January 28, 2021
Preparing for the Future with Application Modernization
According to Gartner, a legacy application is an information system that is critical to daily operations but may be based on outdated technologies.
While age is certainly a factor here, legacy systems aren’t necessarily defined exclusively by how long they’ve been around. Systems can earn that designation for other reasons, including a lack of vendor support, incompatibility with other systems or processes, or an inability to meet the organization’s business needs.
In some instances, legacy applications are defined by the amount of time or resources they use. For example, you might be spending too much time managing the application’s underlying infrastructure that could be better spent focusing on more strategic efforts.
In any case, legacy systems represent a significant barrier to digital transformation.
Modernizing legacy applications allows organizations to create new business value by simplifying and standardizing their app portfolio, as well as by speeding up development efforts and automating QA tasks and deployment pipelines.
In this article, we’ll cover what you need to know about bringing your legacy applications into the future.
Legacy Application Modernization: Best Practices to Know
Legacy application modernization describes the process of updating and/or replacing outdated or ineffective systems, applications, or processes—either partially or in full.
What’s important to note is that legacy app modernization isn’t necessarily limited to a single strategy or process. Instead, it’s about evaluating your entire digital ecosystem and, from there, figuring out the best approach for solving specific problems.
Below, we’ve outlined some best practices you can use to determine where to focus your modernization efforts to get the most impact.
Define Your Business Case
Modernizing legacy applications has the potential to provide a competitive advantage to organizations, whether that’s responding to changes brought on by COVID, digitizing processes, or unlocking the potential of big data.
Potential goals might include:
- Deliver a better customer experience
- Gain a better understanding of your audience’s needs, behaviors, pain points, etc.
- Comply with regulatory/data privacy requirements
- Take advantage of new business opportunities
- Reduce costs
- Increase capacity
- Improve security
- Automate processes
- Enhance scalability
- Improve performance
- Deliver updates, features, or products to market faster
Include key stakeholders in the process and get the executive buy-in and commitment needed to support transformation efforts on an organization-wide level.
Assess the Current State of Your Legacy Applications
Again, legacy software doesn’t necessarily mean that systems are old or outdated by traditional standards. Oftentimes, issues arise due to a lack of control or understanding of the various components that exist within the system.
People come and go, business goals change over time and shift between different projects, and inevitably, some parts of a system slowly become dated or just forgotten. If you’re not careful, the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality can come back to bite you when you least expect it. You could be caught off guard by a third-party library update, deprecation, or a vendor suddenly deciding to discontinue support.
To get ahead of any surprise issues, we recommend auditing core business applications to uncover existing problems or areas that may cause potential issues in the near future.
Develop a systematic strategy for evaluating your technology from all angles, including architecture, infrastructure, databases, code, usability, and so on.
Does the current system align with your business goals? If not, what barriers stand in the way?
What is the business value offered by the legacy system? And how does it compare to potential solutions?
Do you have enough knowledge to accurately evaluate the current state of the system? Do you have documentation that accounts for each component and how it works? Are there internal subject matter experts who know the ins and outs of the system?
That internal knowledge becomes even more critical when you’re working with bigger systems with many years of updates, add-ons, and features that are no longer in use.
You’ll also want to audit the code of legacy applications. Code auditing should be done through linting tools to evaluate bugs, technical debt, security vulnerabilities, code complexity, and overall maintainability and extensibility.
Figure Out What Your End Users Want
Once you’ve identified your goals and evaluated your existing systems, figure out what it is that consumers are looking for.
- Gather feedback from employees, customers, partners. You might try interviewing these groups, sending out a survey, or mining conversational insights from sales or support teams to find out what’s working about your current system, what’s not, and what end-users would like to see in future releases.
Here, it helps to look at informal channels like reviews and daily interactions with customers, as well as the structured feedback provided in survey responses. This will help you answer specific questions about known issues and surface new problems and priorities you might otherwise discover on your own.
- Evaluate how customers and partners interact with the legacy systems. Gather insights using tools like heatmaps, click maps, and screenshots to get a sense of how users are interacting with the application. Here, the aim is to uncover friction points and issues that users may not have the language to describe, yet still undermine the experience.
- Dig into formal feedback channels. Look at support desk tickets and feature requests. Are you hearing any particular complaints? Are there any recurring themes that keep surfacing? Additionally, check where the feedback is coming from. There’s a difference between a complaint from one of your power users versus someone who isn’t a good fit for your solution. That said, things like bugs, errors, and usability issues should be a top priority regardless of who reported the problem.
- How much do employees/end-users use each part of the existing tech stack? Are there parts of the system that your employees rely on to do their day-to-day work? What about your customers? Naturally, prioritize any features/apps that are most important to your target user. Updating secondary/tertiary features should only be a priority if your goal is to make them part of the “A-team.” Otherwise, tackle the most important stuff first before modernizing the low-priority stuff.
