by John Edwards

New Tools Give Legacy Apps a Better Life on the Web

Jun 15, 20028 mins
Enterprise Applications

In this time of war and terror, the U.S. Air Force is facing challenges that were unimaginable just a few months ago. How, for example, can an aircraft technician, located in distant and hostile Afghanistan, search for, order and track critical replacement parts for an F-16 fighter? Not very easily if he has to rely on a fax machine or a computer equipped with terminal emulation software and a dedicated line feeding into a central supply system.

Fortunately, back in 1999, the Air Force decided that it needed to begin Web-enabling its standard base supply system (SBSS). The SBSS is a series of inventory, accounting and order management systems that control the flow of supplies from the warehouse to deployment in the field. “Now anybody with a laptop and a browser can access the supply system and access parts status,” says Lt. Col. Jon Dittmer, chief of the Air Force’s supply systems division at Maxwell Air Force Base in Gunter Annex, Ala.

A growing number of businesses are facing the same problem as the Air Force?getting creaky legacy systems to work in a new Web-based world. With ultratight budgets strangling new systems deployments, scores of software vendors have stepped forward and are offering tools that promise to bring out-of-touch legacy systems into the Web age.

For many CIOs, the software has arrived not a moment too soon, as they look for a cost-effective way to address the growing clamor?from customers, employees and business partners?for Web-based information access. “For many organizations, the goal right now is getting through the night,” says Dana Stiffler, a senior analyst at AMR Research, a technology research company based in Boston.

CIOs looking to leverage a legacy system into the Web era face a number of critical challenges, including planning the proper approach, locating software, retraining staff and addressing long-term viability issues. Yet one overriding benefit can make all of those headaches endurable, says Stiffler. “It’s undeniable that you can save a lot of money right up front,” she notes.

One Size Fits None

The first question a CIO dealing with a legacy system must answer is whether a particular system even needs to be Web enabled. Systems that don’t require a lot of user interaction are the least suitable candidates. “If there’s a lot of number-crunching data, as in financial services, then it’s not really worth Web enabling,” says Stiffler.

But when contending with legacy systems that could benefit from Web enabling, CIOs face two basic approaches: low-cost/stop-gap and higher-cost/longer-lasting. Picking the most appropriate path requires a great deal of advance planning. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all decision,” says Tyler McDaniel, director of application strategies for the Hurwitz Group, a technology research and consulting company in Framingham, Mass.

The quick and easy approach, using simple screen-scraping and code-generating tools, allows organizations to extract proprietary data from their mainframes and translate the information into a new format, such as XML or Java. Using software supplied by vendors such as Attachmate, HostBridge Technology and Jacada, the legacy system is given a new, Web-compatible front end. “It’s quicker, less costly and less risky?you’re not doing a lot of changing,” says McDaniel.

Screen scrapers and code generators are particularly useful for organizations that handle payment processing, trade clearing and settlement, and other tasks that are likely to continue to utilize mainframes for some time to come. “It provides a path of getting services out to either our clients or our customers in a quick way without having to reinvent the entire legacy environment,” says Jane Landon, vice president and CIO of Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Institutional, an institutional investment unit of Prudential Financial. Landon is using Jacada software to Web enable her assortment of IBM mainframes.

The other way to bring legacy applications and data onto the Web is by reengineering an existing system. With an application such as Relativity Technologies’ RescueWare, CIOs and their teams can dig into a legacy system, find its most critical parts and then convert the key processes into Web-enabled components. “Basically, you rebuild the application in a more modern fashion,” says McDaniel.

Reengineering is a permanent solution that?when done properly?is designed to last for many years. But CIOs who fret about the approach’s time and cost drawbacks often avoid the technique. And such concerns are justified. Reengineering requires organizations to strip away as much as several decades’ worth of irrelevant and often undocumented code in order to focus on basic processes. These processes can then be extracted and brought into a Web-based architecture. “It may not be the best choice because business circumstances [often] demand something quicker,” says McDaniel.

