Delaware outsources mainframe management, CIO catches breath

Delaware hasn't said goodbye to its mainframe, but outsourcing services to a third party has given the state some breathing room, state Chief Information Officer Gregory Lane said.
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Delaware Chief Information Officer Gregory Lane told StateScoop in a recent interview that his state has reached a major milestone in weaning itself off its mainframe, a technology still widely used in many industries, but considered unwieldy in state government for its poor ability to communicate with more modern systems and the dwindling number of workers who know how to manage the machines.

Lane said Delaware recently outsourced management of its mainframe to an unnamed third party, which he admitted sounds like “a yawn-able event,” but was actually a “huge accomplishment.” But Lane also observed that temporarily solving the agencies’ mainframe issues may also slow their mainframe migration projects.

“I don’t want to lose the sense of urgency,” Lane said. “We’ve given a security blanket, but losing the sense of urgency is a very real unintended consequence. That wasn’t what we set out to do, but we realize though that we can’t sustain the support. So in addressing not being able to sustain the support and increasing our resiliency and disaster capabilities combined that this was the right thing to do.”

Very few states have managed to eliminate their mainframes entirely. Montana, a state with a population of just 1.1 million residents, boasted in 2020 of moving its final mainframe application onto a modern platform. Then-CIO Tim Bottenfield said at the time that the high cost of maintaining those services was the state’s main consideration, but that he was also concerned about the possibility of technical support drying up.


The public sector struggles to compete with the private sector for technical talent, and its workforce problem is compounded when it comes to old technology. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy famously put out a call for help during the COVID-19 pandemic when his state couldn’t find competent COBOL programmers, a skill that was needed to repair the state’s overworked unemployment systems during the health crisis. (In 2021, New Jersey transitioned to IBM’s mainframe service.)

Some cities and states have had to get creative in finding support for their old technology. In 2020, North Dakota outsourced workers from the eastern European nation of Latvia for mainframe support. Los Angeles in 2020 migrated its mainframe applications to the State of California’s data center.

Lane said his state’s aging workforce is a big motivation to move away from the mainframe.

“Almost half of the IT organization can retire in the next three to five years,” he said. “Mainframe expertise is high on that list, so we’re now positioned as our people retire. We now have a third party who’s going to help us continue that technology until the agencies that are on it do in fact spend the money to get off.”

In Delaware, Lane said, each agency is making mainframe migration part of its long-term plans, but the cost — $50-$100 million statewide, he estimated — means it won’t happen all at once. From Transportation to Labor, cabinet-level agencies in most states rely on mainframe systems to complete some of state government’s most critical functions.


And while Delaware’s work with its mainframe isn’t finished, Lane seemed buoyed by having completed at least one strenuous phase of the project.

“I think we’re in a much better position,” Lane said. “There’s a primary and a backup site, so we have lots of resiliency that we really didn’t have before, and it’s freeing up our people to do other things.”

Corrected July 17, 2024: The Delware Department of Technology and Information updated its estimate of a mainframe upgrade in Delaware to be $50-$100 million statewide, as opposed to per agency, as originally stated.

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