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You Make Me Feel Young Again

New software can put a fresh face on legacy applications.

Will legacy applications ever die? By now, you might think that most companies would have replaced software programs written in such musty languages as COBOL and Fortran. After all, many spent millions during the Y2K hysteria pulling out tangled systems and marshaling armies of programmers to rewrite software. And as businesses came to rely on the Internet, the software that underpins many operations got (and continues to get) a serious overhaul.

Yet the old applications are still with us, to a degree that might surprise you. According to Aberdeen Group, mainframe applications written in COBOL still process 70 percent of the world’s business data. Many companies continue to run programs that are well over 20 years old. Part of the reason is that earlier efforts to replace old systems actually touched only a small fraction of the applications in use. And, hoping to preserve some features of the old software, companies weren’t always disciplined about discarding old systems after putting in new ones.

The presence of older applications becomes even greater when you consider the broader definition of “legacy” that many technology experts advocate — not just homegrown systems, but any packaged application that is more than two releases old or is no longer fully supported by the manufacturer. This definition encompasses even Windows-based products and some newer enterprise systems. And it means that many IT executives have come to feel like gardeners, yanking weeds only to find new varieties sprouting.

The result of this stubborn persistence is that companies continue to pay the cost of maintaining old applications (according to Gartner, between 40 and 60 percent of an IT department’s budget is for this purpose) and struggle to modify them to support changing business needs.

Strength and Flexibility

Unglamorous though it may be, many software companies have been hard at work devising new answers to the problem. In fact, legacy systems have become a fecund area for innovation. The technologies now available offer an appealing proposition: the ability to breathe new life into wheezing applications. In other words, new methods allow companies to take advantage of the strengths of legacy applications — typically their processing power and business-specific customization — while making them more flexible.

“The fact is, legacy applications remain among the organization’s most valuable assets,” says Dan Sholler, a vice president at Meta Group. “They still do what they’re supposed to do. Why spend money to fix what’s not broken?”

To understand the appeal of this new take on legacy systems, consider the problems with removing older applications in favor of packaged software. Known in the IT world as “rip and replace,” this approach can be as jarring as it sounds. Because the applications often contain valuable historic data, putting in a whole new system — which may take years — is not just expensive but also often wreaks havoc with business processes. “It’s like a heart transplant,” says Chris Selland, vice president, sell-side research, at Aberdeen. “I’d probably be a somewhat better athlete with a brand new heart, but it would be extremely disruptive to just stick one in.”

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