“Do I Have a Legacy System?” and Other Important Questions

One of the most common pain points for companies today is legacy systems. The term “legacy” refers to any hardware, software, network or other piece of tech that has become obsolete. Companies often have these older systems in place that were expensive to purchase, and are costly and time consuming to replace. However, as they look toward digital transformation to optimize their business processes, it can be difficult to integrate the data from legacy systems into a new and optimized digital solution. In addition, thanks in part to Moore’s Law, that issue is only going to get worse.

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. What this means in plain English is that computers, machines that run on computers, and computing power in general will become faster and require smaller hardware with time as microchips become more efficient. Moore’s Law has been declared dead a few times since George Moore first made the observation in 1965, but regardless of how precisely accurate he was, the concept of technology growing at an exponential rate still holds true.

This graph from the wikipedia article on Moore’s Law demonstrates how computational power has advanced over the last 120 years.

So what could this mean for your business?

Many industries, such as the government and financial industries, prefer to stick with the same old technology they’ve had for years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? After all, new technology is expensive, and transferring all the data and knowledge needed to set up the new system is so time consuming. Not to mention that parts of the old system just aren’t compatible with new technology. Sometimes, a system is just so old that no one knows exactly how it works anymore or what dependencies it might have, so replacing it could be risky business.

In the end, legacy systems are almost always essential to daily business operations. These systems are mission critical, and while they’re not perfect, they enable employees to accomplish their organizational goals. Making the change to a new system just isn’t as easy as buying a new computer from the local Best Buy. But as hard as they are to replace, they’re sometimes even harder (and riskier) to maintain.

What qualifies as a Legacy System?

When designating a piece of technology as a legacy item, it’s not just about age. Though most legacy technologies are at least 5 years old, the actual defining quality is whether or not they’re in support.

Products that are “in support” continuously receive update patches in response to issues that may pop up, and when you call technical support, someone will attempt to help you with any problems you may encounter. Very simply put, a legacy system is a piece of hardware, software, or programming language that is no longer being maintained, supported, or improved by their vendors and are typically incompatible with newer systems.

Legacy Hardware

Legacy hardware may perhaps be the easiest to identify.  These are things like old Gateway computers, Nokia cell phones, Apple Macintoshes, floppy disks, and so on. They are old pieces of equipment whose parts aren’t manufactured anymore, but have been hanging around the office since time immemorial. They may be slow, have limited capabilities, and make a lot of noise, but they still work, thanks to hardware’s tendency towards a long shelf life. This unfortunately makes it hard for people to justify disposing of them.

For an example of some REALLY old hardware, check out this bad boy. It’s an Analog Computing Machine from 1949.

Legacy hardware is generally difficult to maintain, especially when their are no parts or service providers to keep the clunkers running. Generally, the main reason for keeping old hardware is because it runs software that newer computers cannot (which has its own issues).

Legacy Software

Backwards compatibility, ie. the ability to run older software on newer hardware, has been a major selling point in systems for years; anyone with even passing interest in video games knows you don’t want to buy the latest and greatest console if it’s not going to play any of your old console’s games. Unfortunately, this concept has its limits. For example, a Nintendo Switch has no place to insert one of those clunky NES cartridges, even if the system can theoretically run the game.

However, the use of legacy software in business is not about the nostalgia factor. A lot of times, legacy software is still in use because it has been installed locally, so it cannot be transferred to another machine. Though we have moved on to subscription models for much of our software now, back in the day, you only bought one piece of software one time for one machine, and that’s where it stayed until you bought something new.

Other kinds of software that fall into the legacy category are those that cannot be patched, or aren’t receiving updates anymore. Some may still receive updates occasionally, but not nearly often enough to keep up with competitors (or security threats for that matter), and generally not at a reliable pace. There is nothing wrong with these software systems; they are still fully functional. But they are so far out of support that you’re effectively on your own.

Legacy Operating Systems

One of the banes of the IT world is Windows 95. So many companies still operate on Windows 95 (or its successor, Windows XP) because that’s what came installed on their old hardware and they already know how it works. Legacy operating systems tend to come part and parcel when legacy software and hardware are involved. Of course, that’s not to say some people aren’t using old operating systems out of personal preference – I held onto Windows 7 for as long as I could before finally capitulating and upgrading to Windows 10 just because I liked the user interface so much better.

Legacy operating systems, however, are generally one of the biggest reasons for stagnation in a company’s technology strategy. With more primitive systems come more stringent and widespread restrictions on what hardware and software you can use. Since most new hardware comes prepackaged with a modern OS built-in and Microsoft no longer even sells Windows 95 on their site anymore, you’re going to have a rough time the next time a server or computer tower goes kaput.

What’s Wrong With Keeping a Functioning Legacy System?

While many companies have legitimate reasons for using legacy systems, this does not mean that it’s always the best decision. We already touched on the fact that legacy systems are frequently high maintenance and don’t interface well with modern technology. This can be worked around with intricate patching and modifications, but it’s never ideal. Porting techniques are often used to facilitate necessary adjustments or adaptations, and older hardware may require added compatibility layers to facilitate device functionality in incompatible environments. If all of that sounds confusing, imagine how your new IT person will feel after digging in and finding such a rat’s nest.

This graphic from alliancetek.com shows why using a legacy system could be harmful to your company, and how modernization could help maximize productivity.

Another huge and almost inevitable issue is that because legacy systems are so old, they’re more prone to failure. And you can’t just have the IT department fix them up indefinitely; the older a part is, the harder it is to find, and the more money it will cost to obtain. Even once you have it, there is no guarantee that you’ll have someone on staff with the knowledge of how to install it, especially when it comes to software failures.

And even if they don’t break, legacy systems still pose a huge security risk. Hackers are finding even more ways to exploit security in systems with the latest and greatest software, and because legacy systems are no longer in support, they have huge gaping holes where these sneak in. In fact, not having up-to-date software with large gaps is believed to be a large part of how notPetya’s initial spread got so far.

How Can I Upgrade a Legacy System?

If you’re reading this and freaking out about an imminent disaster, there is hope! Though we’ve talked about about how complicated and expensive modernization can be, it doesn’t have to be that way. Advances in custom business automation software make it so that workflows you’ve become accustomed to in your old systems can be modernized and integrated seamlessly. New cloud technologies and “server sharing” programs have made it so that companies can minimize how much new hardware they have to invest in, and the rise of partner providers has made it easier than ever to update your operating systems across your organization from a trusted source that won’t take you for a ride.

We’ll be talking more in-depth about some of these solutions in future posts, but if you’re interested in a no-pressure, informational chat on how legacy systems affect your business, shoot us an email at inquiries@deepcoredata.com or call us at 1-844-567-3100.

2017-09-29T10:35:29-04:00August 24th, 2017|Automation, Business Practices, Legacy Systems, Version Control|

About the Author:

Andrew is a technical writer for Deep Core Data. He has been writing creatively for 10 years, and has a strong background in graphic design. He enjoys reading blogs about the quirks and foibles of technology, gadgetry, and writing tips.

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