Is ripping and replacing the only solution for “Legacy ICT”?

According to a National Audit Office (NAO) report published recently, at least £480bn of the government's operating revenues and £210bn of non-staff expenditure, such as pensions and other entitlements, were reliant on legacy ICT systems in 2011-12. The report found that the strategies government bodies had been applying to legacy ICT are unlikely to deliver the wide-reaching levels of transformation that have been laid out in the government's digital strategy.

With the Department of Work and Pensions and HM Revenue & Customs administering and paying out millions, if not billions of pounds using legacy ICT, the report highlights the potential for failure and how it could endanger the payment of pensions and benefits and the collection of revenues.

Last year, the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service (GDS) mandated that central departments should work to overhaul legacy systems and implement innovative digital products for citizen use to save taxpayers £1.7 billion a year by 2015.

However, departments have spent decades building upon complex ICT systems, making the move to digital services challenging. More so, the reality of changing or replacing these reliable workhorses is the biggest challenge.

Replacing core IT systems would mean recapturing company knowledge and any changes to a single application could jeopardise the data in another application. This carries a lot of operational risk. The overhaul of the NHS systems, where there has been a fall in the accuracy levels achieved when comparing the new system to the old system, is a shining example of the pitfalls involved, though it is by no means the only case where such replacement projects have gone awry.

A lower risk alternative should be considered. One which concentrates on how these mature systems can be updated and evolved to meet new needs, instead of being ripped out. When core system business logic is captured in millions of lines of application code (usually COBOL code) such systems are highly valued business assets and contain valuable business processes. Organisations should look to evolving and modernizing these COBOL applications as a safer, more stable option.

Such systems may be seen, rightly or wrongly, as sluggish and costly to maintain, due to inadequate investment, tooling or platforms. However, modernising the underlying technology and processes enables development teams to deliver innovations to these business-critical applications, quickly, in response to market needs. Building on what already provides core business value, while revamping elements such as development frameworks and delivery processes, can yield the required benefits without incurring any of the risks associated with system replacement.

Ripping out or replacing older systems because they are considered 'legacy' carries a lot of risk. Retaining core business value in existing applications and modernising them to support future needs removes those risks and assures a better return for future innovation projects.

Derek Britton is the director of solution marketing at Micro Focus.

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