Choose an Application Modernization Strategy
There are a few different ways to approach your modernization strategy. Among the simplest is breaking your legacy app infrastructure into the following categories:
- Keep. No changes are needed. Again, ensure that you’ve thoroughly evaluated the application/system to determine that this is actually the case. Even if things appear to be working just fine, check that there aren’t any issues such as regulatory non-compliance, unsecured endpoints, or discontinued vendor support that can cause significant damage later on.
According to Javier Trevino, keeping the current solution in place will ALWAYS require some type of enhancement to the code based on your code audit findings. As a general rule, code audits turn up bugs, evidence of technical debt, and security vulnerabilities that should be fixed ASAP, not to mention opportunities to simplify or automate complex processes.
- Quick fix. Make modifications to existing software, architecture, UI, etc., to improve business/technical value.
- Replace. Replace or rewrite an existing solution with a new application that brings more value to the organization using newer frameworks or languages that are more efficient and can easily be deployed to modern cloud environments.
- Retire. Gradual process of converting/consolidating applications/policies
Keep in mind; you’ll need to weigh these options against a variety of factors to determine where to best allocate your investments. Some solutions, like replacing an entire system, might require a significant investment upfront but will help you save money in the long run.
You might also evaluate quick fixes and decide to prioritize updates requiring little effort but offer significant value to the business if you’re looking to make immediate improvements.
Legacy Application Modernization Technology Solutions
Legacy applications can be hard to integrate with cloud-based solutions, advanced analytics tools, and other technologies that are quickly becoming requirements for doing business in the digital world.
As such, legacy systems must either be replaced or modernized to secure a competitive advantage, maximize profits, and increase productivity. Otherwise, organizations will face significant barriers to success and heightened security risks.
Here’s a quick look at some of the more common modernization strategies:
- Move to the Cloud. Legacy systems typically store data on a central server requiring physical hardware that can be both expensive and difficult to maintain.
Moving legacy applications to the cloud is a prerequisite for any digital transformation initiative—enabling easy collaboration, remote access, and a “single source of truth” that ensures that all users are working from the same data. Note that moving legacy applications to the cloud may require a complete rewrite given the codebase is too “old.”
- Migrate to a New Architecture. Another option is migrating existing features to new architectures and patterns that support faster development iterations.
According to one of our software engineers, Paul Estrada, an important part of modernizing any codebase is identifying when parts of an application are becoming harder to fix or if updates/fixes are taking longer than they should.
Even when using modern tech, if it’s getting harder to add new features on top of existing code, that’s a sign the current architecture is not fulfilling the requirements anymore.
Javier Trevino adds, “migrating to new architectures is also about addressing non-functional requirements like scalability, reliability, availability, and security, as well as dimensions like capacity, redundancy, tolerance.”
- Break the Monolith into Microservices. Monolithic legacy applications are typically written as one long block of code, whereas with microservices applications, each application/feature runs as its own independent “service.” Migrating from monolith to microservices allows teams to build and deploy new features and updates at a faster rate, offers more flexibility in terms of your technology stack, and reduces the risks associated with code changes.
- Data Modernization. It’s no secret that the modern business must be data-driven if they want to stay competitive. As such, another area where organizations might choose to focus on is data modernization. It plays an essential role in everything from AI and machine learning to cloud computing and big data analytics.
Unfortunately, many legacy systems still rely on hierarchical databases and flat files, which make data mining a lot more complex than it needs to be.
Modernizing data requires organizations to replace legacy mainframe databases with modern databases designed to support the influx in big data. Keep in mind that data modernization is an expansive effort involving a number of data science-specific technologies like Java, Spark, Scala, Kafka, Python, R, Hadoop, and Hive for implementing data lakes and warehouses, ingesting and organizing data, and more.
- Make Security a Top Priority. The last generation of cybersecurity solutions was designed for a world in which regulations were minimal, and the costs associated with a security breach were relatively small. Today, we’ve got the GDPR, the CCPA, California’s new privacy requirements, and a whole host of state and industry-specific bills coming through the pipeline that dictate how consumer data can be used. Additionally, several factors are converging that make it more difficult to secure legacy systems, including the recent move toward remote work (thanks, COVID), increased adoption of the internet of things (IoT), the rise of big data, and just over the horizon, things like 5G and edge computing.
In the end, if any existing applications, software, or infrastructure are preventing your company from competing in today’s competitive business environment or meeting customer expectations, it’s time to get serious about your legacy application modernization strategy.
Ultimately, you’ll want to choose the modernization approach that provides the biggest impact on your business. This could mean making sense of your ever-expanding data sets, delivering a better experience to your end-consumer, or meeting the cybersecurity challenges of the modern era.