The most difficult issues companies face when considering a legacy application migration and how to navigate them

A company’s ability to move quickly and adapt its business model in response to changing conditions, such as the disruption caused by COVID-19, can often be the difference between success and failure.

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A company’s ability to move quickly and adapt its business model in response to changing conditions, such as the disruption caused by COVID-19, can often be the difference between success and failure.

One of the main reasons businesses can’t make fundamental changes in the right direction is the software they rely on to operate is too rigid or out of date. That’s the unfortunate reality facing most companies that have been around for more than about five years – they’ll be using at least one piece of legacy software to operate the core function of the business. Examples of legacy applications include banking platforms for banks, policy administration systems for insurance companies, ERP systems and even machinery being managed by software on a decades-old MS-DOS computer.

“Legacy” is a broad term covering software, platforms, hardware, languages or any other technologies that have been superseded. And with the pace of change in the tech industry, managing these applications is a very real challenge facing CIOs.

Older software is prone to failure, can be expensive to fix and may be vulnerable to cyber-attacks. In some cases, as a company evolves and grows, they may no longer have staff with a full understanding of how to get the best out of the older software. The other issue with legacy systems is that it’s often very difficult – or even impossible – to change them to reflect new business practices or processes. Unfortunately, one of the most common reasons companies can be slow to pivot is that it takes too long to change the core applications used to run the business.

Another common example is operating systems. For instance, Windows 8 applications running on Windows 10 would be considered legacy. Mainframe applications are also legacy systems (but they can continue to thrive with an appropriate maintenance plan). Similarly, some software written in older coding languages could be considered legacy systems.

Older systems often have manual workarounds or slow processing times, which also stop businesses from moving quickly to keep up with their competitors.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s lockdown response, GuideSmiths has received an influx of enquiries from businesses needing to change legacy systems because they’re hampering a broader organisational change, resulting in lost productivity. Those businesses are facing growing competition from newer companies with digital-first operating models, which means they don’t have legacy systems to slow them from changing direction. So now, more than ever, legacy application migrations are critical to help companies stay in business and ahead of their competition.

It’s just not financially realistic for businesses to always have the latest and greatest technology. Legacy software usually remains in a company’s technology stack for much longer than anyone intends. Sometimes that’s fine, such as with mainframe systems, which are typically very stable. Other times, it limits the ability of a company to respond to customer needs.

There are also productivity and cost benefits to replacing legacy systems. McKinsey points to an insurance industry benchmark which shows companies with contemporary technology are substantially more productive than their peers with legacy stacks. Furthermore, McKinsey says modernised IT systems are cheaper to run by up to 41%.

No technology leader wants to be responsible for slowing their company’s ability to move quickly. CIOs need to assess the cost of a migration and plan it effectively. It’s important they have a full awareness of all the legacy applications in their stack and have an ongoing plan to migrate, replace or retire them. However, the need to migrate legacy applications is more prevalent than ever because of the impact of COVID-19.

In order to respond to this new environment, we surveyed 20 technology leaders to understand the challenges and successes they have experienced with legacy application migrations. We’ve summarised the learnings to help CIOs and businesses ensure their legacy migration project is set up for success from day one.

Key findings

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A quarter of our respondents said they had reviewed their legacy applications as a result of the pandemic. The same number said their companies had suffered from lost productivity because of challenges in making their legacy applications available to remote workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Sixty per cent of respondents said their productivity would be negatively affected if legacy applications were not migrated. Other business impacts from not migrating legacy applications included poor user experience and quality control.

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We also asked what was the most problematic issue they encountered when implementing a legacy migration project. We analysed their responses and identified five recurring issues facing CIOs and business leaders. Here, we delve into each issue to understand how it impacts businesses, as well as providing insight from us and our respondents to help successfully navigate each issue.

