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Gartner: Three key tasks needed to decommission applications

A guide to slimming down a full portfolio of applications that are expensive to maintain and difficult to adapt to business needs

A bloated range of applications poses challenges and, according to a recent Gartner survey, 48% of application leaders said maintaining legacy applications was one of their top three challenges when implementing innovative technology.

Applications and software engineering leaders must implement a campaign to cleanse the portfolio of “dead” applications and free up resources that can focus on modern, efficient delivery models. To do this, establish a decommissioning discipline to ensure that your organisation disposes of replaced and inactive applications in a timely, orderly manner. 

To increase the success rate of decommissioning applications, execute the following tasks. First, delineate between application replacement and application decommissioning. Leaders must then appoint an application undertaker to govern all decommissioning activities and estimate the cost of decommissioning the application.

Decommissioning an application involves two distinct activities. The first is implementing a new application or service (or extensions to an existing application or service) to replace the functionality of the old application. The second is removing all traces of the old application while implementing a mechanism to access data that must be retained for regulatory, legal or historical purposes.

To increase the success rate of decommissioning, clearly separate responsibilities into two projects. One project must exclusively focus on delivering the replacement application, while another project must exclusively focus on decommissioning the old application. 

Before an application can be properly decommissioned, it must have no live use. It should be dead. Declaring an application dead is not always straightforward. If only part of the old application has been replaced, then the application is not dead yet and cannot be decommissioned. 

After the application is dead, ensure that the last traces of the application are removed from the portfolio and that the historic data is retained in compliance with regulatory requirements. These activities are the responsibilities of the application undertaker.

The role of the application undertaker demands a commitment to the process and diligence, as well as a willingness to lead the activity in the long term. Senior IT managers, such as an application leader, can fulfil this role and it is best suited to an individual with a solid background in project management.

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The application undertaker does not run all the decommissioning projects. Rather, the undertaker’s responsibility is to define the policies, procedures and services that relate to decommissioning activities, such as providing advice, guidance and audit services to the people who are running the decommissioning activities, as well as overseeing and governing the decommissioning activities.

The application undertaker’s policies, procedures and services must be used by the project managers who are assigned the task of decommissioning a specific application. These guardrails will help to ensure efficiency, consistency and control over the decommissioning process as the organisation eliminates numerous applications in a short timeframe. It also empowers, legitimises and provides confidence to the project manager to really switch things off.

Estimating the cost of decommissioning the application is difficult. There is no correlation between the original cost of implementing the application and the cost of decommissioning it. Evaluating the cost of ownership, scope, complexity and dependencies is essential for teams to establish budget and better understand its impact. 

Categorising the decommissioning targets into historic data categories is a good place to start. You can distinguish the categories by the level of access you must have to historic data to conduct the process. If you require no access to historic data, the process becomes simpler and therefore cheaper. But if there is a complex requirement for access to historic data that will demand detailed investigation, development and implementation, the budget allowance must be higher. 

Although decommissioning applications and data retention can consume resources and budget while not providing a great return on investment, the application undertaker must emphasise the non-financial benefit of decommissioning, and effectively demonstrate the positive benefits and risk avoidance.

The cost has a significant impact on whether companies invest in internal processes and ensuring that they are handled properly from the start is essential to its success. It is therefore crucial not only to educate leaders, but to ensure that the decommissioning of applications undergoes the correct process to ensure maximum success for the business. 

Stefan Van Der Zijden is a vice-president analyst at Gartner. He recently spoke at the Gartner Symposium in Barcelona about using a continuous modernisation value stream to deliver application and cloud migration priorities.

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