What do we really mean when we talk about ‘legacy' systems? The dictionary definition is clear; a legacy is an inheritance or, used as an adjective, it's ‘something outdated or discontinued'.
But for many companies, particularly large corporations, their ‘legacy' IT infrastructure is still very much alive and current. Systems like, IBM mainframe, midrange, UNIX and Unisys, may have been handed down by previous generations of IT managers, and may represent years of tweaking and customising, but are still pivotal to day-to-day operations.
The system may not be ideal. It may be written in an old programming language and be difficult to maintain if things go wrong. But it is reliable and represents a major investment over years of business. It also holds all a company's business-critical data; to clear the decks and start again would be a risky and costly decision.
On the other hand – hot on the heels of every large, long-standing company are the young start-ups. Unencumbered by any inherited ‘baggage', they are taking advantage of mobile technology, of lighter, more intuitive web-based applications and of easy, anytime, anywhere access to current, integrated data. These newer systems enable them make a business advantage of being more agile and responsive than the older, less flexible giants.
The situation presents a challenge for today's IT managers who now need to find an affordable way to make their inherited systems meet new market demands. But, the first step is to look more closely at exactly what the market needs.
While, as consumers, we can be wowed by being able to do things we never believed possible using mobile apps, in business we are not so easily swayed. The overriding reason why we want to be able to use mobile technology for business is a practical one; to get things done.
In other words, we want to use mobile technology – and ideally our own smartphones and tablets – to do what we do in the office. We want to be able to securely access existing business applications while on the move or working remotely.
But as most of us have discovered, this is not always easy as critical mainframe or legacy host-based applications are notoriously adverse to integration. But there are solutions that can:
Generate new user interfaces for any HTML 5-compatible device. This means employees can use their tablets or smartphones to see exactly what they are used to seeing on their desktops – with no need to develop any new applications.
Create customised mobile front ends. This approach provides the control to create a whole new application UI and even modify the associated workflow, or
Build service-orientated architecture (SOA) style services directly out of host-based applications. This means you can create entirely new mobile applications from current enterprise assets without the need for modification. This is quick and low risk, while giving full control over every aspect of the mobile application.
There are also other important reasons for modernisation; for example, the need to integrate customer account information to ensure smooth customer service. Too often, the required customer data is hard or impossible to access because it's held on legacy systems.
There are also three options here. Old applications can be re-written so that they can talk to newer technologies but this is expensive, time-consuming and error-prone. Older applications can be replaced entirely – but once again this can prove an unwieldy and risky effort. Not least because it's easy to underestimate how much a business relies on certain legacy functions.
The third, service enablement, is an advanced approach that is gaining in popularity. This addresses the underlying issues tied to legacy systems, enabling businesses to reuse applications and databases already there while leaving functional legacy logic in place. As a result, they avoid the risks of recreating critical functionality and mitigate concerns about Quality of Service loss.
With this approach, application components are wrapped and exposed for re-use. Current technologies can then plug into and leverage legacy assets. This enables the extension of previously locked up host applications, making them agile and accessible across the enterprise.
The key to the success of this approach lies in making each project small and working at an application level rather than a systems level. This way, a business can pursue a series of projects that will each start to reap return on investment upon completion. Taken as a whole, it's a strategic process known as rapid service enablement.
In essence it means small, risk-free steps to achieve a larger goal. This is where rapid service enablement has great value; it's not an all or nothing effort and the work done now can be reused at any time to complement other solutions. The incremental approach means applications can be successfully modernised without disrupting an entire IT infrastructure, helping diffuse the problem of high, up-front costs. Decision makers are more likely to respond favourably if solutions are presented in smaller staged terms and legacy assets are left undisturbed.
So, IT managers don't have to reinvent the wheel, but can help their company become more flexible and responsive by putting a modern interface on existing systems. This way they can get the best of both worlds and do so in a quick and affordable way.
Barry Davis is sales director for UK and Ireland at Attachmate