Those recurring issues are:

  1. Understand the functionality of the legacy system and how it must change

  2. Finding the right people with the right skills

  3. Educating internal stakeholders to ensure full support for the migration

  4. Managing budget constraints

  5. Completing a migration without disrupting the business

The issues

1. Understanding the functionality of the legacy system and how it must change

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This is one of the biggest challenges technology and business leaders face when planning a legacy migration. Older systems are often tightly coupled which makes them challenging to unravel, as a result, it’s difficult for the team to fully understand its core logic. The irony is these systems are often the beating heart of a business, but their full features aren’t particularly well understood by its users or the technology team responsible for supporting them.

“There are always either parts of a service that are not clearly understood in a transferable way or detailed configuration that is not easy to access and understand,” said CTO of Metapack, Steve Homan.

“Deconstructing legacy solutions is always a problem when architectural design stands in the way of progress. Many products operate in monolithic silos, with little or no modularity, making it difficult to break them down into pieces. Furthermore, the high internal coupling between these systems makes it difficult to make successive replacement plans,” said Javier Velez Reyes, Head of Innovation and Technological Development in channels architectures at BBVA.

Stephen Cresswell, deputy vice president of engineering at Tes Global, has observed there’s often a lack of understanding of how the existing system actually works and how it should work, both by the people migrating the system and those already using it.

“Legacy applications always have hidden or unknown functionality”, said Agustin Cuenca, CEO of ASPgems. To ensure all the features are replicated in the new system, James Fleming, CIO at Element, says “It's important to have a robust approach to testing to ensure the new software covers all processes in the incumbent application.”

Metapack’s approach to addressing this challenge is to “go slow to go fast”. CTO Steve Homan ensures the team has time to get the necessary understanding of the application that will be migrated. He recommends doing this before the project is fully mobilised, helping to manage costs and expectations. Ultimately, this approach means you can make more precise plans and decisions for the migration effort. This should involve mapping the legacy system into the wider business ecosystem to provide much-needed context. It’s also helpful to seek advice on any actual or perceived knowledge and capability gaps related to the system.

How to navigate this issue

GuideSmiths teams often encounter this challenge on migration projects. While every project is different, here are some of the most useful approaches we’ve found when needing to address this challenge.

  • Identify the inside person:

Find the person or team with expertise in the application. This could be the operational support team, lead developer, product manager or even the CTO.

  • Access the system inputs and outputs:

Doing this will locate integration points and the upstream and downstream data flows, which will provide context to what happens inside the legacy application.

  • Automate a system comparison:

Producing equivalent outputs and bypassing the ‘how’ will focus the team on the exceptions, expediting a perfect outcome.

When GuideSmiths rebuilt the jobs platform for tes.com, it identified the person at the client’s team with the expertise in the legacy system and they became a critical team member throughout the entire project. We worked closely with them during the entire rebuild – asking questions, deciphering the old system and even finding mistakes in it. We built the new system in parallel to the incumbent, comparing outputs and refining the new application until it was complete.

“Discovery and current state architecture of these systems and supported affinities is essential to help make informed decisions about the migration treatment,” said Martin Sharkey, CTO of Cloudkubed.

2. Finding the right people with the right skills

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Half of our respondents felt the most significant challenge for migration projects was finding staff with the necessary depth of knowledge about the application and the right attitude to be a positive contributor to the project.

Legacy migration projects are challenging. They require a specific set of skills and require experience so that the project team can reduce risk, optimise efforts and meet the deadline for delivering the new system.

The project team doesn’t just need the right technical knowledge but should also have experience in other migration initiatives. This is important because knowledge gaps in the team or assumptions about the legacy application could compromise the success of the migration effort.

Technology leaders should have a clear position on whether their own team is up for the challenge of a legacy migration. If they’re not, a consultancy or technology partnership may be a more appropriate option to ensure a successful outcome.

“New technology requires new skills and needs full knowledge of the destination infrastructure,” said Emilio Soler, CTO at Sewan Telecomunicaciones SL.

How to navigate this issue
Technology leaders need to be honest about the capability and attitude of their own people before committing to a migration project led by an in-house team. Engaging an expert partner could be the best approach to combine the application knowledge from your team with the migration experience of an external partner. Regardless of the approach, you’ll need a point person within the business to address any questions about the old system.

