During Networking Field Day 17, there was a lot of talk about legacy IT constructs, especially as they relate to the cloud. Cloud workloads are much better when they are new things with new applications and new processes. Existing legacy workloads are harder to move to the cloud, especially if they require some specific Java version or special hardware to work properly.
We talk a lot about how painful legacy IT is. So why do we turn it into a monument that spans the test of time?’
Keeping Things Around
Most monuments that we have from ancient times are things that we never really intended to keep. Aside from the things that were supposed to be saved from the beginning, most iconic things were never built to last. Even things like the Parthenon or the Eiffel Tower. These buildings were always envisioned to be torn down sooner or later.
Today, we can’t imagine a world without those monuments. We can’t conceive of a time without them. And, depending on the amount of time that elapsed between the building or creation of things and the decision to preserve it there could be irreparable damage. Yet that just adds to the charm.
Now, apply those factors to legacy IT. We have software that is outdated. We have applications that need old Java versions to run correctly. Or outdated DLLs. Or some other kind of thing that could cause complication or damage to our systems. Yet, we can’t bear to part with our old familiar IT. Maybe it was a UI change. Maybe it never really ran correctly on a new operating system. Or maybe the new version cost so much to upgrade that it was just cheaper to keep hacking the old thing to work slightly better each time.
Rather than examining how we could replicate the workload or find a better, quicker way to do things, we find ourselves building legacy IT into a preserved monument. We freeze the software or hardware and we never update it. We build crazier and more complicated solutions to keep something running that is well past the retirement date.
The other complication of legacy IT is that we use the programs but we never really do more than look at them. We don’t focus on the data or the process. Instead, we just plug things into a system and run what we need to run. I remember working for IBM and having to enter my weekly timesheet twice. Why? Because the new timesheet system was a Java app that ran on Windows 2000. But the system that paychecks were generated from for hourly employees (like me) was run from an AS/400 terminal window. So, after I spent half an hour entering my time for the week, I had to spend another half hour entering those exact same time entries into a console.
Would it have been easier to replicate the functions of the terminal program in Java and make time entry a single thing? Sure. Would it be easier for everything to integrate and reduce time for employees? Sure. But the people that had been using the console program for the last decade had it down. They could enter their time in a few minutes. In fact, even though the Java program was more precise for time increments most employees hated it. They’d rather use an imprecise and outdated program because it was faster and more familiar. Even though they had to manually edit their timesheet after the fact because the newer reason codes weren’t loaded in the old system.
Read-only legacy IT makes everyone’s life miserable. All kinds of crazy patches and hacks are necessary to make it run correctly with new functions. And no matter what the replacement solution is something that people will hate. Simply because it’s not the old system.
This, for me, is the hardest part of legacy IT monuments. Once it works, NEVER TOUCH IT AGAIN. You can’t migrate, upgrade, or move a machine. You can’t get newer hardware that’s under support. The number of times that I’ve had to buy parts from Ebay to fix broken legacy systems is much, much to high.
Now, we have to worry about what happens when the system never comes back. Or when we push it past the breaking point for some legacy app. Look at the shift from 32-bit applications to 64-bit. We’re in the transition process and yet, still, there are people that have some old application or hardware device that can’t run on newer software. Once we force a cutoff, we have to find a way to build band-aids that people can use to make a decade-old thing work.
This hands-off mentality is also part of the reason why cloud migration projects fail. Even if you can get 90% of the software in your environment to work the way you want, the odds are that the remaining 10% is composed of legacy applications that haven’t been retired because they are mission critical and very finicky. They won’t migrate. They might even be running in VMs that have to emulate old OSes because they can’t ever be upgraded. And those kinds of old familiar pets are the ones that take too much of your time.
Monuments are old buildings. We keep them around because they remind us of how things used to be. They might be falling apart. They may take more time to keep up but people love to see them and enjoy them for the nostalgia. Legacy IT is not that. It’s a headache. It’s a pain to have read-only apps that we can never change because we don’t want to or can’t get them running on something new. Rather than building them into a static monument, we need to retire them and find a way to build something new. Because no matter how beautiful they may be, no legacy IT project will ever stand the test of time like the Parthenon.
Just a decade old? Man you should come hang out in the world of legacy military IT for a while. Custom database software and hardware from the 60’s and 70’s that had a translation layer added in the 80’s by 20 different contractors who used sub contractors who hired their nephew to do something that wasn’t documented. Tons of legacy synchronous serial running on legacy multiplexers made by companies that haven’t existed in 20 years. Floppy drives… floppy drives in use everywhere. Finding Quad Pentium Pro pedestal Compaq servers (wheeled into a rack) that nobody knows anything about, but if you unplug it the world comes crashing down. A vendor who swears that they can get all of this working in some hyper-converged, container based, private cloud so someone can use it all on their Blackberry… for just a couple of billion dollars. What a bargain!
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