The state of Utah moves from COBOL to cloud in 18 months

When the state’s Office of Recovery Services had to modernize its mainframe application, migrating it to the cloud proved to be the most effective method.

The state of Utah’s Office of Recovery Services (ORS) has a singular goal: to promote responsibility. One of the agency’s critical functions is to establish and enforce child support orders and collect child support. Its case management and accounting system, the Office of Recovery Services Information System (ORSIS), is central to agency operations.

Recently, the agency decided the time had come to modernize ORSIS’ 25-year-old COBOL-based mainframe application. Modernizing applications on the mainframe could only be done by creating web applications on separate, connected servers, so ORSIS had more than 100 such surrounding systems, including employee- and public-facing web applications. “It had become very cost-prohibitive to maintain, and we weren’t able to scale or change processes,” explains Bart Mason, technology lead for the ORS. “It had an outdated user interface that was challenging for our agents to use. And we had a hard time finding COBOL developers to support it.”1

Given the task of moving ORSIS off the mainframe, Mason and his team explored two options: rewriting the application from scratch or migrating it to a public cloud. Rewriting ORSIS would have cost approximately US$200 million; the new system would have then needed to be certified by federal agencies, adding five to 10 years to the development process. “Those kinds of budgets and timelines don’t exist for us,” says Mason. “There was absolutely no way we could do this, so we went with cloud migration.”

Using a fully automated refactoring tool to migrate the code and data, ORS transformed its COBOL-based application to a Java-based system running on a public cloud, which was significantly more cost-effective than rewriting the application. This approach enabled incremental migration. “We were able to take the functionality that was on the mainframe, convert the code to Java, and move it over to the cloud,” Mason says. “The advantage of doing a one-for-one migration is that we were able to easily retrain our COBOL developers to work on the new system. They knew the old system very well, and we didn’t want to lose them. Now they’re able to work in Java and Python, and we’ve moved from a waterfall development process to Agile.”

Because the replatformed application did not have to be certified by federal agencies, ORS was able to complete the project in 18 months.

The agency has recognized several benefits from migrating ORSIS to the cloud. The cloud-based system is vastly more economical to maintain than its predecessor. “It’s really helped us corral our costs because we’re now able to leverage other cloud services and SaaS applications, which has reduced software licensing fees,” Mason says.

It also provides a viable disaster recovery solution and allows the agency to take advantage of cloud-native digital technologies such as analytics, mobile applications, process automation, and artificial intelligence. It also simplifies the process of complying with ever-evolving federal mandates, state and local legislation, and security requirements. “We have to constantly make changes to meet these requirements,” explains Mason. “That’s easier and faster to do with the cloud-based application.”

Finally, migrating to the cloud helped the ORSIS achieve a key objective: to make it easier for both internal and external stakeholders to access the information they need. “We not only needed to make the system easier for agents to operate and navigate; we also needed to make it easier to provide services to the public,” Mason says. “The new system enables us to automate many public-facing aspects for our constituents.”

Mason says that modernization is an ongoing process for ORS: “It’s not easy, but it's essential. There’s always going to be additions and changes. If you become complacent, you’ll end up with a 26-year-old system again.”


  1. Bart Mason (technology lead, state of Utah’s Office of Recovery Services), interview, July 28, 2023.

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Cover image by: Sofia Sergi