Why Incremental Modernization Reduces Risk and Increases Success

The coronavirus pandemic heightened the value and importance of digital adoption. As a consequence businesses have been accelerating their digital transformation plans by three to seven years. This includes mainframe modernization plans.

While the breadth and depth of transformation are unique to each organization, components of transformation: processes, alignment of business and IT resources, responsiveness to customers, and changes to the supporting IT assets are consistent. The IT assets involved in this effort are said to be “modernized.”

Advice to modernize rapidly is rampant. But when faced with a massive change in a legacy mainframe COBOL environment, the adage “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” is advice worth following. Costs, resource constraints, and impacts on the business can make slowing down to speed up not only attractive but necessary.

What is Incremental Modernization?

According to this CIO article, digital transformation is a catchall term for implementing new technologies, talent, and processes to improve business operations and satisfy customers. Within transformation, CloudFrame defines modernization as “the migration, transforming, and updating of mainframe infrastructure and COBOL applications to reduce risk, reduce cost, and realize the economic benefits of the cloud.”

Incremental modernization is not a new concept or term, and the Software Engineering Institute of Carnegie Mellon University published research on the success of this approach two decades ago. They described incremental modernization as “an effort that strives to keep the system fully operational at all times while reducing the amount of rework and technical risk during modernization.” Our deviation from this description involves using multiple projects of increasing breadth and complexity.

The effort to modernize COBOL applications by executing a series of concisely
defined and controlled projects of increasing complexity and scope.

The incremental modernization approach allows organizations to change their critical mainframe applications without overwhelming resources, increasing risk, or creating massive amounts of technical debt. The incremental approach leads to a higher chance of success with mainframe modernization — a much more important metric than speed to transformation alone.

CloudFrame’s incremental modernization approach does not abandon existing applications and platforms or rely on a single seismic shift to cloud computing and microservices. Instead, it offers businesses that rely on COBOL and mainframe systems paths of sure and measured steps for modernization success.

What are the Benefits of Incremental Modernization?

Trying to move a mountain one grain of sand at a time sounds great, but are there real, tangible benefits to modernizing this way? Not only are the benefits real, but they are far more attractive and far less risky than the bet-it-all approach.

Concise Scope Builds Momentum

When looking at transformation that involves a complex legacy system, an all-at-once “big bang” approach simply isn’t feasible.

It isn’t that a mainframe environment can’t be flexible, and it’s certainly powerful. The challenge lies in the details and moving parts associated with any change, which is why incremental modernization is ideal.

With small, concise modernization projects, your organization gains several benefits. First, the dependencies and impacts can be fully explored before a project is tackled, and you’ll have a clear idea of what “done” looks like from the outset. Plus, it’s easier to have a successful project when you can define what success looks like.

Shorter Durations Accelerate Results and Reduce Risk

Incremental modernization also makes it possible to plan, execute, and complete projects quickly. Reduced scope means a shorter project, which leads to faster results and potentially reduced risk.

With a large transformation project, completion could be years away, which can exhaust teams and heighten anxiety within the organization. Many applications running on your mainframe are more than mission-critical, and they are the very core of your organization and its functions. A massive change will make everyone nervous, from senior leaders down to the developers implementing the change.

With small projects that can be done in a matter of months, the organization can see the positive impact of modernization over time and can adapt and develop confidence in the changes. Incremental transformation will also instill more confidence in the execution team. For the experts working in COBOL, there can be skepticism on the effectiveness of a new platform, application, or environment. Small projects that streamline applications or create cost savings can be done quickly, letting the team see the tangible benefits of their work.

A Controlled “Blast Radius”

The anxiety over project impacts and potential failures isn’t unwarranted. It’s estimated that as many as 70% of digital transformation projects fail. Even without the prospect of failure, controlling the number of people and applications affected by a transformation project is desirable.

When using an incremental approach to modernization, the impacts can be easily contained. Whereas a large project may involve migrating a COBOL application, updating it to accommodate inbound integrations, and streamlining its access to data, a smaller one may include the code transformation, retaining existing data access, and existing processes.

If something goes wrong with the migration, it’s easier to switch back to the previous version while issues are resolved. With the more extensive, big-bang approach, it can be much harder to track down the cause of the problem, leading to increased testing and implementation times and frustrated end users.


At its core, incremental modernization introduces a less risky means of modernizing COBOL applications and legacy systems. Breaking these transformation projects into smaller chunks creates a higher opportunity for success, while the transformation itself can be accelerated as each improvement builds upon the previous one. Incremental modernization requires choosing solutions that can be incrementally transformed. The approach and solutions you choose should allow you to break improvement goals into smaller functional pieces making incremental modernization possible.

Change can be recognized, thanks to shorter project timelines, and the organization will have time to adapt to new operating models that transformation brings.

Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

CloudFrame offers products that allow you to modernize and retain the value of your legacy programs as part of your transformation journey. Contact CloudFrame today to learn more about how Relocate ™ and Renovate ™ can help you modernize your systems and lower the cost of your application workloads.

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Written by

Hans Otharsson

Hans Otharsson has decades of experience developing, enhancing, maintaining, and transforming legacy applications.
Chief Operating Officer