Under the hood of legacy systems

Eloisa Tovee 12th August 2021

I am the proud owner of a 1979 Austin Mini.

The paint job is as bold as a fire engine.

The wheels look like something from a Lego kit.

And the steering wheel could have been plucked straight from an 80s school bus.

Another thing to note about this beloved car is just how much TLC it takes to keep the old motor running. And I’m not talking about the time we spent two hours pulling threads out of the fan blades after accidentally leaving a blanket over the engine before bobbling down the road…

Now, I’ve lost count of how many trips my little car took to the garage, how many calls I made to the AA and how many afternoons my Dad spent tinkering under the hood. Whilst my company during these garage sessions offered nothing more than a decent cup of tea and the occasional passing of a spanner, I remember two things: my Dad’s shoe tapping to the unforgettable opening chords of Highway to Hell and the excitement I felt when we turned the ignition key to discover Jack* lived on.

It didn’t matter how fruitless it seemed to others, this labour of love made a whole lot of sense to my Dad and I.

But even true love must come to an end.

Despite everything I treasure about Jack – the sensation of driving a go-kart at 80mph, always finding a parking space, the act of solidarity by beeping any and every passing classic mini – he just couldn’t keep up with the modern world. Long journeys turned into a ‘will-he-won’t-he’ bet, supermarket speed bumps might as well have been a 6ft no-entry sign and when it rained, well, let’s just say we had no carpets in the front for a reason.

Despite him being everything I knew about driving and bloody good fun to cruise around the countryside in, a newer model of car was eventually needed to help me get from point A to point B with greater confidence, safety and extra room for luggage.

While I’m sure you enjoyed my little trip down memory lane, I’m equally sure you’re wondering what on earth my little mini has to do with the world of tech.

Well, I’m glad you asked.

 

Some legacies must come to an end

Last week I read a stat that showed half of all government spending on computers is dedicated to keeping old systems going. In money terms, this equals £2.3bn – most of which goes on patching up systems, some dating back 30 years or more. Over the next five years, the Cabinet Office warns that spending on legacy systems could sit anywhere between £13bn and £22bn, despite repeated efforts to retire them.

As well as exorbitant maintenance costs, some of the biggest problems linked to legacy systems are a lack of compliance, data silos and reduced security. In fact, the Cabinet Office report found that some government digital services “fail to meet even the minimum cyber-security standards“. It also discovered that despite significant sums being spent on data storage, these obsolete systems stop data from being properly extracted – preventing data-driven decision-making and performance monitoring.

Whilst the public have a right to feel disappointed that “taxpayers’ money is being pumped into failing and outdated infrastructure” (Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office minister Fleur Anderson), keeping old and broken systems going extends far beyond public office.

 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Despite the growing affordability and accessibility of modern technologies, some organisations stay loyal to the applications and systems that have long underpinned their business, believing the hiccups older technologies create outweigh the disruption business-wide change would cause.

This is often followed up by the desperately naive phrase – why fix what’s not broke?

The truth is, evaluating your legacy systems is about so much more than judging whether it’s capable of doing what it’s always done. If this was the case, innovation would sit still.

Instead, you should be stress testing your systems, applications, and infrastructure to ensure they have resilience built in to evolve and adapt. Being able to access an app from the office might have worked in the 50s, but today, your employees need to be able to access that app from anywhere at any time. Not simply because your competitors can do the same, but because it increases productivity, operational efficiencies, and leans into the future of hybrid working that the world over has entered.

By not having an end-to-end digital strategy or adopting newer technologies that your engineers want to work with, you also run the risk of dissatisfied employees. This can have a negative effect on brand image, drive a poor user experience that prevents new products going to market and cause undue frustration across your teams. It can also detrimentally effect talent acquisition and retention.

 

Under the hood of legacy IT strategy

Finding the optimal time to upgrade or replace your legacy IT system is a tricky equation.

When something continues to perform well and it would be more cost-effective to keep than build a new one, it doesn’t make business sense to invest in something new. By the same logic, it would be bad business to wait to replace something until it’s got physical signs of smoke – in which case you risk unnecessary down time and expenses.

What if you can’t fully abandon your legacy system but you desperately need to upgrade? You could always follow in the footsteps of Carlsberg – just one example of a business who adopted a hybrid solution whilst they decided the future of all of their applications. This has enabled them to retain legacy as a record system but harness the power of the internet and cloud computing to boost agility and reduce costs.

Also well as making the right move for your technology, there’s also the sentiment and culture that comes with having done things a certain way for an extended period of time. Trust me, it took me seven years of de-icing my mini from the inside and crossing my fingers as we aquaplaned through innocent puddles before I could finally contemplate the idea of retiring Jack to the garage until warmer months. It wasn’t just a case of saying goodbye to something I was really familiar with, it was the challenge of finding a replacement fit for purpose and then adapting how I drove to get the best out of the new bells and whistles.

Due to the complexities of modernising entire IT systems, choosing to transform is not a decision you make overnight. Most importantly, you need to make sure you are doing it for the right reasons and not simply following technological trends. You also need to make sure you have people on board before the transformation starts – that includes your all-important stakeholders and change advocates at every level of the business.

 

Knowing when to change

As you begin to consider whether to upgrade your legacy systems or not, have a read through the list below. Once the cons start to outweigh the convenience of sticking to your existing legacy processes and systems, it might be worth putting the steps in place to move from a legacy IT strategy to a comprehensive digital strategy.

Things to consider when keeping your legacy system going:

  • Certain vulnerabilities in legacy systems aren’t necessarily easier to fix and can expose businesses to greater security risks,
  • Skillsets that understand the technology are dwindling as your workforce ages, meaning there is less access to regular maintenance and support,
  • Upgrades require manual implementation and, in some cases, down-time before the system is usable,
  • New tools and applications can’t always integrate with legacy systems and processes,
  • Delivering training on legacy software can be a tedious and time-consuming process,
  • Legacy strategies often exclude DevOps, lean or Agile methodologies,
  • In many cases, the manufacturer no longer supports the software,
  • Most legacy systems rely on on-prem solutions – meaning a higher cost of ownership thanks to administrative expenses,
  • Monolithic systems can’t change and scale in line with business growth.

You don’t necessarily need to act today, but the thing with technology (and cars) is that they will continue to age to a point where they will become unreliable and unmaintainable. The longer you hold on to these systems, the more of a gap you create between what was and what’s new – and the skillsets that go with it! This might be a good strategy for a CIO looking to lead the transformation of the century, but it’s not so great for the employees and customers who battle with incompetent systems every single day.

For me, giving up Jack came down to safety. It might be that your decision to modernise existing IT systems comes down to security too. Whatever your reason, perhaps don’t wait until half your IT spending is spent keeping old systems going!

 

*Ah yes, ‘Jack’ is a nickname my mini picked up 13 years ago and has been affectionately known as ever since – what else can you do when the number plate starts with a W?

 

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More about the author: 

Eloisa Tovee is the Content and Marketing Manager at ECS, overseeing content strategy, GTM campaigns and the promotion of thought leadership at ECS. When Eloisa is not sketching scamps or scribbling new content ideas, you can find her on LinkedIn here.

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