16 Jul Leaving a legacy: Clock is running on software modernization
For Oskar Anderson, it’s remixing and virtualizing State of Wisconsin applications to increase flexibility and squeeze out more useful life. For Brian Tennant, it’s gathering data on the applications that Bethesda Lutheran uses in order to preserve institutional knowledge and add value. For David Cagigal, it’s aligning platforms with available skills.
Legacy modernization is one of the CIO’s perennial tasks, especially as workers with knowledge of legacy systems retire in larger numbers. Many of the business systems in use today have been around for more than 20 years, and not only have their users become attached to them, the pending Boomer retirements will put people in charge who don’t understand their underlying technical blueprint.
Dale Vecchio, a research vice president for Gartner, notes that people who entered the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s were trained on mainframes, whereas few students today graduate with mainframe skills. If organizations fail to introduce new systems the existing IT skill base can support, or train the next generation of IT managers on the skills needed to extend the life of legacies, they might soon reach a point of panic as they see more than 50 percent of their mainframe skills lost to retirement.
“This is the first time in the history of IT where people have gone through this dramatic a generational shift in the workforce,” he said. “Generations have retired before, but never when there was such a big shift in the types of skills.”
The impending skills shortage is not the only reason cited for modernizing business systems. The high cost of maintaining aging systems, the lack of agility in legacy applications, and the complexity of existing IT portfolios are other reasons to take it on, yet “the most walked path is to do nothing,” according to David Cagigal, chief information technology officer for Alliant Energy.
CIOs must also be conscious of users’ familiarity with legacy systems. Mike Jackson, vice president of global business services and CIO of Rockwell Automation, said CIOs that pursue modernization “owe” the company something for replacing popular, fully depreciated legacy applications. When the company is asked to invest in modernization, CIOs can use a new solution to show a return based on more than just replacing individual applications.
Application portfolio management begins with a prioritization exercise in which IT managers make an inventory of applications to determine which should be retired, replaced, and extended. Systems are evaluated based on their business value, the future staff skills available to support them, and the projected cost of maintaining them. Among the questions asked: Which applications are meeting the business needs of users? Which applications depend on at-risk technology?
John Kinnamon, a business development director for Compuware, offered the following handicapping system:
• “Keeper” applications would have high business value, high technical quality, and be well optimized; they also would be low-cost in terms of maintenance.
• Systems could be modernized if they have low technical quality and a moderate level of functionality that can be improved for a reasonable cost.
• The replacement option is applied when a program has low functionality and low technical quality, and the cost and risk of change are moderate.
• The retirement card is played when both functionality and technical quality are low, and the advantages of improvement are non-existent.
Another question would be: Which applications depend on staff skills that are declining? Compuware vice president Gerry Leitão recommends cross referencing the application inventory with a staff/skills inventory and developing a plan that could include formal succession planning, hiring, cross-training, mentoring, or outsourcing.
Bethesda Lutheran: taking inventory
Bethesda Lutheran Homes and Services, a Watertown-based ministry, serves people with developmental disabilities. Following the acquisition and integration of a sister entity, Good Shepherd Communities, CIO Brian Tennant is going through the initial stages of legacy modernization.
The transaction focused attention on the business applications Bethesda uses and how well they support the organization’s work. Once he got into the mining expedition of inventorying existing software, Tennant found the organization had a longer list than he anticipated: purchased and developed applications, modest niches, and pervasive enterprise-wide software.
“We need to make sure we understand who is using an application and what we are getting out of it,” Tennant explained. “I suspect we’re going to flush some out that are dead in the water, and from that point categorize them in terms of what they deliver and in terms of some sort of a scale measure of how big of an impact they have on the organization.”
Once he determines which systems have the most business value, skill sets and annual maintenance come into play. Bethesda has some important systems that were developed internally but are on platforms that no longer are in vogue or will not be supported when staff retirements occur in a few years, so there is a heightened level of risk.
In Tennant’s view, the justification for modernization is a value-added one. There isn’t a fire-on-the-stove urgency at the moment, but the realization that Bethesda has integrated another organization and now provides services in 15 states compelled him to take the pulse of its application sets. To ensure that applications are meeting organizational needs and they are supportable, Tennant wants to plan for that point when there is a changing of the guard.
“I don’t want to have three years go by and then start panicking about `oh my goodness, this individual is retiring in a year and we’ve got three years worth of application and a migration to do,’” he said.
For Bethesda, the difference-making application is its new client-centered application, which has jumped started the modernization process. Bethesda owns and operates several hundred residential homes, and for each resident it has demographic information, medication history, and development plans. Bethesda provides services to people with a broad range of disabilities, and the information that guides its efforts is recorded on that business system.
“We actually didn’t have a [comprehensive] system,” Tennant acknowledged. “We had a loose affiliation of assorted documents where each of our states did their own thing.”
The system, which is being implemented with the help of a third-party vendor, has been rolled out in about one-third of the organization and should be completed in the first quarter of 2009.
