How The iPad & Microsoft Surface Expose IT’s Dirtiest Secret [Feature]

How The iPad & Microsoft Surface Expose IT’s Dirtiest Secret [Feature]

Arguing the iPad can’t access legacy IT systems often means IT is ignoring much bigger problems

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.

Related
  • ctt1wbw

    The iPad sucks cuz it can’t connect to legacy systems!!

  • nefan65

    The iPad sucks cuz it can’t connect to legacy systems!!

    Do you have to wear a helmet when inside, or just when you go outside?

  • ConstableOdo

    All that legacy Microsoft crap needs to be dumped and corporations need to be moving into the future. I swear, those companies just want to keep running old Windows crap forever and use it as an excuse to continue using Microsoft products. Somebody is definitely getting kickbacks. Honestly, why would a forward thinking corporation rely on old DOS applications? Do they really intend to use those old programs forever? Something 20 years old is out-of-date and needs to be replaced completely.

  • interwebitubes

    This is a symptom of a problem. but the root problem is that too many IT shops implement system with out a support and maintenance strategy. In my IT shop I push the programmers and project planners to optimize for maintenance. The initial cost of implementation of most system is insignificant to the the long term maintenance costs. And the cost to convert to a new system is usually so high that it is not practical for many years unless there is a very strong business driver.

  • mrTisnotme

    Funny, my corporate clients seem to be uncovering quite a different dirty little secret: There is no compelling reason to use a tablet in business, at all. They simply don’t add anything useful to a vast majority of roles within most organizations. When you factor in the cost of support and management.. tablets just do not make sense. The impression I get from all sides is “iPad? yeah, we thought about that. Glad we didn’t/Sorry we did”

  • SavedByTechnology

    Very good article. I used to be a full-time employee of a very large telecom corporation, until I found out how much more I could make becoming a contractor for them. Most of my business is related to doing just what the author said: plugging the proverbial leak. While I agree that software is the main problem, I would also like to point out that hardware is also a problem. This company’s legacy devices from the early 90′s are still widely used, and they all can only be accessed via a console serial port, running W2000 or earlier. Good luck with trying to find a NEW laptop today that has a native serial port. Yes, there are USB-serial adapters, but they don’t all work with all devices. NEC is a classic example. Their serial pin-outs are proprietary, so a standard USB adapter won’t work. Most IT departments keep a few laptops around with native serial ports, but they’re no longer supported by hardware manufacturers and wind up being recycled. I have two Dell D630 laptops (one as primary, one as backup) that I keep in my possession with multiple partitions for ALL Microsoft OS’s and with all the legacy software installed. I’m one of the very few out there who has this setup and knowledge of their legacy systems. While I’m sure the companies will someday upgrade their systems, I feel safe in knowing that I have a great income stream for the foreseeable future, while enjoying the fact that I’m my own boss :)

About the author

Ryan FaasRyan Faas is a technology journalist and consultant living in upstate New York who has written extensively about Apple, business and enterprise IT, and the mobile industry. In addition to writing for Cult of Mac, he is a contributor to Computerworld, InformIT, and Peachpit Press. In a previous existence he was a healthcare IT director as well as a systems and network administrator. Follow Ryan on Twitter and Google +

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