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CHIPS Articles: The 'Cutting Edge' isn't Always the Answer

The 'Cutting Edge' isn't Always the Answer
By Terry Halvorsen - April-June 2014
Is newer always better (or necessary)?

In today's world, where technology changes in the blink of an eye, and the race to be faster, more capable, bigger, etc., moves at lightning speed, we sometimes forget to ask ourselves that very simple question. The government IT world isn't immune to this phenomenon. Cutting edge technology may bring useful new capability, but cutting-edge costs money – usually lots of money. These days, money is something the Department of the Navy doesn’t have a lot of. As prudent stewards of DON resources, we have to decide when it makes sense to invest in new technology and when it makes more sense to stay with something that has proven to be reliable and fully supports the DON mission.

For example, last year, the DON CIO signed an agreement with Amazon to post public-facing data—low-risk data that is meant for public use—with Amazon Web Services (AWS). A business case analysis determined that moving low-risk data to commercial storage was the most cost-effective storage solution for the DON. Here, investment in a new capability met our operations and security requirements at a price that lowered our costs.

In many cases, however, maintaining an older system that fully supports our mission makes more sense than upgrading it or buying a new system that runs the risk of degrading our mission and requires a large investment. The DON and industry still use a programming language developed in 1959 to operate major business functions in finance and personnel. In fact, nearly three quarters of the world's business transactions are done in that venerable language, COBOL. Now with an estimated 200 billion lines of code, it still works. Part of the reason for this is it’s an easy-to-use language, it is fast and it processes data quickly. It is in use worldwide and has proven so stable and reliable that many Fortune 500 companies – Capital One, for example – still hire and train COBOL programmers.

The old saying of "If it ain't broke, don’t fix it," has an application here, as does "A penny saved is a penny earned." By not replacing systems that already fully support our missions; we are better able to invest in new technology where we need it.

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