Alliant Energy: focus on skills
Cagigal has chosen to move applications to a more modern environment where the skills are.
There was an Entera platform several years ago that once was sufficient for Alliant’s mission-critical gas inspection maintenance and management system (GIMMS). Alliant has 400,000 gas customers in Wisconsin and Iowa, and as part of the mandated lifecycle management of gas meters, those meters must be inspected. The inspections must be documented as to dates and results of readings and necessary maintenance.
It was a critical business system running on a platform that the vendor no longer provides support for. Entera tried to convince Alliant to move to an upgraded version, but the new version was unsuitable to Alliant’s architecture, Cagigal said.
The solution was to rewrite the GIMMS application for Microsoft’s .Net platform, which Cagigal said has a longer life and will be more flexible to support and maintain.
Alliant also completed a rewrite of its contractor billing system for migration to the .Net platform, and is about to do the same for a customer billing component.
Another platform adjustment involves the more than 70 applications Alliant has on Lotus notes, a platform that was purchased by IBM. Cagigal believes that IBM no longer wants to support Lotus Notes, so Alliant is attempting to migrate the applications to .Net or run them on purchased products that meet the needs of customers that had been running on Lotus notes. In rare cases, Alliant may simply retire a system when the business function can be addressed some other way.
Even though Cobol and Power Builder have a significant presence in the Alliant portfolio, the corporation essentially is a Java and .Net shop, and its choices are either Java or .Net because “those are the skill sets it has,” Cagigal said.
Alliant tries to balance the business that an application delivers against the risk of continuing to support a legacy environment that may no longer be supported by a vendor. In so doing, it has to consider a variety of factors, including the versions of operating systems, database management systems, hardware and software configurations, and premium support for unsupported versions.
State of Wisconsin: virtualization and remixing
Another Wisconsin CIO with modernization on his mind is Oskar Anderson, administrator of the state Division of Enterprise Technology. As he talks to state agencies in the course of statewide IT planning, he has given thought to exploiting virtualization in applications and at the operating system level to get applications running better together.
“That doesn’t replace a legacy system, but it gives more applications the ability to coexist on the same hardware platform,” he said.
Anderson said the tools available in VMware are improving and becoming more feature-rich, creating a “good, stable environment for us.” The state has more than 300 virtualized applications running at its data center as part of a consolidation effort, and Anderson continues to propose that more departments move to virtual environments as a way of getting more applications running on fewer CPUs.
Another benefit of virtualization is that the Division of Enterprise Technology can set up a test environment very quickly – in a matter of a few minutes.
The division is also looking to mash-ups, as a value-added alternative that allows IT departments to build new applications out of two or more existing systems.
Among the few applications the state can think about combining are newer geographic information systems (GIS) being developed by the Department of Transportation, the Department of Natural Resources, and other agencies.
The applications are young enough to have interfaces that can be “mashed,” and much of the data is “very sharable,” Anderson said. “It just seems as though it’s a prime opportunity for us because there is quite a close-knit community in the GIS area, and from the time they started they were looking to share the data and their applications.”
There are limitations to mash-ups, however. Applications have to be fairly similar and fairly new. One of the state’s applications dates back 40 years, and over the course of 40 years there were very different technologies being used to build different applications, Anderson noted.
“To use mash-ups for some of these old applications is not possible,” he said. “We don’t have the tools to do that and they weren’t designed that way. We still have a lot of old batch systems. We have a lot of old procedural applications and our whole application architecture has gone through a lot of generations.”
While Anderson is still too early in the process to choose a mash-up tool, he reeled off several possible aggregators: Yahoo Pipes, IBM’s QEDwiki, and Microsoft’s Popfly.
These are the kinds of tools Anderson hopes to use in his attempt to attract more young graduates to DET because they are more familiar with these products. To Anderson, new mash up tools also represent an opportunity to train and upgrade the skills of established state IT workers that have been building applications for a long time.
CA: ERP deployment
At the New York-based CA, legacy modernization was a key selling point for the company’s enterprise resource planning program, according to CIO Stephen Savage. CA is implementing an ERP system to improve efficiency and the reporting ability of business units via an accompanying central data repository.
In the process, “it has become obvious that legacy modernization is part of the justification for an ERP deployment,” Savage said.
Given the emotion that can be attached even to aging business systems, any prioritization and business case work associated with modernization can be undermined if users are not on board. Rather than waiting for users to jump on the bandwagon, CIOs should involve them in decision-making process, Savage advised.
The reason the inventory of applications is the first discussion in modernization is because there is a natural reluctance to change. While no business unit has been adamant about keeping an application, Savage said the client-facing side is more likely to want to keep things simple because they are so externally focused. At CA, they were most concerned about the legacy modernization process, but they came to the table.
“You’ve got to sell a vision to the business silos you support,” Savage explained. “It’s actually easier to do in tough economic times because technology is not just a cost, it’s an enabler to make business processes more effective.”