The reasons behind the successful digital transformation of Belgium’s National Register

Eric Roelandt

Senior Advisor, the National Register

In October 2019, Belgium’s National Register of natural persons announced that it was putting the finishing touches to an ambitious plan of migrating its long-standing mainframe to an open source architectured system. This upgrade lays the foundations for the register’s digital future.

The migration started in 2016 and ended when the mainframe was switched off on 31 July 2019.
I am used to saying that an operation of this magnitude is a success if nobody noticed anything, and that is exactly what happened. If we take a look back at the process, I think it was a serious gamble, because everything was working perfectly with the mainframe in terms of performance and quality of service. So why were we determined to change it? Because we wanted to upgrade our infrastructure and ensure that it would be open to the competition… and future fit.

It was vitally important for us to guarantee some form of service continuity and offer superior flexibility. That is why it made sense to keep the same supplier, namely Atos. Abandoning the mainframe did not generate any extra costs. For the same financial outlay, we now have a system that is much faster. Performance levels have increased tremendously.

“I am used to saying that an operation of this magnitude is a success if nobody noticed anything, and that is exactly what happened.”

The migration
We had to break away from a highly centralized system and allow our IT infrastructure to embrace cloud computing and the latest technologies. Therefore, we started by migrating to a relational database used by the mainframe, and the resulting reduction in running costs helped finance the migration process without any need to invest.

Specifically, the migration process required us to carry out a complete inventory of the infrastructure, and a defining moment was how we gradually switched over to the new system. We began with the “batch” section to avoid any impact for the users. During the cutover phase,
both systems were running at the same time. Everything happened without our users noticing the slightest change.

Linux and open source
We wanted to become less dependent on software vendors and maintenance providers. Open source was the solution. We now have a perfectly standardized and open IT infrastructure featuring an x86 server. It combines a Linux system based on PostgreSQL and the Liber suite developed in Java. For example, this approach has allowed us to maintain our legacy applications and core system (written in Cobol) alongside Java and C++. I cannot say which programming language will replace Cobol, but we have prepared for the future and can now think about migrating and managing resources in a private cloud with greater confidence.

The cost-performance ratio
In terms of raw functional performance, our new system is clearly more powerful and twice as fast, meaning that we can add extra service layers. As for costs, the benefits are in the region of 50 to 60% for maintenance expenses. Admittedly, we may need to bring extra skills on board to manage the new developments, but the costs are offset by the lack of software licences thanks to the open-source infrastructure. I believe that the situation is ideal, i.e. an open system with an easy learning curve for our employees. We are capable of incorporating new services on our own without any outside help. Upgrading to an open source system has simplified this change and laid the foundations for a future migration to the private cloud.