Managing Legacy Systems: When to Upgrade, Replace, or Rebuild

Every business relies on a set of core technology systems to function. These solutions include everything from a digital freelancer’s free cloud storage account to a fully featured enterprise SAP implementation that serves hundreds of employees, with an accompanying six-figure price tag.

But technology continues to advance, and user expectations – both inside and outside the company – develop alongside it. Product leaders and IT managers can’t expect to invest in a single core system and have it remain relevant forever.

Eventually, the time comes to consider upgrading legacy systems to meet new business needs. These needs may correspond to external, market-based factors or internal, growth-oriented factors, but the fact remains that IT leaders must be able to make the appropriate judgment call at the right time.


Common Signs Your Legacy System Needs an Upgrade

To organize a successful legacy system upgrade, it’s crucial to pinpoint the motivations behind the upgrade itself. These factors are going to heavily influence which path your organization should take:

  • Lack of Support. There are many reasons why support falls through, from versioning incompatibilities to technology vendors going out of business. If you can’t rely on support from your original technology provider, you’re on your own when it comes to implementing fixes and patches.
  • Incompatible Customizations. Hotfixes and ad-hoc upgrades will eventually cause functions to fail, lengthening even the most straightforward project lifecycles. If you have to customize your system so much that it has “hard-forked” away from the original, it may be time to upgrade.
  • Talent Shortage. Here’s an example: There are more active lines of code written in Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) today than in any other programming language, but the mainframe programmers who can write, fix, and extend COBOL code are rapidly retiring.
  • Changing Business Needs. Compliance requirements, acquisitions, and other events can render a perfectly serviceable legacy system irrelevant. In this case, there are sometimes ways to save the system’s functionalities in a cost-effective way.
  • System Drift. Out-of-date legacy systems often create a need to use different technology solutions for tasks they were not designed to accommodate. For example, using a CRM solution for customer document storage, instead of the document management system, degrades both systems, turning one problem into two.
  • Competitive Capabilities. Sometimes new technology offers features and functionalities that are too good to pass up. Cloud-based services and sophisticated SaaS solutions can improve efficiency while reducing capital expenses.

Any of these circumstances can make the idea of upgrading legacy infrastructure an attractive one. However, there are multiple ways to update legacy systems, and the most prudent business leaders are those that take the time to fully consider the advantages of each option before committing to an upgrade.


How to Plan for Infrastructure Upgrades Effectively

Every organization needs to foster a unique technological environment and workflow. As a result, each one must take an exclusive approach to legacy system upgrades. These approaches vary widely in price, efficiency, and compatibility:

  • Complete In-House Replacement. Enterprise SAP implementation vendors generally do not need to incorporate legacy systems into their service agreements. The option to completely replace aging infrastructure is an attractive – but expensive – one. Nonetheless, it may be the best option for growth-oriented enterprises with deep customization needs.
  • Legacy API Wrapping. Sometimes, organizations can keep their legacy systems intact by wrapping them in a RESTful API solution. This allows the organization to develop a hybrid infrastructure that relies on highly automated data transfer between the legacy system and the new systems built on top.
  • Software-as-a-Service. SaaS solutions represent attractive upgrade paths because users generally pay exclusively for the services they use. This makes enterprise resource management a scalable asset that can be easily expanded to meet growth needs, or limited in response to underperformance, as needed.
  • Cloud Computing. Cloud computing solutions offer the same options that SaaS solutions provide, but with additional access to operating systems, software, and sometimes even hardware or other administrative tools. Whereas SaaS offers great options for small businesses, cloud computing platforms are geared towards larger enterprises.

Managing legacy systems and preparing for the future requires taking a careful look at the options and correlating them to current and future infrastructure needs. Comprehensive planning can ensure ease of use, communicability, and efficiency well into the future.