Most enterprises are built on a foundation of legacy systems that they acquired over years and have adapted to suit their needs as the business developed. These platforms can be decades old, yet are still critical for day-to-day operations – despite the fact that they do not perform optimally anymore and are no longer cost-effective. In fact, many organizations are burning huge amounts of money on them: some American organizations even spend over 90% of their IT budget just on maintaining legacy systems. And the cost is not all. Relying on entrenched legacy systems can significantly hamper business growth and your competitive edge as a whole. But why is that? Read on to find out.
One of the main problems with legacy systems is that typically, it is difficult to integrate them with new tools and modern processes. Although they may have originally suited business needs, team requirements evolve, and eventually, new applications can support them better than their legacy counterparts. This also makes it hard to update them, and in many cases, the vendor eventually stops providing IT support which poses a huge risk. With no patches to the existing system on hand, your business becomes more vulnerable to productivity limitations, business silos, security attacks, and more.
Ultimately, this slows down your go-to-market speed and hurts your competitive edge with other industry players. To be able to grow faster and work in a more agile way, many businesses are interested in digital transformation and modernizing their legacy toolchains. It can certainly be a challenging process to modernize your toolchain, but the benefits speak for themselves.
The challenges of legacy application modernization
Modernizing legacy systems in enterprise organizations is quite challenging because these tools are typically deeply entrenched in the company’s IT architecture, way of working, and even corporate culture. Stakeholders fear that digital transformation initiatives will disrupt business processes and require both a lot of financial and human resources to undertake. And in safety-critical industries, there is a huge pressure to comply with governmental and industry-specific regulations and standards. This makes these industries quite risk-averse; it is often perceived that staying with ‘tried and true’ tools poses less risk to the end product.
What are the benefits of modernizing your toolchain
Many organizations are interested in modernizing their legacy systems, but struggle to convince stakeholders that the investment of time and resources is worth it. That being said, an AppDynamics study recently showed that 66% of IT professionals say “the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in their digital strategy, driving an urgent need to push through initiatives which were once a part of multi-year digital transformation programs.” Some of the key benefits of modernizing your toolchain are the following:
- Cost reduction
- Better cybersecurity
- Smoother compliance
- Increased productivity
- IT agility for a competitive edge
Legacy system modernization strategies
There are two key strategies that organizations use to modernize legacy systems, which are then further broken down into specific approaches, tactics, and methodologies. The strategy you choose will depend heavily on key factors like your current workload, the existing system architecture and dependencies, financial resources, risks to productivity and security, and operational skills available in-house.
- Revolutionary modernization
The revolutionary approach refers to a complete transformation of the existing infrastructure, i.e. removing the current system and replacing it with something new, entirely from scratch. This is the approach that organizations usually go for when their current system is not just cumbersome or a burden, but actually presents a significant risk to the productivity and security of the company’s work.
Another instance when this approach comes in handy is when a legacy system no longer receives vendor support, meaning no updates or new patches, which again creates a high amount of manual labor, extra costs, and risks. It is considered the more extreme approach but sometimes it is simply less problematic to retire a system rather than take the chance of losing data, productivity, or serious downtime because of an outdated tool. Other times, if a legacy system can’t meet business needs anymore, it’s not viable to adapt it or try to integrate it with new technologies.
- Evolutionary modernization
Here the goal is actually the same as with the revolutionary approach, but using a systematic, step-by-step model instead. In this way, you replace workflows one at a time, which risk-averse organizations often prefer because they feel it will create less business disruption and minimize extra costs. Sometimes it is necessary to take this approach because you are locked into vendor contracts and need to wait for them to expire, and sometimes it is simply an option that is easier to get stakeholders to accept. However, over time, it can turn into a series of temporary fixes which don’t solve the root issues, just mitigate them for a while.
7 approaches for modernizing legacy systems
There are seven approaches to modernizing legacy systems which are known as the “seven Rs”, laid out and categorized by Gartner. Each one has its own benefits and challenges and finding the right one for your company depends on how your organization is set up and what resources you have available.
The legacy modernization Rs are:
“Leverage and extend the application features by encapsulating its data and functions, making them available as services via an API.”
In this approach, individual components of the legacy system code are transformed into microservices applications. This enables you to split the services and components apart, which means that you will be able to make changes and updates to components individually, moving to a modern architecture gradually without removing the existing system.
“Redeploy the application component to other infrastructure (physical, virtual or cloud) without modifying its code, features or functions.”
This approach is also known as the “lift and shift” migration approach, and is pretty popular with organizations worldwide. It involves taking your existing system and moving it to the cloud as it is, meaning that you don’t lose your original investment but can still leverage the benefits of cloud infrastructure. However, by doing this, you miss out on what cloud-native tools have to offer in terms of performance and cost reduction.
“Migrate to a new runtime platform, making minimal changes to the code, but not the code structure, features or functions.”
By using this approach, your developers make small, incremental changes to the code of the legacy system which will help it adapt to a new platform that comes with more modern features and benefits. They do this without massively altering the core code of the system’s functions. Then you can take advantage of more economical infrastructural costs and better performance.
“Restructure and optimize the existing code (although not its external behavior) to remove technical debt and improve nonfunctional attributes.”
In this scenario, what you are doing is changing parts of legacy components and optimizing code to increase performance. This is, predictably, easier than fully rewriting the legacy system code, and causes less disruption to daily business activities. However, there is a technological limit to how much you can achieve with minimal backend changes.
“Materially alter the code to shift it to a new application architecture and exploit new and better capabilities.”
This approach implies moving to a new application architecture, while adapting the existing legacy system code to take advantage of the potential the new platform has to offer. This is seen as a moderate route to take as the approach offers both medium risk and medium reward in the long-term.
“Redesign or rewrite the application component from scratch while preserving its scope and specifications.”
Fully rebuilding a system is usually the longest and mostly costly approach to take. It involves rewriting the whole application from scratch and redesigning the application in order to be able to meet the modern needs of the business, as well as integrate with new tools.
“Eliminate the former application component altogether and replace it, considering new requirements and needs at the same time.”
In this approach, the company completely removes the existing system and replaces it with a new one that is structured to meet current business requirements. Although it seems daunting to replace legacy tools at first, in the long run maintaining old systems can be far more expensive than the cost of implementing and paying for a new one.
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