GuideSmiths leverages our experiences on different migration projects and has an ongoing education programme to upskill our team members. When the time comes, we can apply these techniques to execute the migration, either in its entirety (as with one of our newest customers, Servelegal), or in collaboration with key team members at our clients, such as with Infinitas Learning.

3. Educating internal stakeholders to ensure full support for the migration

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The consensus amongst our respondents was that business stakeholders don’t necessarily understand how it will impact day-to-day operations.

“It is one thing to agree to a budget and say ‘OK’. It is a completely different thing to actually do it. Operational disruption and new ways of thinking are just too much for some businesses,” said Clive Baker, CTO at Boilerjuice. He goes on to say that the business must be willing to change to accommodate the migration project.

“People become understandably attached to systems and processes they’re familiar with, so it’s important to make a positive case for change - business processes need to evolve as much as software during a transformation,” said Damon Petta, CTO of Utility Warehouse.

James Bromley, CDO at Bourne Leisure has experienced some success in addressing this challenge. “I create awareness at the C-level of the impact of technical debt and reduced efficiency in development that would otherwise have been missed in understanding ROI,” he said.

How to navigate the issue

Richard Harding, group CTO at Haymarket, says “Spend time on building a strong business case and create as many advocates as you can.” You may need to seek assistance from a specialist partner to build a robust business case for an application migration, which should include return on investment, predicted revenue increase and the cost of lost productivity.

Stakeholder communication is key to ensure a successful migration project, according to James Fleming, CIO of Element. As with the business case, it may be useful to seek external advice to form a plan to engage all relevant stakeholders in your organisation, including a communication plan that presents the full business case and all milestone updates.

That plan will ensure expectations are aligned from day one and will limit the likelihood of detractors during or after the project. James Bromley, CDO at Bourne Leisure, has a different approach to managing expectations which limits the scope of the project: “Focus on delivering for 80% of users and accept that 20% of use cases are disproportionately costly.”

And, don’t forget to document the migration process – your support team will need this and it will be a useful reference for any other applications that are migrated. A consultancy may be best placed to help with this.

GuideSmiths’ approach is to align the whole business so they can work collectively on the legacy migration. This also ensures the initiative has the necessary support from key stakeholders. We also believe the investment in a legacy migration must be commercially justifiable. We’ve got extensive experience in creating robust business cases, which helps garner the support you’ll need from stakeholders – showing them the wins, the costs and how risks will be managed. Otherwise, you may encounter some back-room politics which could obstruct success.

Typically, we've found very collaborative stakeholders among our customers. Although this can become challenging when stakeholders have multiple or conflicting priorities, the business needs to work together as a whole to ensure the legacy migration has the necessary support to succeed.

4. Managing budget constraints

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Cost is always an issue for technology leaders and it’s particularly challenging to make a successful business case for like-for-like migrations. A transformation initiative that delivers new functionality is more likely to be viewed favourably, but that does mean taking on a more difficult program of work.

Providing a robust business case will certainly help in this regard.

Richard Harding, group CTO at Haymarket, says it’s very difficult to build a business case for some legacy migrations because those systems are being run on a shoestring.

“You can articulate risk or even new features, but if the current system costs less than or the same as the new system (and then you have the cost of the actual change), businesses are reluctant to make these transitions, especially in the current climate,” he said.

How to navigate the issue

We know that budget will always be an issue. In most cases, the key to success is to find the balance between quality, scope and time. Working together with the business to prioritise features and setting a clever strategy is key to winning support in this situation. This can only be achieved by understanding the goals of the business over the short, medium and long term.

Educating internal stakeholders about the benefits of the project and eventual end state will also help with budget challenges (see ‘Issue 3: Educating internal stakeholders to ensure full support for the migration’).

Another approach could be to deliver incremental changes to progressively demonstrate the value of the new system.

