Legacy is a funny word. In most walks of life, a legacy is a positive thing. Philanthropists create the legacy of having built a new school, or funding a medical institution, or having performed a charitable act of some sort. Mozart’s legacy to the world was a series of wonderful musical masterpieces. And who knows what legacy you or I will leave behind us when we part ways with this world.
But in the business world, and specifically the IT part of the business world, the word legacy has a less appealing connotation.
What is a legacy system?
A legacy system typically refers to an IT application that is no longer really fit for purpose. Think of a mainframe-based application to perform enterprise resource planning (ERP) within the business. In the late 90s when it was purchased and installed, it did absolutely everything that the business required at that time.
But over time, that system has become slower and slower, difficult to support and maintain, has an ancient and unfriendly user interface, and is pretty much completely disconnected from the rest of the information systems within the business.
This leads to an environment where the “legacy” system is seen in a negative light, as a drain on the business, difficult to use, and generally a pain in the “you know what.”
So why not just get rid of the system in question and replace it with a shiny new, modern application that is fit for the needs of today? Oh, if only it were that simple.
Why Not Just Move to Something New?
In the words of Neil Sedaka, “Breaking up is hard to do” - and never has that been more true than with legacy systems. Think about it for a second - the reality is that if an upgrade to a newer version, or a migration to an alternative solution was easy, then it would have been done already. But in many cases there simply is not an easy option.
The biggest challenge is that the legacy systems tend to be very important to the business (if they weren’t, they could have been removed or replaced already). I saw a example of this where the legacy application serving a large retail bank was crashing at least once a week - and in the process, severing access for customers to their online banking details. Not ideal.
So where does the problem lie? In order to do an upgrade or a migration, you typically need to turn the system off and turn a new one on. This can be a scary thing to do. What happens if the new system doesn’t have all of the data? Or doesn’t connect in the same way to the website? Or any number of similar questions. This big bang approach can make or break the career of a CIO and is certainly not for the faint hearted.
The second challenge here is that even if the CIO has absolute confidence in the upgrade/migration process, it may simply not be physically possible to perform the upgrade or migration in the time available.
The retail bank I mentioned earlier had around 1 billion content assets residing within their legacy application, and simply moving them into a new system would take well over a year. Can you imagine this bank not allowing customers their customers to access to their online account details for a year?
And these factors together are the prime reason why many legacy systems are still running. The organizations running them simply do not know how to get off the train they’re currently riding on - or in other words, they don’t know how to break up.
Rekindling the Romance
Any relationship goes through challenging times, and a healthy relationship requires work, and sometimes the ability to recognize when it’s time for a change. This is the case with legacy systems within the enterprise. Instead of trying to get rid of your legacy system and all the pain associated with it, why not try and work with it - but in a different way.
As we’ve said, one of the challenges with legacy systems is that they are often (at least partially) isolated from the other information systems within the business. But what if they weren’t? What if there was a way to get access to all of the information and functionality within those legacy systems, without having to use the legacy system to achieve it?
Well there is.
Connecting the Dots
Most legacy applications have the ability to connect to and integrate with other systems via an application programmer interface, or API. Using APIs is not for the faint-hearted and requires a technical software developer to create custom coded applications to work with the legacy system. To get access to all of the information and functionality within a legacy system, and replicate it via a second interface, requires a lot of work - and because of this, many legacy systems remain disconnected and isolated from other core business solutions. But a relatively new technology concept is changing that.
The inception of content services platforms over the recent years has coincided with the advent of several tools and techniques for connecting disparate systems. These include easy-to-use connectors that hook into legacy (and other) systems and provide a common language for how to use the information and functionality within them.
This does not require the end-user organization to perform huge amounts of custom coding, but uses pre-built tools to simply create a link between the legacy application and the business. This mapping is known as a metadata layer and can be used from other applications to provide a modern way of accessing the information stored, and until now locked, within the legacy system.
This approach means that all of the information and functionality can now be used in a number of different ways within the business - but absolutely does not limit usage to those trained on how to use the legacy application.
The Art of the Possible
Think about the possibilities. End users can now access customer billing details (that were once locked away in the legacy ERP system) from their CRM system. Business users can build custom dashboards based on the financial information stored within that same ERP - but now by using modern visual reporting tools as opposed to the text-based reports provided by the legacy system. The possibilities are limitless.
Once your business users can access information in a way that makes sense to them, then your legacy system will stop being a hindrance to the business, and instead become the incredibly valuable resource that it was intended to be when it was first purchased. Your users can fall in love with your legacy system once more.
Epilogue - Happily Never After?
So you fell in love with that legacy system again. Your users now have access to all of your legacy information and all is good. But what if it isn’t?
What if you really do want to move away from that legacy system? Perhaps it is costing too much money in annual maintenance fees, or it keeps crashing, ot it simply requires dedicated and expensive kit to run it on.
If you really do want to break up with your legacy application - having access to all of the information and functionality that it contains is still the first important step. But after this first step, how exactly do you go through the rest of that break-up? Steps two and three in this process are critical, and I’ll touch on these steps on another day…