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What is a legacy system, and why do companies keep using them?

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Freeport Metrics Team
September 5, 2021

Legacy systems. A short definition.

It’s not easy to define a legacy system as there is no single definition in use. Technically, some computer systems, programming languages, software applications, specific processes or technologies can all fall into this category. However, there are a few common characteristics that describe what a legacy system is:

  • Legacy systems no longer receive support and maintenance, although they can’t be replaced due to being essential for many organizations,
  • They are based on outdated technology and thus, are incompatible with current, more advanced solutions,
  • Such systems are unavailable for purchase - and rightly so.

That being said, any technology that can no longer be supported and updated automatically is essentially a legacy system. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be that old - even a one-year-old IT system can be considered one if it fits the description.

Why do legacy systems still exist?

Simply because they are hard to replace, especially if they power important business processes in an organization. The risk of changing the status quo may be too high if you take into account the possibility of key data getting lost or corrupted. Furthermore, legacy applications often lack technical specifications, which makes it difficult to create a new system with identical features. Not to mention the “fear of the unknown” that is present in many organizations.

Actually, even though it’s usually more cost-efficient to replace a legacy system in the long run, there are many solutions that make it possible to continue using them. Still, legacy software should not be kept indefinitely, as it’s associated with certain risks.  

What are the risks of keeping legacy software?

With technology evolving so fast, it’s hardly surprising that IT systems should be modernized in order to keep up. Especially since they might eventually become incompatible with more recent systems and platforms that could turn out to be crucial for your business.

Although legacy systems still work, they can be unstable not only due to their incompatibility, but also lack of support and maintenance. Basically, they are being passed from one developer to another, and the more patches they have, the more prone they are to security breaches. Not to mention that the performance of such systems is becoming increasingly slower, with more and more failures. This, in turn, affects efficiency and productivity within the organization.

Let’s take a look at some legacy system examples.

Surprisingly enough, legacy systems can be found across many organizations. Examples include hardware in power plants, manufacturing machines controlled by computers running MS-DOS, or outdated financial systems. In reality, however, legacy applications still power important business processes in plenty of other companies around the world. How to make sure your business is not one of them?  

Legacy software in your organization.

As already mentioned, legacy applications still form part of many organizations, although they come with certain risks. That’s precisely why it’s important to conduct system performance and security audits every once in a while. By doing so, you can find out if a legacy system exists within your organization, and whether or not it is actually reasonable to replace it.

What should you focus on when trying to identify if a legacy system is in use at a business?

  • The year of creation or implementation, as most legacy systems are outdated and advanced in age.
  • Current performance - legacy systems are often associated with poor efficiency and lower productivity.
  • The availability of software updates and vendor support (or lack thereof, to be precise).
  • Compatibility with new systems and the possibility of adding more functions - since legacy systems are limited in their functionality and can’t be developed further.

Once you identify a legacy system, it’s time to decide whether it’s worth replacing it. The process will certainly be time-consuming, but keep in mind that legacy software should be replaced at some point. Especially if it doesn’t meet your needs and is not secure anymore, as it may be using old security protocols and standards. Still, one of the most important factors will most likely be the cost of upgrading the outdated technology, as well the time required for the whole process. Evaluate both of them carefully, and trust a specialist to carry out a proper analysis for your organization. Only then you can make an informed choice about the future of a legacy system.

By now, you should already understand what a legacy application is and how it can affect your business - even though there is no specific definition of legacy software. Nonetheless, deciding whether you should completely transform your business processes along with IT infrastructure, is a different story. These are often key components of your enterprise and thus, should be handled with care. Don’t forget that nowadays technology evolves quickly and it’s important not to get left behind, though. As your system becomes outdated, you may eventually lose your competitive edge. That’s why you should analyze your IT infrastructure carefully and act fast if it needs any improvement.

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