Plenty of people have offered their thoughts and opinions about Microsoft’s Surface devices after the company unveiled the two tablets earlier this week. One particular thread of conversation has been what Surface means for the iPad in businesses and enterprises. One piece that stood out to me was Justin Watt’s blog post Goliath Wants David’s Market.
Watt offers an interesting and well written argument that Surface may find success in many companies because they are still using legacy applications and processes – some of which may have originated long before Windows XP and OS X and have been patched countless times to over the years or decades to continue functioning. His core argument is that many iPad users access these tools using virtual desktop solutions like Citrix Receiver. As a result, at least for some tasks, the iPad functions as a Windows tablet. That could give Surface and other Windows tablets an edge over the iPad if they can directly deal with the legacy code involved or deliver the same virtual desktop experience.
The truth, however, is that many companies are chugging along on legacy solutions that were never designed to work with devices like the iPad. In fact, some widely used legacy systems have roots that weren’t even designed to work with Windows! In many companies, IT has been able to keep the age and state of those systems under wraps. But the iPad, and now the iPad versus Surface discussion, is now pushing that dirty little secret into the light of day.
Legacy technologies are often an argument for sticking with Windows PCs and Microsoft technologies like Surface instead of embracing a Mac or an iPad. These technologies, it is widely believed, are built first and foremost for Windows.
The problem with that argument is that it’s centered on the wrong issue. The issue that needs to be addressed isn’t that the iPad can’t natively interact with these legacy systems (at least not directly). The real issue is that those archaic systems are still in use. An iPad (or iPhone, or Android tablet, or Windows RT device) not being able to interact with a legacy IT sustem is really a symptom of a much larger problem. And that problem goes beyond basic access from newer devices.
When I started my last job as an IT manager, the organization’s staff entered monthly program statistics into DOS-era databases — a situation that required hiring a temp each year to print out the stats and manually enter them into Excel spreadsheets for an annual executive review process. The reason data needed to be printed and manually typed into Excel every year was that the product used to build those databases had been discontinued in 1989 and there was no solution on the market to migrate that data into a modern file format. There wasn’t even a product on the market that could open the files (nor could I find developers willing or able to build one within my budget).
That may be an extreme example, but it shows what can and does happen if core systems are simply patched to keep them running and not reviewed, re-examined or even replaced.
Eventually, legacy systems like this can’t be patched or maintained properly anymore. The ability to migrate data out of them may eventually become unavailable and finding people with the knowledge to support them can become challenging. Patching systems is like putting your finger in the dike: it keeps things working but eventually the water will come crashing through.
Another issue is that relying on legacy systems often leads to missed opportunities. Big data, business intelligence, and analytics are all major buzz words in the IT and business industry. Today’s tools deliver a wealth of business insight that nobody even considered possible two decades ago (or even a few years ago). Yet legacy systems are keeping these insights from being absorbed as widely as they should be.
Of course, identifying the reasons to invest in newer tools that ensure future support, offer new capabilities of working with data, and support newer technologies including devices like the iPhone and iPad isn’t even half the battle. Delivering a newer solution is a significant challenge. That’s why many companies haven’t delivered one.
So how do you go about doing it? The first thing you need to do is thoroughly investigate the technology in question. That investigation needs to center around a single core question: what business process was this system or application designed to serve or enable? Other questions stem from the answer. Is that process relevant today? Is the technology even serving that process any more? Has the technology taken on additional roles? If so, what are they and could they be handled by another existing or addition solution?
Essentially, this first step is all about understanding why the outdated technology was chosen in the first place and why it’s still in use. Once you know that, you can begin to assess whether a newer off-the-shelf solution is available that can serve the same needs or whether a custom solution will be needed. You may even find that other existing but more recent systems in your organization can take up some or all of the legacy system’s functions.
Although replacing an outdated solution can be costly and laborious, it can offer some key advantages. In addition to supporting newer technologies, updating and migrating offers you a chance to engage users and find out what works or doesn’t work for them with the existing system(s). That can improve business processes across the board and deliver significant value. It can also build political capital for the IT department. Overall, it gives IT and other business groups and executives a chance to really identify ways to add capabilities, efficiency, and transparency.
With all that in mind, you still need to consider budgetary realities and the amount of manpower it will take to get a new system in place. Often migrating data can be one of the biggest challenges. Depending on the technology and timeline, you may still need to keep patching an aging system and using stop-gap measures. That’s a perfectly fine approach, as long as it remains understood that they are temporary solutions.
Of course, none of this process will be easy. Sooner or later, however, legacy systems will need to updated or replaced. Almost invariably putting off projects for years on end doesn’t help anyone and it often makes the actual transition process more complex and expensive when action is finally taken. The ultimate reality is that as mobility, BYOD, cloud technologies, and other disruptive forces continue to build in the IT industry, every company is going to be forced to confront its legacy systems and outdated business processes. Getting it done sooner and more effectively is typically the best, if not easiest, option.
- Source Justin Watt