The Virtual Machine Environment Replacement (VME-R) project replaced aging legacy infrastructure necessary to enable future welfare policy changes to be implemented. This complex and intensive programme has seen DWP rebuild technology, some of which was more than 40 years old, which supports its core benefit payment systems, part of the National Critical Infrastructure, onto more modern, secure and performant platforms.
In total 11 critical benefit systems were replaced with zero disruption to DWP’s benefit operations or delays to citizen payments. The largest 4 of these systems were replaced in the middle of the global pandemic, as DWP Digital rose to the challenge amid remote working and lockdowns. The applications pay out more than £150 billion a year to millions of UK citizens.
The project was a DWP ‘in-house’ exercise between the DWP Digital and Service Planning and Delivery Change Delivery teams, and created opportunity for DWP to further move away from outsourced IT services, towards a fully in-sourced digital organisation. This really was a chance for DWP Digital staff to build capability, learn new skills and own their careers as the programme progressed.
Over Easter 2020, the VME-R project replaced Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), the department’s largest benefit system, remotely and at pace. Replacing the old service was particularly critical at this time as demand on the JSA system rocketed to unprecedented levels due to the Covid-19 economic impact.
The JSA payment system was introduced in the 1990s, based on an IT code set designed in the 1960s. As new technical and policy requirements changed, code was added over the years.
The replacement was the culmination of 2 years of planning. In the response to the benefit claim surge the established delivery plans were reviewed, uplifting the new service capability. Additional technical changes were defined, requiring increase in user capacity and assurances to achieve the system migration in a reduced window to support the extended operational working hours during the pandemic. The emphasis was to increase functionality and scalability to support around 1 million additional Jobseeker’s Allowance claims and support thousands of new operational staff.
Working remotely, and throughout nights and weekends, the service was fully commissioned for operational activity, 24 hours ahead of schedule. The team was awarded the Project Delivery Excellence, Civil Service Award 2020, for achieving this migration.
Peter Schofield DWP Permanent Secretary said: “This is an amazing milestone that makes a massive difference to delivery of JSA and ESA. Success is down to huge amounts of preparation, expertise and hard work, and I am proud of what it means for DWP.”
Other applications migrated during the pandemic were the Disability Living Allowance System in August 2020, which successfully incorporated the Scottish Devolution changes into the solution code. Income Support and Pension Strategy Computer System State Pensions Service were the 2 last applications to be replaced in January 2021, completing the VME-R programme. Overall the VME-R project replaced 11 benefit systems.
These legacy systems were developed originally back in 1980s, based on old ICL VME mainframes and COBOL application code. Each service had an ‘online’ service 7am to 7pm and an overnight ‘batch’ processing service approximately from 8pm to 4am.
The mandate was to provide a ‘like for like’ replacement of infrastructure and Benefit Application code, with no change to its operational users or citizens but it provided so much more.
Working with Advanced, DWP has migrated over 5 million lines of benefit application code, and its ‘batch processing’ timings are now 50-60% quicker than old VME and with dramatically reduced IT support interventions required. DWP Digital is now able to implement ‘business change’ and upgrade releases during ‘mid-week’ for the first time, already having delivered over 800 releases across the VME-R platform in last 12 months. DWP Digital have adopted automated DevOps deployment tooling and adopted AWS developments environments.
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