For years, corporate IT managers have been trying to get their programmers to become meticulous record-keepers, documenting for posterity each and every piece of code that they write.
One peek at any big IT department, however, reveals why this is far from the case today. Programmers simply don’t keep records of their work. So their colleagues are left to dig through layers and layers of code for months, and often years, after they’ve been written in order to understand why a legacy application works the way it does.
The run-up to January 1, 2000, was supposed to put an end to the problem. That’s when numerous IT departments invested heavily in application-mining tools. These could, among other things, dig through each bit of code to make sure Y2K bugs weren’t lurking in a system. But, according to Dale Vecchio, a senior analyst at Gartner, an IT research firm, the code conundrum continued well after the start of the new millennium. “Many companies bought the software, used it for Y2K, and then just forgot about it,” he says.
So rather than address the root of the problem, IT managers reluctantly began to believe what their application developers have been telling them for years — that real programmers don’t do documentation.
Hence the upbeat growth prospects for the mining-tools market. According to Vivek Wadhwa, CEO of U.S.-based Relativity Technologies, prospective sales of his company’s mining product, called RescueWare, have increased sixfold in the past six months. And Gartner reckons there’s more growth to come. It predicts that revenues in this market will swell 25 percent a year and hit $400 million by 2004.
But if the problem is nothing new, why are we seeing a spike in demand today? One plausible explanation is that, like Y2K, E-commerce has made companies reacquaint themselves with an old truth: Legacy applications matter. Soon more and more IT departments will be using mining tools to help them find out how their back-office applications can be linked with Web sites.
In the current environment, says Pol MacAonghusa, solution development and services manager at IBM Ireland, that means breaking programs down into components so that they can “talk” to front-end applications written in newer languages. “In order to prepare for E-commerce,” he explains, “companies need to retool their applications so they can communicate with other systems, often outside their own organizations.”
This goes beyond decades-old mainframe applications and includes Web-based applications and modern programming languages like Java and C++ that now need updating. Traditionally, the mining-tools market has aimed to make sense of applications written in older computing languages, such as COBOL and PL/I.
That’s been the case at Abbey National Treasury Services (Ants), the wholesale bank of U.K.-based Abbey National Group. It’s using the Application Mining Suite from Paris-based Cast to give its 45-member IT team a better understanding of hundreds of applications written in modern languages such as Visual Basic and XML. According to Paul Shearer, Ants’ IT chief, this in turn has increased developers’ productivity by between 20 percent and 30 percent. Cast’s software also allows the bank to run impact analyses to take the guesswork out of project costing.
But given the starting price for these products — $100,000 for RescueWare — some CFOs might conclude that addressing the cultural issues that prevent IT staff from documenting their work properly will yield the same benefits, without the up-front investment. If history is any guide, however, such good intentions are likely to result in another cost — the cost of replacing staff fed up with doing the work that “real” programmers say they don’t do.