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Is It Time to Say Goodbye to Legacy Systems or Is There Life in Them Yet?

December 15, 2020 Information Management
carlos melendez
By Carlos Meléndez

Tried but true legacy systems can be like old friends. Sure, they may walk a little slower and need to rest more often, but they still have your back when you need them. So saying goodbye to them is always a tough choice.

Nostalgia aside, it may also simply not make financial sense to rip and replace your legacy system. It can be costly — not only in terms of the expense of new systems, but the risk involved when the transition to new systems causes downtime or unhappy customers. Companies therefore need to carefully weigh the pros and cons when deciding whether to invest in legacy system modernization or to send it to the scrap heap.

Replacing Legacy Systems Can Be Risky Business 

Aside from the cost of modern systems and the downtime or problems that can arise during the transition, perhaps the biggest risk in ripping and replacing an older system is the loss of data. Ensuring a good data migration is hard to do and many projects fail to do it well, causing data, which can be the lifeblood of your business, to go missing or corrupted. 

Ripping and replacing legacy systems can impact the entire company. It impacts business operations, employees and customers. Training staff on new systems is a huge investment in time and as we all know, people don’t like change. Staff will need some time to get up-to-speed on new systems. An unfortunate potential result is the impact on customers when errors occur as employees get used to the new system. 

Related Article: Modernizing Legacy Tech: Big Bang or Piecemeal?

But Sometimes Taking a Risk Helps You Move Ahead

Yet regardless of any comfort old servers provide, their worth may be decreasing over time. At some point companies in every industry need to change, and often, those systems simply won’t be able to keep up. You can’t wait until your old system is gasping for breath to think about giving it some respite — initiate the change before it reaches that point.

Another consideration is that many of the skilled experts in legacy systems are retiring and retiring their expertise with them, so the aging systems are becoming expensive to support and maintain (while requiring more support and maintenance than ever before).

Fortunately, digital technologies such as cloud, mobile and AI are opening up new opportunities for businesses today, helping them reduce operating costs, perform more efficiently and boost the customer experience. Yet legacy systems and applications built on languages such as COBOL often can’t take full advantage of some of today’s technologies, such as cloud and mobile apps.

Related Article: The Elephant in the Digital Transformation Room: The Long Tail of Legacy Tech

Modernizing Legacy Systems: A Hybrid Approach

The problem is that while shifting to modern applications could be beneficial, many banks or telecommunication firms have 40-year-old mainframes in their data centers, serving as host systems for millions of customers, and they aren't going away any time soon. These firms can still transform their business and implement emerging technologies by taking an incremental hybrid approach.

A strategic, incremental hybrid approach can help organizations leverage what they have while transitioning to a future marked by faster transactions, better customer service and data-driven insights that can fuel better customer experiences. As an example, it’s quite possible to connect the trusty old mainframe to the data lake that resides in the cloud which feeds new applications that impact processes, culture and business value, such as a chatbot to quickly answer customer queries.

Banks and insurance companies are masters of this hybrid world, where mainframes and modernization blend seamlessly together. For example, one of banking's key focuses is on improving the customer experience, by enabling faster, more seamless transactions, such as transferring money from one account to another, or having cash immediately ready when depositing a check. The traditional method of handling those transactions was through batch processing, which unfortunately isn’t possible to accomplish any faster than it currently is. Often batches have been processed once a day. It’s possible to speed that up and have batches processed several times a day, but today’s customers are demanding real-time, immediate transactions. This type of capability would require decoupling parts of the system and moving it to the cloud.

For companies looking to modernize their legacy systems, one approach is to build a communications layer, or service layer, to the mainframe and integrate everybody through the mainframe over that service layer. It’s easier to change the mainframe without changing everything. 

As another example, banks, insurance or telecommunication firms may be looking to offer mobile apps for their customer's convenience. Legacy systems can still be used by creating an API layer to the core processing unit of the system which can integrate modern mobile apps while still using the compute power of the legacy system. 

Related Article: Why Legacy Systems May Force You to Upgrade Your Collaboration Tools

Taking the Right Approach to Infrastructure

In many instances, legacy and modern can coexist peacefully for now. Yet any company debating the best next step should ask themselves the four questions below:

  1. Can your current system (both hardware and software) still perform everything you need with minor modifications?
  2. Are your legacy vendors still in business, and are there enough service providers available to continue to service and support them?
  3. Can your legacy systems provide the necessary level of security, and can you secure them through modern means?
  4. What is your IT roadmap for the next five years? By understanding the direction you need to move toward, you can better assess if your legacy system will be able to keep up.

Until quantum computing takes hold in a broad way, the mainframe computer will remain the go-to solution for processing massive amounts of data in key markets. Companies can find ways to spruce them up by replacing legacy software and systems with modern applications, and gradually transitioning to the cloud. As for the mainframe, what’s old can be new again, it just takes a modern approach to derive the greatest value.

About the Author

Carlos M. Meléndez is the COO and co-founder of Wovenware, a Puerto Rico-based design-driven company that delivers customized AI and other digital transformation solutions that create measurable value for customers across the US.

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