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When Should Your Company Consider Replacing Legacy Systems?

If your company has been operating your software for years, you might be tempted to keep the old system instead of building a new, better one from the ground up — even if the legacy system in question no longer meets your requirements. Discover why this approach will get you nowhere. Dec 16, 2020
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Modern programming languages, frameworks, and even complete development platforms allow professional and citizen developers to create clean, high-performance code faster.

And while digital transformation swamped the enterprise sector years ago, many companies still cling to their legacy software, guided by the mantra "if it works, don't touch it."

At best, they keep adding new blocks to it. Or ask a reliable software engineering company to sync the old system with new apps via custom APIs.

The strategy might work for years. Until one day, your Frankenstein of an app becomes too bulky to operate — and crashes like a Jenga tower.

And that's just one disadvantage of maintaining legacy systems for too long.

In this article, the Expanice team explains why replacing legacy systems with an application built from the ground up is the way to go and how you should approach the task.

Table of Contents

What You Need to Know About Legacy Systems
     What is a Legacy System Exactly?
     What Are Some Legacy Software Examples?
     Why Are Legacy Systems Still Used?
Five Cases When Replacing Legacy Systems Becomes Inevitable
     How Will Your Company Benefit from Replacing Legacy Systems?
          On a Final Note

What You Need to Know Before Replacing Legacy Systems

At some point, most companies should consider replacing their legacy technology systems.

The primary reason for replacing legacy systems is the risk that your software will one day become too large and too complex to operate. Additionally, the technologies underpinning its logic might become obsolete, making it impossible to find qualified software maintenance specialists.

Before enumerating the reasons for replacing legacy systems, let's wrap our heads around what legacy software is and how it affects your business.

What Is a Legacy System Exactly?

A legacy system is an outdated computer system, application, or technology that a company could replace with newer software offering more features or capabilities.

Legacy systems can be difficult and expensive to maintain and may pose security risks if your IT department or managed services provider fails to keep them properly updated.

A key factor characterizing legacy software is poor development practices, such as a lack of proper documentation and version control. When multiple teams make repeated changes to a system without proper oversight, it becomes difficult and costly to integrate or modernize the software.

What Are Some Legacy Software Examples?

Legacy software examples may include the following:

  • Outdated operating systems. Older versions of operating systems, such as Windows XP or macOS Sierra, may still be used in some organizations, even though newer versions are available. This may lead to hackers’ exploiting documented vulnerabilities in such software. For example, the infamous WannaCry ransomware attack affected over 230,000 computers running on unpatched Windows 10 and Windows XP systems, causing $4 billion in damage to companies around the globe. Another reason for replacing legacy systems is their incompatibility with newer software. Finally, a lack of features supported by the latest versions of operating systems might hinder a company’s ability to work efficiently.
  • Legacy custom applications. Organizations may have developed custom software applications to support specific business processes. These applications may be considered legacy systems if they are no longer supported or are being gradually replaced by newer applications.
  • Older database systems. Outdated databases, such as MySQL 5.5 or Oracle 9i, are still widely used by enterprises across different industries, despite their newer versions having long hit the shelves. Security aside, such systems may prevent your company from processing Big Data, utilizing cloud computing services, and training custom machine learning models. They also might not comply with the latest data protection and privacy regulations, such as GDPR and CPRA.

The discussion about legacy system examples would not be complete without a list of software engineering technologies that now belong to the past:

  • Programming languages: Perl*, Objective-C, Pascal/Delphi, Fortran, Cobol, Basic, Flash, PHP (versions 5.6 and below)
  • JavaScript libraries and frameworks: AngularJS (aka Angular 1), Backbone.js, Knockout
  • PHP frameworks: Laravel (versions 5.0 and below), Symfony (versions 4.4 and below)

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*A side note for fellow developers: all right, we know! You love Perl! And roughly 0.1% of high-traffic websites still use the programming language! But, putting sentiment aside, Perl is a questionable choice for modern business applications — simply because finding skilled Perl developers is tough, and it's easier to implement most features using other server-side languages like Python and PHP.

Why Are Legacy Systems Still Used?

