The legacy myth

10.22.2012

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A problem by definition

Shut your eyes. Think of what the word legacy means to you. Anyone seeing a Grandfather clock or similar? Chances are you’re getting a picture of something outdated and archaic, handed down by a predecessor. That’s where you and the dictionary part company.

First things first
While the entry in Collins includes the standard ‘gift of … property by will… received from an ancestor’ line, there’s a more interesting definition. ‘A typically beneficial product from the past.’ Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it shortly.

Until the Games themselves started, ‘legacy’ was probably the buzzword of the Summer of 2012  – namely, lots of worries about what we’d do with the Olympic infrastructure when the competitors moved on. There were concerns about whether we would be left enriched or bankrupted by what was handed on to us.

Which brings us neatly back to the point of this blog – and a lot of what you’re going to read in the next two – that is, what the term ‘legacy’ means within IT. And whether it’s correct.
Put simply, the word ‘legacy’ denotes software or hardware that has been superseded but is difficult to replace. It refers to older IT systems and outmoded software or platforms. It’s an undeniably negative connotation, condemning entire IT estates with suppositional, biased views and untested hypotheses.

It gets worse
Another source uses even more evocative language: “Legacy systems utilize outmoded programming languages, software and/or hardware …. no longer supported by the vendors.” Other choice words include, “expense, effort and potential risk” when moving “data and key business processes to more advanced and contemporary technologies[1].”

Techopedia isn’t in the legacy fan club, either. “Legacy … refers to outdated computer systems, programming languages or application software … used instead of available upgraded versions[2].” A legacy system can be problematic due to compatibility issues, obsoletion or lack of security support. What a statement!

This attitude pervades much of the thinking among the enterprise community. ‘Problematic’ has somehow evolved to be ‘catastrophic’, says Businessdictionary.com: they see legacy as being an “Obsolete computer system that may still be in use because its data cannot be changed to newer or standard formats, or its application programs cannot be upgraded.”[3]

In summary, if you have a legacy system then you’ve got computer landfill.
Now, some of this is fair. Processes and terminology that are no longer relevant can confuse programmers and no-one is pretending that ‘legacy’ and ‘cutting edge’ systems are interchangeable or easily confused. To go further, most of us would like to always have the most advanced technology at our disposal, and be ready to just move on to the Next Big Thing as soon as possible.

Wait a minute…
Don’t give up on it just yet. The reality is that most organizations use legacy systems to some extent. The word has a markedly different meaning in the modern IT context. Wikipedia says, “A legacy system is an old method, technology, computer system, or application program[4]”. So it’s old. OK. That’s fine. So is the Boeing 747 and no-one’s complaining about that.

Let’s remember the Collins definition of legacy – the beneficial product from the past. Maybe the problem is the word ‘old’ and, more specifically, the fact that ‘legacy’ and ‘old’ are used interchangeably when they are not. We live in an ageist society that is especially tough on technology. Unless a car is lucky enough to be a classic, it’s just old. Standing still equates to going backwards. So – anything old must be regressive, right?

Maybe not. Non-technical executives are pretty comfortable with their ‘old’ mainframes, viewing legacy systems as ‘tried and true technology’, despite their antiquarian composition. Even as NASA powered down their last mainframe, they were remarking how good it was. This is essentially because these things really work (and executives tend to like that). So it’s not really about age. It’s about their incompatibility with modern programs, systems – and current attitudes.

So the answer is: modify.
There’s no need to introduce risk and increase cost by replacing your core (legacy) system, says technology guru Chad Fowler, “Even in the case of software, ‘legacy’ is an indication of success.” Some bits work, some don’t. So, keep what’s good, replace what isn’t and lo and behold, your legacy is sitting at the heart of your business, doing everything it should once again. Not old, just….re-tuned.

So what’s our point?
We believe that perception is everything. Free the word legacy from its negative connotations and you can look at your, er, more established assets as just that – assets. Because if they are managed correctly, are run with the right applications and are seen as part of a solution, not a problem, then your so-called “legacy system” can underpin your future, not be confined to your past. What you do with that Grandfather clock is up to you.

Next time: The story continues: the great and good comment on where the word legacy came from – and the trouble it has caused us.

Co-authored by Helen Withington, Derek Britton and Steve Moore


[1] http://financecareers.about.com/od/informationtechnology/a/legacysystems.htm

[2] http://www.techopedia.com/definition/635/legacy-system

[3] http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/legacy-system.html

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legacy_system

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