortable with the what,” Cyr said. By 2008, they were ready to move on to the how.
Solely on the technology side, the task was daunting enough. The legacy mainframe infrastructure hadn’t been updated since 1985, and had been pieced together over the previous 15, meaning some elements dated back to the early 1970s. It had to be moved off the mainframes, off its COBOL code base, and off its hierarchical Unisys DMS 1100 database infrastructure, all while preserving the existing business rules and re-architecting the system.
Meanwhile, the nine separate subsystems – registering drivers, vehicles, transport trucks and more under separate databases – posed data integrity issues. “When I move and change my address, it’s a bit of a mess,” Cyr said.
And given the responsibility of keeping the province’s roads safe, the MVB had to take a risk-averse approach.  “We didn’t want to squash innovation, but we didn’t want to turn into an R&D shop,” Cyr said. “From a business perspective, there’s too much at stake.”
So when the MVB invited 16 companies to bid on the technology transformation, there was a stipulation: The winning bidder had to demonstrate it had completed two similar projects for the sake of reference. Fujitsu Canada Inc. was the only bidder who met the criteria.
Fujitsu and the MVB also agreed that the migration should be a “stepping stone”process; changing the architecture and preserving the business rules at the same time was too risky, according to Cyr.
After six months of design and planning, Fujitsu converted the nine subsystems, one by one, to a Microsoft .Net environment. Programs went from COBOL to C#; data moved to a SQL environment; batch jobs became PowerShell scripts.
But the user interface remained the same. Fujitsu built 120 browser- based screens identical to the existing terminal screens, said Denis Grégoire, project manager with Fujitsu Canada.
With 1,250 frontline workers using the applications, “We didn’t want 1,250 calls a day trying to work out the new UI,” Cyr said.
The transition necessitated “a bit of a re-org” in the IT shop, Cyr said. The MVB brought in a .Net expert to serve as an intermediary with those who understood the structure of the legacy systems, but didn’t know the new code. There was two to three weeks of code freeze, Grégoire said, while thousands of test cases were supplied by the business side to detect defects. Part of the roadmap, Cyr said, was to have a reference, since the subject matter experts who developed the system have retired. The business rules in the code were the original reference; the new Fujitsu code is the new reference.
The new architecture is next on the list. The existing architecture is not client-centric. Customer service representatives still have to go into individual subsystems for data about their clients. Not gathering them together makes processes inefficient, and means some legislative imperatives can’t be enforced. Cyr could be Rob Cyr in the vehicle registration database, for example, and Robert Cyr in the driver registration database. The new architecture will pull up a client dashboard across all the applications.
“Everything starts with confirming the person is who they say they are,” Cyr says. We will get to see all of their aspects. We get to see if they owe money. We get to see if his cheque bounced. We get to see if he’s a deadbeat dad,” and thus subject to non-renewal.
The phased approach reduced the risk and possibility of business disruption, Cyr said.

“At one point, we contemplated doing all this at the same time,” he said. “Then we hit the pause button.”

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a freelance editor and writer. A veteran journalist of more than 20 years' experience (15 of them in technology), he has held senior editorial positions with a number of technology publications. He was honoured with an Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in 2000, and several Canadian Online Publishing Awards as part of the ComputerWorld Canada team.

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