Why Now's the Time to Tear Down Old Legacy Apps and Rebuild

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So You Think You Know Migration

Eight or nine years ago, there were few options for migrating or renovating applications. CIOs could either re-build or replace software systems, and either choice was extremely time-consuming and expensive.

In 1992, Snap-On’s Biland decided to get rid of the Cobol-based, homegrown IBM mainframe applications that his company relied on and replace them with a Baan platform. "We had green-screen terminals and not a lot of functionality," Biland recalls. "The legacy applications didn’t give us the level of detail around inventory and transaction data that we needed."

Six years and millions of dollars later, the new platform was in place.

Today, businesses have more options than replace or rebuild. There are tools that can do anything, from delving into legacy data, plucking out relevant business rules and rewriting them in Java or XML, to attaching a Web front end on to an intact legacy database, and everything in between. The tools are fast and relatively cheap, particularly compared with the cost of migrating an enterprise to an ERP platform.

Owens & Minor’s Guzman, for example, had no desire to go through an ERP implementation. "ERP projects take too long, they generally don’t turn out well, and they cost too much," he says. But something needed to be done with the cumbersome, multilayered, 15-year-old applications that contained the contracts and pricing systems for the company. To upgrade, Guzman couldn’t go to the original vendor?KnowledgeWare?because it was out of business. And Owens & Minor’s heavily customized applications ran OS/2, which IBM no longer supports.

"Legacy applications are a cancerous problem that needs to be excised," Guzman says dramatically. "It’s not a choice. If your business is changing, your systems have to change. We needed the ability to do things like multicurrency transactions over the Web, and the old system was completely inflexible."

Still, the old contracts and pricing system contained extremely complex business rules and mathematical computations that were vital to Owens & Minor’s dynamic pricing methods. The legacy system set a separate, unique price for every product for every single Owens & Minor client, taking into account literally dozens of factors. Guzman didn’t even want to think about losing that functionality. So he took a gamble on a tool by Relativity Technologies that promised to uncover the vital business processes buried in the old system, turn them into Web-ready components and translate the Cobol and CICS into Java.

Guzman tested the tool on three master files containing EDI maps and customer information. Within six months, the test project was complete.

"It easily would have taken us years to modernize via hand-coding," he says. "And it easily would have cost us tens of millions of dollars to go with SAP or Oracle. So far we’ve spent about $1 million on this project."

Guzman is taking the transformation one step and one application at a time. "We should complete the whole thing within 18 months and for less than $5 million," he says.

No Time Like Right Now

Modernizing legacy applications is a huge task, and it has both risks and rewards. It’s easy to rely on what seem like stable systems and hope they’ll sustain the business through a recession. But these systems are the technical avatar of a company’s business strategy, and if they aren’t updated, the business will begin tripping over its own virtual feet. Times are tough, but breaking a few proverbial eggs now could put your company 10 steps ahead of the competition. And that’s priceless.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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