How to integrate and update your legacy systems

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Most businesses were having difficulties with inefficient legacy systems years or decades ago – and most still are today. New technologies come to market, and businesses and their customers both evolve, so outdated software platforms begin significantly impacting on performance across departments and functions. 

But as painful as these systems are, it can feel daunting to replace them with a new software product or go through the complexity of legacy system integration. The status quo prevails, until a catalyst like an ambitious new IT director getting approval on a sizeable budget – anything from £50,000 to £1,000,000 – or a CEO seeking to transform their business, brings up the age-old question – ‘should we integrate or update our legacy systems?’. 

The less extreme of the two options is to integrate, with many companies taking a piecemeal approach to updating legacy systems that have reached end of life. Incrementally integrating systems, such as automating sales processes or integrating various business functions, can help keep a business’s processes working efficiently. 

There are various system integration methods out there and no consensus across the industry as to what the best practice should be. Importantly, these approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, and businesses will probably take a ‘mix and match’ approach using some or all of the methods.

However, in my experience there are four useful frameworks which can be used as a starting point. Here are four key methods for systems integration which will help maximise the performance of existing software infrastructure.

1. Product extensions

You don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. If you have isolated problems, instead of ripping out and replacing the legacy systems, one approach is to build a product that exists alongside the current ones. 

Say a business has a sales team which is exporting central pricing data and then creating bespoke proposals. This means senior management has no visibility on potential sales opportunities, and operations receive orders which deviate from standard products and services.

Building a product extension here could automate workflows during the sales process, ensuring consistency across the business, allowing the team to manage information and letting senior management get detailed reporting.

Product extension offers rich user interfaces and additional functionality – all without binning existing databases. Plus, extensions can be made for off-the-shelf and bespoke products, and they may be bespoke tools themselves or developed using inbuilt programming languages within your legacy system. 

2. Cross-platform interfaces

Does your business have an interface overload, with various departments and functions having to access multiple systems on a daily basis? The most appropriate software infrastructure here is a cross-platform – or wrapper – interface. Just as with product extensions, you keep the existing legacy system but improve the interface and functionality around it.

A common scenario here could be customers emailing the business with spreadsheets of orders, which then get added to a CRM package, then to a production system, and finally a finance system – all of which have separate user accounts. Internal wrapper interfaces make the business’ own operation more efficient, and external interfaces for customers and suppliers will increase productivity and reduce errors.

3. Data warehousing and business intelligence

A common situation is that businesses have successful but separate software systems, so inefficiency comes from lack of centralised data. If engineers are using stand-alone laptop applications, your finance system is hosted on an internal server, and your HR system is in the cloud – wouldn’t it be more efficient to aggregate those processes?

Data warehousing is an effective business intelligence tool which works by aggregating data from multiple systems. This creates consolidated, real-time information, which in turn leads to informed decisions, all with zero impact on existing processes and user interfaces.

4. Modular refactor

Often businesses know that their existing system isn’t fit for purpose, but it has years of undocumented tweaks made by several developers that could still be critical to day-to-day business. This is one of the biggest fear factors that stops legacy system upgrades going ahead.

The solution here is to refactor or rebuild the existing application one piece at a time. Modular refactor means separating the existing software system into modular components. This makes the task much less complex and lets you to review your business needs against the module during the rebuild. 

Remember that the integration of legacy systems can come in many forms, and there’s more than one way to maximise the performance of existing software.. 

But what happens in those more extreme cases, where a legacy system has reached end of life, is fundamentally no longer fit-for-purpose, is hugely inefficient or obsolete? In these cases, bespoke software development is business critical. Often the best solution is to totally remove and replace the systems with platforms that are tailored to the project’s requirements. 

To best explain how to upgrade your legacy systems, I’m going to set out the process we followed for global manufacturer AESSEAL, during a four-year collaborative partnership to reform its systems.

Upgrading AESSEAL’s legacy systems

AESSEAL is a global mechanical seals manufacturer employing 1,700 people across 104 countries and with annual sales of £160m. With the company’s scale came its inevitable challenges.

As the Group IT Director explained to us, the business was reliant on a number of disparate legacy systems that had reached end of life, having little central management or control. At its simplest, this lack of knowledge management between business functions meant that sales, engineering and management weren’t working to their full efficiency.

Importantly, while the company could have chosen to simply integrate its legacy systems in isolation, it identified that a comprehensive overhaul was the best approach to maximising the efficiency and longevity of its business processes.

Bespoke software development

Due to the complex and specialised nature of the project’s requirements, AESSEAL opted for bespoke software development, as opposed to adapting a package software system. The company also knew its requirements would evolve and change over time, meaning that only an agile software development methodology would achieve its aims.

During our four-year partnership, the bespoke software solution was developed iteratively, aggregating modules at each stage of the process and combining AESSEAL’s domain expertise with our technological expertise. Together we identified three core requirements for the platform – global knowledge management, data warehousing, and sales and marketing

The final knowledge management solution we produced is built upon these three core modules. It allows AESSEAL to intelligently map customer sites, as well as gather data from sealing maintenance operations. It also enables engineering and sales teams to produce bespoke proposals while onsite with customers, reducing lead times from hours to minutes.

These functions meant that the system helped one of AESSEAL’s customers drastically reduce its spare component stock, simply by standardising its seals.

The result? The launch of an innovative and scalable software platform which has significantly increased the company’s ability to respond to customer inquiries and vastly reduced the resource required. 

We know upgrading or replacing legacy systems is a daunting task for many complex global businesses, so it’s vital to have the right technology partner to solve those problems and ultimately create commercial advantage. It’s all about short-term investment, long term gain. Any combination of these approaches requires short-term investment and resource, but will give you better efficiency in the long-term.

Philip White, Managing Director at Audacia

Image Credit: Wir Sind Klein / Pixabay