When legacy turns lethal.

Posted: October 19, 2011 in Information Technology, Rants

In one of my previous posts I mentioned that a key trait to be successful in the IT industry is adaptability. To refine this down to a more IT centric focus, we need to be ready for change in systems and applications that we manage. More than ready; we need to push for the constant change and refresh of technology as it becomes available, stable and commercially viable. Without this constant drive for advancement, we run the risk of falling prey to the lethal bite of legacy systems and applications.

As with most problems that we see in day to day life, if they are nipped in the bud quickly, they tend to be relatively painless, short lived and soon forgotten. But more often than not, they are left to fester and morph into mammoth issues, usually out of the initial fear to own up to the problem to begin with. When it comes to IT systems and applications, it’s quite often the case of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

This mentality will support itself for a number of years while new versions of software come and go or whole new methodologies pass us by and hardware continues to advance in leaps and bounds. Eventually moving to the next step on the path to legacy pain, whereby the system becomes so outdated, that there is no longer a clear upgrade path, if there is indeed a path at all. And so now the effect is compounded, we can no longer upgrade, even if we wanted to.

A once difficult and perhaps daunting task, has now become impossible. The bite of this legacy system has been left untreated and the venom is now coursing through the veins of our organisation… The software is so old, its no longer supported by the vendor (or perhaps the vendor simply no longer exists); it runs on hardware that is out of warranty; even third-party providers won’t offer extended maintenance or if they do, it’s making a serious dent in the budget every month; the only staff member who knows enough about it to provide support has been with the organisation since its inception and is looking for a new role; it’s even affecting other systems, as it runs on old database software that itself has become part of the legacy infection. Our legacy system has now become potentially lethal.

For anyone in IT and I suspect most people who’ve used any sort of computerised system, the above tale of woe and despair may be one of uncomfortable familiarity. Even more so if we refine our view to SMB integrators and the businesses they support. At this level, where the business is large enough to require ongoing IT support but small enough that they cannot dedicate their own resources to it, the legacy trap seems to run rampart. There are usually two major factors in this increase.

Firstly, a lack of ownership of IT strategy. Where large corporates have CIOs and IT managers who proactively search for these issues (or at least should), the SMB integrator’s focus is usually more reactive than proactive, as well as being much broader in terms of market focus. These integrators are supporting businesses across finance, marketing, manufacturing, retail and so on. It’s hard enough for them to keep up with the pace of general applications and systems, such as server versions and client desktop installations, let alone the applications or systems specific to each market sector.

Secondly, the budget constraints of SMBs. IT systems these days are usually a major investment for most SMBs and the focus is usually always on the initial purchase price. Ongoing support (software support, hardware maintenance, etc.) is often an afterthought and too often, completely neglected. When these factors combine, they tend to lead to poor decisions on system selection. Opting for the cheaper product, with no ongoing support, from a company that lacks any maturity in the market place.

Now I’m not saying that the problem of legacy systems doesn’t rear its ugly head in larger environments, far from it. The difference is that in the larger environments, the impact tends to be lessened or even planned in some cases. Budgets are wider, support staff are more available, and so on.

So what can we do to prevent this scenario? Well as the saying goes, the best medicine is prevention. Some careful planning at the early stages of system selection can be key to avoiding falling into the legacy trap. You need to consider more than just the initial capital outlay. As mentioned above, maintenance costs – although sometimes costly – are often a necessary evil. If you aren’t covered for future releases of software, replacement of failing or aging hardware and vendor support in the upgrade process, then you are much more likely to avoid a refresh of your system, because the cost is too high, the workload too heavy and the downtime unacceptable.

Maintenance and support can also be internal costs. Who in the organisation is going to be the owner of this system? If no one if given a mandate to ensure its smooth running, if no one cares enough about the system, it will be neglected and fall behind. With this in mind, how much time and energy will need to be devoted to this task? And what happens if this “system owner” decides to leave? Can the ownership and knowledge be passed onto the replacement? Will this mean looking for different skill sets than you normally might when hiring a replacement? If so, will candidates expect a higher remuneration? Consider all of this before making a decision on any new systems or force these issues onto the table if the final decision is not yours alone.

Beyond careful planning, you need to be vigilant. Whether you are the integrator, the corporate support staff or the end user, you should always be on the lookout for what is new, what is changing and comparing it to where you are now. Examine the delta between what you have and what you could have. The wider this gap gets, the harder it is to jump across when you need. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself on the one side of the Grand Canyon, trying to work out how to leap to the other side.

The issues surrounding legacy systems may never disappear. It seems there is always some business case too strong, some budgetary hurdle too high or just some staff member too stubborn. But when armed with the right knowledge and a cogent argument, you can be a driving force in ensuring that legacy lethality is kept at bay.

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