Does your company need to modernize legacy software? Here we describe not only what the issues with legacy software are, but how to fix them effectively.
Out with the old, in with the new – that’s how the saying goes. There comes a time in any program’s lifecycle when even the most up-to-date operating system, platform or data management software starts showing signs of age, and it can be tempting to swap everything out for the Next Big Thing.
But when it comes to the complex systems running our companies, not to mention the even more complex code underwriting them, it pays to know what you’re doing before throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That’s why it’s necessary to think about how to modernize legacy software properly.
Companies (and the executives in them) often hear the phrase “modernize legacy software” and start thinking about the resources that will be taken up by such a project. It’s a process that doesn’t always have an obvious ROI, which can be scary for some. This can encourage even large, successful companies to continue running ineffective technology long past its expiration date. While it certainly will take time, especially if it’s done right, legacy software upgrades don’t have to consume all your team’s attention (or break the bank). So we’ve gone ahead and written a guide to help you make the best choices when it comes time to modernize.
But what exactly is legacy software, and how do you know when to upgrade?
Before going on to modernize legacy software in your company, it pays to know what it is. Think of it as the technological equivalent of a past generation. Two decades ago Microsoft launched the Word Suite 1998, and it was completely innovative, but fast forward even just a few years and the cracks started showing. Regardless, it was still the standard for many users even after Word 2000 improved upon it in a number of ways, and it continued to be in use even after becoming effectively obsolete. This is when a system is referred to as legacy. Sometimes a program, system or operating system is so popular that, years later, it continues to have a hold in the business world.
This is okay – but only until its age starts to show. This is doubly true when you’re talking about the code underlying your company’s systems and products. So how do you know when it’s time to modernize legacy software? Here are a few signs that tell you when it’s time to start thinking about an upgrade:
First, your systems start misbehaving. A few error messages here, a few malfunctions there – if you don’t do something soon, you’ll find that your networks start freezing up altogether. Which is not what you want to happen when your business relies on them. This is often because the rest of the world is constantly updating while your tech is still stuck back in the Jazz Age. Which leads us to the next point.
Your technology becomes less and less supportable. Yes, the adage “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” is endearingly old school, but the longer you wait to upgrade, the fewer places you’ll be able to turn even for a simple upgrade, much less for major tech support. You’ll only be able to approach a narrowing number of specialists to take care of your system needs, which can turn out to be more expensive over time than deciding to modernize legacy software in your company.
So what’s the best way to modernize?
Upgrading and migrating your data, code and systems into new structures or servers is something fairly new, but there have already been a number of core strategies that have developed over time. We’d like to go over a few of them here.
One of the most effective ways to do so is to modernize legacy software using microservices. A microservice is the opposite of what we call a monolith – think the behemoth platforms of previous decades, such as the Microsoft suite of programs. Each part was connected to the whole, not unlike bricks in a giant wall. While this enabled certain companies to maintain a solid grip on how their products were made and used, it also made them clumsy when it came to doing repairs or major overhauls. Imagine having to rebuild said wall by removing specific bricks and you’ll get the idea.
A microservice, on the other hand, is a relatively independent module that can be swapped in and out of a system with relative ease. By breaking down large, monolith-like servers and systems into smaller microservices, companies will find it much easier to modernize legacy software as well as work on various updates.
Microservices operate on a meta level, altering the structure of your software in subtle, invisible ways. It allows you to focus on the business itself rather than on all the details involved in implementation. They can be themselves fully functional apps, but most of the time they’re mostly connected to databases and the state of your software. The most important thing is to reorganize your program structures so that it’s containerized and ready for horizontal scaling. All the while adding business value without disturbing the work you do.
Another of the many strategies to modernize legacy software is to start moving to the cloud. By getting your code off physical servers not only will you be avoiding maintenance mode and downtimes, but you’ll be able to take advantage of the cloud’s ability to tinker with your code in parallel with the existing software. This means that you won’t have to take anything offline while you modernize the code itself. The cloud also serves as a base for continuous integration and, of course, this works even better in concert with managing chunks of code as microservices.
The Innovator’s Dilemma
But so much of this comes down to a central dilemma: while new technologies lead to the downfall of change-resistant firms (no matter how large), sometimes the cost of modernization itself can be frightfully intimidating. Finding an allocating funds for a project that, especially to investors, might not have an immediate ROI sounds to some like entrepreneurial suicide.
That said, the combined effect of delaying modernization can become so large that a company can hardly keep up. This makes it necessary to have a clear vision of the costs and benefits involved with modernization, so that an accurate picture of the state of affairs can be presented to investors and directors. It’s worth modernizing gradually instead of all at once – that, and it’s easier to justify to the financial department. But some kind of modernization is necessary if companies don’t relish the thought of going under.
Making sure you modernize legacy software isn’t just about the actual process of migrating your servers, data or what have you, it’s also about creating effective systems to make sure that you’re continually upgrading your tech and code. This will make it easier to keep up with the latest developments and prevent another large-scale migration down the road.
A really great way to ‘future-proof’ your systems is through a practice known as refactoring. Think of refactoring as trying to get rid of all the bloat in your code – eliminating unnecessary bits, cleaning up duplicates, minimizing the moving parts and generally cleaning things up so that other programmers will be able to see what’s what.
Setting aside time at regular intervals for refactoring is key, as well as familiarizing yourself with code smell (signs of bloat in the code) or prioritizing unit testing over functionality testing. All these techniques combine to create a powerful, forward-thinking set of code and tech practices that are open to innovation. And in this rapidly-changing tech landscape, being even slightly resistant to innovation can mean the difference between thriving or going under.