Screen scrapers and code generators are certainly cheaper alternatives. Stiffler estimates that the cheap and easy approach can shave “one zero, maybe even two,” off of an enterprise’s six- or seven-figure reengineering costs.

The good news is that CIOs can actually have the best of both worlds. Screen scrapers and code generators are often used as a stop-gap measure while an organization gradually moves ahead on a full legacy reengineering strategy. “I can slowly change my legacy environment over time if I should desire, and it makes good business sense,” says Prudential Institutional’s Landon.

Off into the Wide Web Yonder

For the Air Force, leveraging the SBSS posed a dilemma. “Our philosophy in Web enabling was to just get it done?and to get it done fast,” says Dittmer. Yet there was also a need to develop a solution that would last well into the future. After considering the various options, Dittmer and his staff decided to shoot for the sky: They would quickly give the legacy system Web access capabilities and then commit to a complete system reengineering.

The challenge Dittmer and his team faced was to gradually migrate a three-decade-old system that is now hosted on a Unisys 2200 Clearpath mainframe?with data trapped inside a proprietary DMS-100 database?to an open Web-based architecture. Dittmer’s staff is using Relativity’s RescueWare to extract business rules and generate a Java-based user interface and other Web-friendly components from the original Cobol. “We have a million-and-a-half lines of Cobol code that have been touched by hundreds of different programmers, so when we try to make a change to the system, it’s really, really difficult,” Dittmer says. But he adds that he believes that the final result will justify all of his staff’s hard reengineering work. The finished platform will allow developers to flexibly deploy components across the Air Force’s entire system and to tie several different supply management systems into a single environment.

Basic Web enabling was completed in December 2000 on the old Unisys system, but the reengineering work continues. “We’re still in the process of converting the user interface to a more graphical orientation,” says Dittmer. That work, along with additional front-end error checking and business-rule-logic enhancements, is scheduled for completion later this year. Once that stages is finished, the SBSS is slated to be completely free of the Unisys environment early next year. The 30-month project will cost more than an estimated $10 million (a figure supplied by Relativity, not Dittmer, who declined to estimate cost).

Avoiding the Pitfalls and Perils

While few CIOs doubt the value of bringing Web access to legacy systems, the process is not without its perils. Project leaders must stumble through a forest of conversion and reengineering products in order to find the tool that most closely meets their needs. “There are probably about 200 companies that let you take the user interface and redo it,” says Vivek Wadhwa, Relativity’s CEO.

There’s also the not-so-small matter of retraining staff in new, Web-oriented software technologies. Veteran developers accustomed to toiling in a Cobol environment, for example, may have a hard time acquiring new skills. New hires, on the other hand, may have trouble mastering the legacy system’s various quirks and vagaries.

Under the best conditions, legacy system leveraging is a complex, time-consuming job. Even screen scrapers and code generators, which are widely hailed for their simplicity, require a fair amount of hands-on work. “It’s when you start leveraging the APIs that it goes back to traditional development,” says Prudential Institutional’s Landon.

Further complicating the CIO’s job are questions about how legacy systems will eventually fit into emerging Web services strategies. “It’s one of the major missing pieces of the Web services story,” says Hurwitz’s McDaniel. He says he believes that a Web services interface could make legacy systems more reusable and flexible by allowing applications to communicate with each other. “For example, you can suddenly start rearranging legacy transactions to provide new kinds of functionality for business users,” he says. But the basic blueprint for such an environment remains unfinished?at least for the moment. “It’s unfortunate that the loudest proponents of Web services haven’t really given a lot of thought to what they’re going to do with legacy applications,” he says. Relativity’s Wadhwa says the next release of RescueWare will address Web services integration.

Despite all the obstacles and perils, many CIOs have no alternative but to begin leveraging their legacy resources. “You’ve got a lot of current costs sunk into those systems,” McDaniel notes. “Obviously, you want to continue to extend the value of those systems to a whole new audience of users.” AMR’s Stiffler agrees. “Given the current hazy economic outlook, it’s important for CIOs to have tools that allow them to use their existing infrastructure.” n