The VME (Virtual Machine Environment) operating system was created by the company ICL in the 1970s. In many ways, it is a great story about British technology. While a success, its time has come and gone - technology has changed, the market for the required skills is smaller, and the cost of maintaining the applications has risen. Yet, for a long time there has been mythology bandied around government: that VME is impossible to replace.
As the world’s biggest customer for VME, HM Government has long been in an undesirable position, relying on a platform that is difficult to manage, maintain and advance.
Disproving the folklore
The Department for Work & Pensions has relied heavily on VME and recently started a project to help disprove that folklore. Working in an agile manner, with a small team of DWP staff members and SME suppliers, they tested three hypotheses by building prototype solutions.
The first hypothesis was that VME-based IDMSX databases could be transitioned to commodity database systems, generating the applications from the data structures.
The second was that a VME application could be replaced by a commercial-off-the-shelf transaction processing system, running an industry standard form of COBOL rather than the vendor-specific form of COBOL used on VME.
The final hypothesis was that more complex systems could be reverse and forward engineered to convert the existing COBOL code to Java, and then deployed on top of open source application servers.
All three hypotheses delivered capable alternatives to the existing software base. All three could be used in the future to migrate software with differing requirements to new, more modern software platforms. The DWP VME-R programme proves once and for all that DWP - and, by extension, HM Government - can successfully migrate away from the VME platform at reasonable cost and effort.
It’s great to see agile methods being used across government, and the DWP VME-R programme, led by Steve Winter and Michael Boughey, is an especially good example.
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