On the Fence: IT Pros Decide What to Do With Legacy Systems

Jul 14, 2016
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On the Fence: IT Pros Decide What to Do With Legacy Systems

IT leaders including Miami-Dade County database manager Sue Camner, Wal-Mart CIO Karenann Terrell, and NSM Insurance Group CIO Brendan O’Malley, share their views on effectively managing legacy IT.

Miami-Dade County’s Sue Camner

According to GCN’s Stephanie Kanowitz, Florida's Miami-Dade County IT department faced a tough choice. One of its middleware stacks had reached end of life, and officials could either upgrade or get rid of it and convert the forms and reports applications on it to two other stacks. County database manager Sue Camner decided to go with the second option.

The county received assistance from legacy IT modernization firm Morphis to help with the conversions as it did away with its Oracle Application Server (OAS). Oracle had stopped supporting this server a few years back, and Miami-Dade needed to upgrade to Oracle WebLogic. Unfortunately, that suite provides a lot of functionality Camner’s team didn't need.

"We'd have to have the servers and all the resources to support this application just for this small piece," she said. "It didn't seem to be cost effective."

Kanowitz explained that because Miami-Dade has two other middleware stacks – IBM's WebSphere for Java-based apps and Microsoft's IIS for .NET applications – the department decided to convert the Oracle Forms and Reports code to work on one of those stacks. The move would save the county money by removing a stack and all its related maintenance.

"Once all of the applications are out of OAS, we can get rid of that whole infrastructure – the  servers and the storage, the licensing, everything involved in that stack – and just migrate everything to one of the other two," Camner said. And, users aren’t lost because the new programs look much like the legacy applications.

Miami-Dade is experiencing decreased costs and improved security as a result of the modernization. Since the technology is tighter, the county is in a much better position to protect its data.

Wal-Mart’s Karenann Terrell

For its part, retail giant Wal-Mart isn’t getting rid of its legacy systems anytime soon. At Information Week’s recent conference, Wal-Mart CIO Karenann Terrell said she prefers to refer to legacy IT systems as classic. “Classic is respectful for the people who keep the lights on," Information Week’s Chris Murphy reported the CIO as saying.

At present, Wal-Mart is undertaking a major IT modernization. But one of Terrell’s chief priorities is to keep engaging those who are operating legacy environments as well as those who are transforming them. “Both are equally valuable but for different reasons,” Terrell said. “Dealing with legacy IT environments, and particularly with how well companies connect legacy systems to their modern, often customer-facing mobile and cloud environments, will make or break some companies.”

There have, of course, been situations where the “classic” systems have had to be retired. “There are some no-brainer improvements we’ve had to take action on,” Terrell told Deloitte University Press for its article on re-imagining core systems. “For example, we had applications with kernels built around unsupported operating systems. We had to get rid of them.”

But, she added: “Our IT strategy is not about reacting to the technology trend of the moment. I’m sometimes asked, ‘Why don’t you move everything to the cloud?’ My answer is because there’s nothing wrong with mainframes; they will likely always play a part in our solution stack. Moreover, there’s not enough dark fiber in the world to meet our transaction volumes and performance needs.”

At Wal-Mart, modernization is a process rather than a project. It doesn’t have a beginning and an end. It’s usually not a matter of throwing out an entire system all at once, but rather evolving it as new trends and capabilities emerge.

NSM Insurance Group’s Brendan O’Malley

In a recent article for TechTarget, NSM Insurance Group CIO Brendan O’Malley told writer Mary Pratt that he is constantly evaluating legacy systems. Specifically, last year NSM acquired a company with a custom back-office system developed in COBOL in the 1990s. The legacy system did the work, but it required a niche firm to maintain it at a significant cost and, moving forward, it couldn't handle NSM's business requirements. The system would have to go. "It was an easy decision from every perspective," O’Malley said.

O’Malley did observe that most keep-vs.-cut evaluations on legacy systems aren't as straightforward as this one. So how does he make the decision? According to Pratt’s piece, he starts by considering the company's strategy and how IT will support it.

"You always want to have a strategy and an understanding of the platforms you expect to be supporting in three to five years. Those are the systems you're going to be investing in or developing to drive your business," he said. "Something not on your list, that's going to be legacy. It's something you want to eliminate or consolidate or replace."

Pratt reported that O'Malley looks closely as the costs of maintaining legacy systems and assesses whether they meet current business needs and fit in with the current technology stack. “A one-off system that was once somebody's pet project or the result of some rogue IT installation that is incompatible with the company's architecture gets the ax,” he said. “But a system that's inexpensive to maintain, is doing its job and doesn't give anyone undue grief could stay.”

If you’d like to learn more about modernizing your applications and moving away from legacy systems, the webinar—”Early Stage Digital Transformation: Leaving Your Legacy Systems Behind”— offers some additional insight.

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