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How to overcome application modernisation barriers

Most businesses are not lucky enough to be able to build a new cloud native architecture. We look at how to take legacy applications forward

Technical integration challenges and effective project planning are hindering the digital transformation efforts a range of enterprises are taking to modernise their application portfolios.  

According to the Connectivity benchmark 2020 report released by software management company MuleSoft, 99% of IT organisations will be undertaking digital transformation projects in the next five years, but 85% of them say integration challenges are slowing these initiatives.  

MuleSoft reports that while the average IT enterprise has around 900 applications, only 28% of these are currently integrated. This demand for integration is only set to grow as new technology investments, such as security or big data analytics, increase the burden on IT departments, which will need to provide further integrations to connect any new sources of data. 

Separate research by data management firm Boomi on enterprise resource planning (ERP) finds that, for European IT organisations at least, the main challenges of modernisation can be split into two camps: people and process issues; and technical issues. 

Modernisation programmes need to be properly scoped and managed, with clear goals, measurement and communication in place,” says Boomi in The ERP innovator’s dilemma report, adding that the biggest technical challenge is “integrating and managing data across complex hybrid environments, where some legacy technology is still in use”. 

The situation is further complicated by the sheer scope of older systems that require modernising. In its Application modernisation should be business-centric, continuous and multiplatform report, analyst firm Gartner warns that enterprise IT portfolios are far too large for a cost-effective and comprehensive inventory of all applications, in all locations. 

To overcome these challenges, enterprises should assess, segment and prioritise their modernisation workflows so they can plan projects in a targeted way, while still having enough holistic visibility of their digital estates to understand how different applications are connected.  

Segment and prioritise 

Gaining visibility of digital estates, including all of the legacy applications in use, can be a daunting task for many organisations. Nick Ford, chief technology evangelist at low-code software platform Mendix, urges IT decision-makers to start with portfolio mapping exercises to understand what is in their digital estates.  

“We tend to find in any estate of applications that there are apps that can probably be consolidated, or are no longer relevant and can be easily replaced with off-the-shelf solutions, or even rebuilt in a lot of cases,” he says. 

“We’d advocate taking a look at that estate, looking at how youre going to rationalise that estate and then picking off those areas that are going to give you the most significant advantage in a short period of time, adds Ford. 

Ian Fairclough, vice-president of services at MuleSoft, says most organisations have “a very complex web of interconnected applications”, which constrains innovation.

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“We’re talking about IT estates that have grown up over the past 30 to 40 years, and you find that many of these organisations have not invested in technology over time,” he says, adding that a lack of integrations between these applications is a major barrier to building agile, modern application portfolios 

Like Mendix’s Ford, Fairclough recommends modernisation projects are divided into “prioritised chunks”, which he says enables IT teams to tackle the most important things first. 

“Maybe there are some things that you don't even need to tackle, so actually you segment and decide that we can run those IT systems over there for another few years and then just retire them, he says. 

Describing a challenging modernisation project he worked on, Fairclough says the amount of work required to complete the project had been “totally underestimated”. He says the project involved an IT estate of more than 500 applications, which meant the customer did not understand how everything was connected. As a consequence, project costs were pushed up “exponentially”.  

“Whenever we set out to modernise one application, we effectively lifted it up and found a tangled web of other applications, so we couldnt just take that application in isolation and move it to a new environment,” he adds.  

He says the project team needed to develop new integrations to support the connections between the new and the old systems. 

To solve the problem, the team needed to divide the applications into gold, silver and bronze tiers to denote their priority level. Each gold application would have a number of silver and bronze applications attached to it, meaning that although they were lower priority, they needed to be moved over along with the gold applications. 

For Fairclough, procedures meant the project team could focus on the gold tier applications while still making sure everything worked properly. 

Managing data 

Established in 2012, London-based Disguise specialises in building the software and hardware that powers live music shows for acts such as U2 and Katy Perry, but its technology is also used in the film industry, as well as for special events such as the Queen’s Jubilee. 

The company has expanded rapidly, going from 27 to 131 employees globally in just two years. It also has a large cloud portfolio, which includes using Salesforce in its sales and marketing systems, NetSuite for its financial systems and Jira for its developers.  

“We were amassing a lot of data and travelling fast, but if you don’t travel fast in a certain direction you’re not necessarily going to get anywhere, so part of what I needed to do was to bring together the data we have across that estate,” says Ivan Roche, head of global business intelligence and technology at Disguise, who spent six weeks in early 2019 assessing and planning the company’s modernisation needs.  

He found that using a mixture of out-of-the-box connectors and bespoke application programming interfaces (APIs) created by Boomi, Disguise was able to integrate with Salesforce, NetSuite and Jira, as well as the manufacturers of its hardware, so that all of the data could be managed at a “master” level. 

With the visibility and consistency of data this provided, Disguise was then able to begin optimising its processes and further expanding its systems.  

“While the architecture means we are currently improving what we’ve already got, the connectors we currently have in place mean we can also get bigger,” says Roche. 

“Maybe there are certain systems we’re currently using that aren’t keeping pace with us, but as long as we’ve got that data structure in the data warehouse and we have the rules around it with Boomi, it means we can take one of the systems we currently have, unplug it, put in a new system, and get that up and running as if it was there from day one, he adds. 

The ability to plug and unplug different systems and applications therefore gives Disguise a lot of flexibility in terms of integration, and helps it to assess and segment workflows for planning future modernisation work.  

Legacy Windows 

Application modernisation is not only about getting rid of legacy hardware – it encompasses a number of technologies, people and processes.  

“Whether your company has been around for centuries or just a few years, there are universal challenges that face everyone – be it managing co-existing new and legacy systems or the investment of money and time needed to modernise,” says Olivier Maes, vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Rancher Labs. 

Many businesses have an ambition to become cloud first, or cloud native, which means they aim to move the majority of their applications to the cloud and new applications are developed to run in the cloud.  

Kubernetes allows companies to make legacy functionality available for new, cloud-native applications and, crucially, it’s saving companies money and valuable time, says Maes. 

However, 70% of on-premise workloads run on Windows Server, which has prevented them from being containerised. But this has now changed with the availability of Windows containers. 

One of Rancher Labs’ customers is Abax, Europe’s largest telematics company, which has been able to take advantage of Windows containers. As Maes explains: “Despite processing masses of data from its sophisticated fleet tracking and vehicle control systems, the company had long relied on outdated technology based on a Windows environment.”  

Abax had spent many years developing core services in Windows environments and, according to Maes, wanted to continue doing so, but he says having to re-engineer large swathes of infrastructure would have been costly and time-consuming. 

With the availability of Windows containers, Maes says Abax’s systems engineers can run mission-critical workloads in both Windows and Linux containers that can be centrally orchestrated, regardless of whether they are deployed on-premise or in the cloud.  

Therefore, whether it is through containers or master data management systems, there is a range of technologies available that enterprises can use to help navigate the complexities of application modernisation.  

However, these technical choices should be accompanied and supported by an appropriate organisational structure to execute the project effectively. 

“For the most part, the challenge is organisational,” says Mendix’s Ford, adding that modernisation is not a big bang, but a continuous, iterative process that needs support from the very top of the organisation. 

“Legacy modernisation is about leveraging your entire organisation and, for the most part, using those who are closest to the business problem to deliver the software. That comes from having the right platform, the right governance model and the right organisational structure,” he concludes. 

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