Modernization Methods

In a software system’s lifetime, business needs naturally increase, creating a gap between the business needs and the system’s existing capabilities. Normal maintenance tasks may keep the system up to date for a time: these may include small changes to fix bugs, or adding enhancements to resolve issues or keep performance up to speed. Maintaining an application is itself a form of modernization, but dictated by the application’s shortcomings, and not the needs of the business, necessarily.

Software systems must evolve as new business needs are identified. A system is initially introduced to meet a certain set of business needs, and as process or product grows, more and more features are added. Yet, requirements change over time, and so do the requirements of the software needed to maintain it. A gap begins to form between a software system’s functionality and what the business actually needs.

These large shifts will eventually outpace the ability of routine maintenance to accommodate.

Modernization: System vs. Business Needs

UI\UX modernization: experience upgrade

Systems have a front-end, what the user sees, and a back-end where the data and business logic resides. A modernization project undertaken after a small gap has been detected may not involve a major change to a back-end system. UI/UX modernization alone can be effective when assessments happen with smaller needs gaps. Systems created prior to the advent of responsive web design are good candidates for UI\UX modernization.

Modernization concentrated on UI\UX improvements could simplify user interactions, improve usability, and create greater efficiency. It could include updating older web architectures to provide more current features at lower levels of complexity. At larger needs gaps, UI\UX modernization is often coupled with back-end modernization approaches to provide a more complete restoration of functionality.

Modernization Methods: Complexity spectrum

Replatform modernization: migrating to the cloud

Staying current with constantly-updating software and hardware is always a challenge. Moving your system to the cloud will provide the system availability your business requires. It can also give you the new features and future flexibility that you need to stay up to speed with your users.

While the idea of storing confidential business data on someone else’s servers used to be a “non-starter” for many, those steadfast positions have all but evaporated with maturing cloud services and widespread industry adoption. Even reservations due to fears of government regulation have subsided since the government’s own adoption of cloud services. The US federal government has been storing data securely on Amazon Web Services since 2016 [1]. Cloud systems today are safe and mature.

Moving a legacy system to the cloud is a long term project. These projects are often eighteen months or longer. System features are split into components which can be accessed individually, or composable into larger systems. Clear definitions of services must be identified and boundaries enforced to enable a clean migration to the new platform. The end result is a scalable architecture that can grow with the business.

The complexity and upfront cost of moving a system into the cloud is daunting, but the payoff is reduced maintenance costs and the ability to scale as the business grows. Additional servers can be provisioned more quickly, instead of over longer periods, due to internal business processes.

System replacement: parallel rewrites

A tightly-coupled architecture with complex dependencies can make it difficult to add new features or updates that meet the business needs. Over time, this complexity grows, and the gap between your system and needs becomes large. Doing nothing is no longer an option. But these complexities aren’t easily unraveled: This system might lack definable seams that can be deconstructed into composable modules. Deployments may be entirely manual, or non-existent. In cases like this, a parallel system could be introduced and features added incrementally. It’s a process not unlike moving into the new house next door, and turning off the lights in the old house, room by room, until you are fully moved into the new house.

Parallel rewrites such as these are highly complex and difficult to implement, even when the code is well-documented. Existing features and processes must be identified, assessed, and redesigned. Parallel rewrites require longer engagements to bring a product from a position of minimal value up to a full-featured replacement.

Parallel rewrites are usually borne out of necessity. You would never completely dispose of a legacy system with only a small needs gap. Legacy systems that require this significant of a change are usually obvious. They often exist on older operating systems. The software is outdated, nearing or past their end-of-life dates. Developer resources are scant and hard to find. Scores of bugs in the backlog tattle on the most troublesome parts of the system.

Parallel rewrites provide giant-leap modernization and prevent you from having to decommission older systems until the new system is able to come online. They can restore systems to the current state-of-the-art, provide new inflows of talent, and resurrect the utility of your legacy system’s core functionality.

Assess the gap, chart a course

All systems will fall short of business needs over time. A system gap identified early on will only need a simple modernization approach—maybe a small architectural refactor of a back-end system, or an update of the UX—to realign an application to real-life business processes.

A system backlog overpowered by bugs and unmet features will require a more complex approach, as the problems that remain unaddressed grow. Legacy systems assessed early on will require less complex modernization approaches. The key to modernization is the application of the proper approach to preserve needed functionality, include new needed functionality, and enhance identified platforms.

Leveraging the right approach at the right time is key to sustaining a system when the needs gap exceeds that which normal maintenance can address. Assessments reveal not only the extent of that gap, but also chart a course to restoring functionality and satisfying current and future business needs.

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