Stretching value from old apps

Foresters has achieved what many companies aim for — it has been in business for more than 125 years. Its employees have inherited long-established traditions and successful business practices. But it’s not all pink clouds at Foresters. They’ve also inherited mainframes that were purchased in the

’60s and some critical applications whose vendors are no longer in business.

Foresters is not unique. Many companies today are contending with a slew of heterogeneous legacy applications that have been modified — sometimes several times — to fit business needs, that were written in languages that are no longer favoured, and that are costly to support.

But simply replacing older apps with more up-to-date editions is often not a viable solution — it’s costly and causes major interruptions. Instead, companies look to adapt older systems to newer ones as they are brought in.

Companies are continually faced with the dilemma of paying a high up-front cost to build a nicer architecture and lower maintenance costs or continuing to leverage what they already have, even through it is not as efficient as a more modern system, says Warren Shiau, a software analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto.

No longer in business

Adapting older systems to fit newer environments while slowly replacing them is an important part of Foresters’ strategy in dealing with legacy applications. The Toronto-based financial services organization has mainframes and legacy applications that stretch back to the ’60s. Of its five mission critical applications, only one is currently supported by an outside vendor, says Donna Ingram, director of applications at Foresters. The others were either built in-house, modified to fit the company’s needs or were purchased by a vendor that doesn’t exist anymore.

“”It gets more cumbersome every time you want to add a new technology,”” says Ingram.

This presents increased difficulty as new software is introduced into the mix. It becomes increasingly difficult to make the systems interoperable. In addition, because only a few key people in the company have a knowledge of the older applications, those individuals have become tied to the legacy applications. Though Ingram wants to move those employees — and their understanding of Foresters’ business processes — onto newer applications, it’s difficult to take them away from the older ones that only they have expertise in.

Foresters developed several different programs in order to contend with the unruliness of the heterogeneous environment.

In 1999, it decided to implement a CRM package to support its call centre and field sales operations. Instead of redesigning the back office — a costly endeavour — the company decided to use middleware to bridge the CRM system to the older system. This meant users could bid farewell to green screens — though those screens could still be seen on servers. The decision to go this route was primarily based on its financial viability, Ingram says.

“”It’s always related to cost,”” says Ingram.

The middleware solution is one often overlooked by IT departments because it is inelegant, and this is a mistake, says Phil Murphy, a principal analyst at analyst firm Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

“”It’s been a fault of IT for a long time to chase technical change to stay current. And the last thing they deliver is business value. But using Web services tools such as SOAP and WSDL to allow disparate systems to talk to each other gets the job done.

“”It’s putting lipstick on a pig, but it does deliver the business value first.””

A company can worry about what’s under the covers once it sets up a plan to continue reaping the value out of legacy applications, Murphy says. “”It’s just that the more techie technicians are, the more they look down at it. It’s brute force ugly.””

Another approach taken by Foresters to handle its overabundance of legacy applications was to outsource the maintenance of its policy admin system to RIS in order to free up some of its staff. This caused some concern internally — people worried about the system going down during the transition, and about handing over a mission critical app, Ingram says. But the transition went smoothly. And the staff that handled the old system are now freed up to look after newer systems.

The company is also working to consolidate and slowly transition its customer file management (CFM) application — which is more than 35 years old — onto a newer system.

“”We’re gradually taking functionality out of the CFM system and building a parallel system,”” Ingram says.

Critical consolidation

When four hospitals merged in the Hamilton, Ont., area in 1996, they each brought with them their own systems making it different for staff to get a unified view of a patient. The hospital needed to be able to access the legacy data from the old systems as it consolidated them onto a single system, says Winston Sullivan, a manager of technology services with Hamilton Health Sciences. The hospital moved the data from its legacy systems onto Toronto-based Loris Technologies Inc.’s FileNexus. The electronic data repository for records allowed them to store a variety of file types — everything from electronic files to paper documents to microfilm — onto a single system. They moved more than five million records onto the system.

Looking up a patient’s entire history no longer meant looking at several screens, paper documents and tapes.

Hamilton Health Sciences got its return on investment in six months, he says. The nine-month implementation project to consolidate the legacy data paid off, Sullivan says.

Consolidation was also a useful solution for the Toronto Star, says the Star’s manager of technical services and data centre operations, Rick Takashima. The Star replaced its existing performance management and print management software with Unicenter CA-SYSVIEW Realtime Performance Management and Unicenter CA-Spool Print Management. Consolidating the two older systems into products by a single vendor helped lower costs, Takashima says. It allowed The Star to build a critical mass so that it could get a discount on maintenance. The switch was seamless to end users — they didn’t even notice it, Takashima says.

Maintenance is one of the costlier aspects of leveraging legacy apps, Forrester Research’s Murphy says.

“”We estimate that most groups spend about 80 per cent on maintenance. You may double your new project development budgets if you cut this down.””

Many avenues

There are a multitude of ways to address legacy applications, says David Flawn, vice-president of legacy migration at Fujitsu Consulting in Boston. Companies can often replace older packages that they’ve modified or built in-house with packages that are now available off-the-shelf and that offer the same functionality that perhaps

were not around when the company first implemented their own solution. They can also emulate functionality of an older system in a more modern, cost-effective environment.

Decomposing the workload that runs on a mainframe is another solution. Companies can also recompile applications to run on a new environment.

Linux offers hope to organizations contending with legacy applications, IDC’s Shiau says. They can unify different Unix stacks by moving them to Linux at the OS level of the server stack, making them more efficient and easier to manage.

The trick is to find a balance between putting in place a more efficient and modern infrastructure and creating makeshift solutions to keep getting value out of existing applications.

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