CIOs Tag Legacy Apps As Most Painful

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Legacy applications cause the biggest headache for corporate IT management, despite them being a minor part of the overall product portfolio

Despite problems with modern operating systems and software, it seems that legacy applications are causing the most pain for organisations, according to a poll by 360°IT.

It found that ‘kill category’ applications, such as old systems where the code is no longer maintained or supported, were rated by half of the organisations surveyed as problematic.

Kill applications “impossibly difficult to change”

A third of respondents meanwhile said that the ‘contain category’ applications, i.e. the old software that is expensive to run and which is difficult to change or manage, cause the most pain for the least gain.

Twelve percent of respondents meanwhile said that the ‘operate category’ applications, i.e. those applications that don’t improve business performance, were causing them the most pain.

“These ‘kill’ applications are always a nightmare, they only represent a tiny handful of the estate (perhaps 1-5 percent) but are impossibly difficult to change,” said Steve O’Donnell managing director and senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG).

“Often the guys who wrote and maintained the code are retired (or dead),” he added. “There is only one thing to do with a ‘kill’ application – bin it. You know it’ll cause pain and disruption, as well as costing a lot of money, but it has to be done.”

“The problem with IT is that everyone wants to make it uniform – fit it into a neat box, categorise it as ‘all the same’, make it autonomic, self-managing and move on. In fact, IT is anything but uniform, so these simplistic approaches fall at the first hurdle. Smart CIOs understand applications need to be treated differently depending on their value to the business,” O’Donnell continued.

He believes there are four key types of applications, namely ‘invest’, ‘operate’, ‘contain’ and ‘kill’.

O’Donnell says that ‘invest’ applications generally make up around 10-15 percent of the full estate. These are the applications the CEO knows about – the ones that, when they get better, faster or more functional, have a direct impact on business value.

Meanwhile the ‘operate’ applications is the largest grouping of applications, representing 40-80 percent of the estate. “No matter how much better we make them, they don’t improve business performance,” O’Donnell said.

Smart CIOs never need a kill category

The ‘contain’ applications are those applications that organisation wish they didn’t have – i.e. old stuff that’s expensive to run and difficult to change or manage. “We get the amount of these we deserve: under-invest and the category grows,” said O’Donnell. “They have one other characteristic: they are difficult to re-platform and change to ‘operate’ status. Although they’re important to the organisation, they don’t typically make the business run any better if we improve them.”

“Smart CIOs know this already and take a pragmatic approach to their applications, understanding instinctively where to spend money and where to bleed a previous investment. And really smart CIOs never reach the point where they need a kill category,” O’Donnell said.

Last year, research firm Forrester Research said that modernising key legacy applications was the top software initiative for businesses during 2009. It conducted a survey that found that updating key legacy applications was cited as the top initiative for both enterprises and SMBs, at 64 percent and 55 percent, respectively.