There are several reasons why organizations may refrain from replacing legacy systems, even after newer software hits the market:

  • Dependence on legacy software. A company may significantly depend on a legacy system for several reasons. For example, they might've heavily customized the solution over the years to solve specific business challenges. Or they might lack the human resources and budget to switch to newer software. Resistance to change is not uncommon, too: if your employees have been using the same app for years, they might be reluctant to adopt modern software, even if it improves their productivity.
  • Software development cost. Replacing legacy systems can be expensive, especially if they are deeply integrated into your organization's processes and infrastructure.
  • Challenges associated with data migration. A legacy system may contain valuable data that an organization does not want to lose or migrate to a new system.

Five Cases When Replacing Legacy Systems Becomes Inevitable

Check out our new article to learn when it makes perfect sense to replace legacy software systems.

When is the right time to replace legacy systems? Consider the idea when the technology components of your IT solution become obsolete, preventing your company from keeping the software updated and secure. Maintenance expenses are another factor to take into account. Sometimes the price of keeping legacy systems in decent shape or enhancing them with novel features might exceed the cost of building a software solution from scratch.

When should your company replace legacy software with a brand-new application?

The Expanice team has identified five scenarios when replacing legacy systems is no longer an option:

  • Any programming languages, frameworks, or platforms used in your software are considered obscure. From the business perspective, it means higher legacy system integration and maintenance costs.
  • The software doesn't live up to modern technology standards. It could be a lack of support for popular browsers, insufficient security levels, or failure to interact with third-party applications.
  • There is a better alternative to your application available on the market.
  • The application no longer addresses your current or future business needs, and it would cost you an arm and a leg to implement the desired functionality using custom code.
  • The existing application is fragile and has a poorly defined deployment process. The lack of automation and complexity of the architecture makes it difficult to deploy even small changes, as they often require adjustments to other legacy system components, causing further issues and increasing the cost of maintaining the software.

Other factors prompting businesses to replace legacy systems are connected with the vendor behind the application's technology stack.

Suppose the company that created a particular framework, library, or service has gone out of business, stopped issuing updates, discontinued the product, or replaced it with a similar solution. In that case, the legacy system maintenance and customization costs will soon outweigh its benefits.

How Will Your Company Benefit from Replacing Legacy Systems?

Let's briefly summarize the advantages of replacing your legacy software with a brand-new app written from scratch:

  • Flexibility. Your software will be designed in full accordance with the actual needs of your business. And should you decide to enhance it with extra features and capabilities, you'll have extensive documentation and skillset to streamline the process.
  • Cost savings. Provided you assemble a winning in-house IT team or partner with a reliable software engineering company, you'll build an app that is easy to maintain, customize, and update. As a result, you'll dramatically reduce your ongoing IT support and maintenance costs.
  • Security. No company should take software security lightly in a world where a small-scale cyberattack will cost your business at least $108,000. Obsolete technology systems often contain well-documented security vulnerabilities, and the older your software gets, the harder it becomes to keep track of them, let alone issue patches. By migrating to a newer software system built in line with security best practices, your organization will avoid costly data breaches, ransomware attacks, and reputational damage.

On a Final Note

When replacing legacy systems, it is recommended that you put your business requirements and user needs first.

No matter what steps your legacy system replacement strategy spans, you should always put your business requirements first.

Unfortunately, we cannot develop a step-by-step legacy system replacement strategy until we dive into your business requirements, conduct an IT infrastructure audit, and evaluate available options.

Still, there are a few tips you could follow to replace your legacy systems in a risk-free manner:

  • Gather stakeholder feedback to create a software solution tailored to your business needs.
  • Build your application iteratively while gathering early feedback from the target users.
  • The fewer technologies and tools you choose for your project, the better. Still, be aware of the possible vendor lock-in — i.e., a situation when your company becomes too reliant on a particular technology provider.
  • When building a new application from scratch, avoid using the legacy code in any way.
  • To simplify the migration process for the application users, divide them into groups and onboard each group separately, with the most troubled group coming first.

And if you need help with legacy software modernization or product development, contact us! With multiple code refactoring and rewriting projects under our belt, the Expanice team will devise the right solution to your legacy system problems!