Legacy systems: What’s needed for successful application modernisation?

Danny Sandwell, Data Strategist at Quest.

One of the biggest hurdles to application modernisation is the fear of change. Too many organisations are adhering to the saying “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” and are simply unwilling to risk disrupting something that still works and is critical for the business functions. As a result, many organisations are still operating with outdated and potentially vulnerable legacy systems. The challenge is that legacy systems are still widespread and used across many industries such as government, banking, manufacturing and healthcare and they weren’t built to manage the use cases of today’s digital business.

The reality is that legacy systems are becoming a growing challenge, with many issues arising when it comes to integrating them to the new IT infrastructure. Most of the time, legacy systems are seen as holding back growth, consuming a disproportionate share of IT budgets and exposing the enterprise to cyberattacks. At the same time, new data privacy regulations like GDPR, CCPA and HIPAA are hard to be integrated within old legacy systems, leaving businesses exposed to financial and reputational risks from non-compliance. But it's getting to the point where older technologies are holding back businesses in the face of the growing competition, who are more agile and don't necessarily require the resources to support those technologies.

Therefore, the potential risks of relying on outdated technologies to perform critical tasks should not be overlooked. A successful modernisation strategy should always take into consideration the priorities and risks associated with it, to ultimately allow the organisation to understand how to mitigate them and what will put them in a much better place. There are too many opportunities for businesses to mine their data for insights, reduce costs and reap competitive advantage, but organisations must move beyond their legacy applications first by keeping in mind the next six steps for a successful enablement.

Model process flows and data structures

Modernising a legacy application is like creating one from scratch in that it must be conceptualised and modelled first. A legacy application already has process flows, data structures and interdependencies that need to be untangled and understood so they can be redesigned in the new architecture. As a solution, process modelling tools can help by visualising workflows and connect data inputs/outputs so they can be understood by business and technical users alike. In addition, data modelling tools dive deeper into the data to help organisations define and categorise their data and establish standards and rules so it can be consumed and used by information systems. Together, these modelling activities provide a complete picture of the modernised application and its future structure.

Unlock and migrate data

The data stored by legacy applications can be difficult to liberate from those systems. It may be in an inconsistent format with similar data from other systems, or it may be locked into a database version that was not kept updated. When planning an application modernisation initiative, it is important to think about how to migrate the data from the old structure to the new one. As a result, deploying data replication tools is useful to transform the data during the migration process and keep sources and targets synchronised to prevent business disruptions.

Manage infrastructure and application operations

Once an application is freed from its legacy limitations, it can benefit from agile methodologies such as BizDevOps and DataOps and the continuous integration/continuous development (CI/CD) tools that can accelerate the delivery of business value. Many organisations have already adopted aspects of agile and DevOps for their modern applications but may not be taking full advantage of tools that automate processes around builds, testing and deployment or ensuring that what is delivered meets the needs of the business.

Monitor application and database performance

The drive to modernise legacy applications is often due to the cost of maintaining older hardware, operating systems or programming languages, but it can also be because the application is performing poorly and frustrating users with slow processing and wait times. An important goal of the modernisation is likely to dramatically improve application performance, speed and efficiency. Keeping that application performing optimally can be accomplished through application and database performance monitoring to proactively identify potential issues and assist with their resolution. This can also detect poor query performance and automatically tune queries for optimal execution that will help optimise database workloads and keep unplanned cloud costs down.

Make data governance a modernisation priority

Data governance refers to how data is used in the organisation, by whom and the rules and policies that control access. It allows businesses to assess what is the data that is at risk and what is the nature of that data. While data governance structures are essential for any regulated entity, they are also indispensable for any organisation concerned with data privacy and security. Data governance frameworks can be difficult to operationalise since they require cultural changes around how data is treated and accessed. However, with the help of automation you can perform data cataloguing, data lineage and data mapping - making it possible to harvest, activate and govern enterprise data.

Protect sensitive data

Legacy applications contain a range of sensitive data – not just personally identifiable information, but financial data and other types of data that could damage the business if exposed. During the application modernisation process, it is important to identify that sensitive data and take steps to protect it throughout development, test and production. Organisations can protect sensitive data using techniques like masking, redaction or encryption – no matter where that data resides.

The main goal of legacy application modernisation is that the business and IT both have a better understanding of the data landscape across the enterprise while also ensuring business resilience. It is key for business leaders to set expectations up front in terms of what they are looking to achieve and have a clear strategy and budget aligned for the reality of what it is that they are undertaking. In the end, everybody will be in a much better position to understand what is really going to happen with the other side of that coin and ultimately ensure legacy application modernisation gets the business and IT in agreement, balancing the needs of the business against the ability of IT to deliver on those needs.

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