When GuideSmiths rebuilt a business critical mobile app for Hive, we initially delivered the core features. This paved the way for further development over the years. Budget was always respected, and the business value was delivered thanks to the essential work of Hive’s product owners in prioritising features.

5. Completing a migration without disrupting the business

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CIOs must find the right balance between application migration and new business projects.

“You cannot freeze the product evolution or the business because you’re migrating legacy. Co-living is one of the most complex issues to face,” said Marc Oliveras, CTO and VP of engineering at Tiendeo.

If that balance isn’t right, then the business will fail to evolve and productivity will suffer.

Clifton Cunningham, CTO of Infinitas, said his challenge is about coming up with a model where you can migrate while still delivering value, and not 'stop the clock'.

“This typically means running things in parallel, but this requires engineers who can work on both sides, old and new, at the same time,” he said.

How to navigate the issue

There was consensus among almost all respondents that a phased approach to application migration would always be more successful than attempting it in one fell swoop. Delivering proofs of concept and agile practices were the preferred approach for Roberto Canales, CEO at Autentia.

“Build new, migrate, strangle the old. Do it in chunks so you know it works and can limit the working knowledge you have at any one time,” said Julian Browne, CTO at Comparison Technologies.

“Big bang change is too risky,” said Clive Baker, CTO at Boilerjuice.

The GuideSmiths approach to replacing legacy systems emphasises risk management. We enable our clients to reproduce the core features while preparing the new system to keep growing and meeting the changing needs of the business. With a proper plan nothing should break, no revenue should be lost and conversions should not be affected.

Try to build your new system in parallel and avoid dependencies with the existing software to stay in the safe lane.

When we rebuilt the liber.se site, the GuideSmiths team was careful to ensure the new and old systems were completely decoupled. We found the inputs and outputs that were essential to keep the platform running. We also built three environments to create and test staging sandboxes so we could rehearse the releases before going live. A first release should never be traumatic.

“Focus on the basics, get buy in to migrate as much as is, and then add new features later, or as soon as you have a piece of it over to the new model. Don't stop until you're finished,” said Clifton Cunningham, CTO at Infinitas.

Key recommendations

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The productivity gains from migrating legacy applications are clear and should be clearly quantified in your project’s business case. Technology leaders should also be mindful that introducing a new core system can often be the catalyst for changing processes, which provides a secondary productivity benefit that could be included in the business case.

Among the diverse responses from our participants and based on GuideSmiths’ own experiences, there are three clear themes that will help you succeed with a legacy application migration.

As with all other technology projects, making a strong business case and securing support from all necessary stakeholders across the business is the critical first step for a legacy migration project. An ongoing communication plan to keep all stakeholders engaged will also help manage expectations and risks.

Capability is critical. Make sure your team contains people with the right knowledge of the legacy application and is experienced in migrations. Partner with an expert if necessary.

Finally, an incremental or agile delivery approach will deliver demonstrable benefits more swiftly, assist stakeholder engagement and also help the delivery team understand the minutiae of the incumbent system to ensure those features are replicated.

Technology leaders will know the capability and limits of their own teams when they’re planning to take on a major legacy migration and should be willing – and able – to bring in experts to help with any or all of these aspects.

Consumer and business expectations will continue to change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning the pressure to evolve isn’t going away. The key to success for all businesses during the pandemic will be their ability to pivot quickly to meet their customers’ demands. Indeed, while the ability to pivot is particularly crucial right now, a strong business model should have agility built into its core principles. A reliance on poorly functioning legacy systems can frustrate a company’s ability to create new digital products that take advantage of unforeseen opportunities or changes in the industry landscape. It’s important not to let legacy systems hold your business back from retaining existing customers and finding new ones.

Identify any legacy applications that may prevent your business from changing direction and start planning today for how you’ll execute a successful migration project.

If you’re considering legacy application migration and you’d like to discuss some of the issues raised in this report, why not, send GuideSmiths an enquiry? We’ll be happy to discuss your needs and our expert team will help ensure your migration project is a success.

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