Enterprise Modernization: New Life for Old Apps

Talking Points

  • Extending legacy apps, rather than calling in the virtual bulldozer, appeals to enterprises because these apps are battle tested and contain vital business information.
  • Companies that choose re-hosting or code conversion do so primarily because these options are among the least expensive modernization alternatives.
  • Companies that choose the Web services approach will need to divvy up their legacy application’s user interface, business logic and database into separate components.

Recording company EMI Music North America thrives in the heady world of cutting-edge pop culture. Its family of music labels backs more than 1,500 artists, and EMI talent scouts are forever on the lookout for trendy new performers. Web marketing campaigns drive EMI efforts to keep top artists hot by publicizing the latest and greatest tours and releases.

But behind the scenes, EMI’s technology was about as happening as Milli Vanilli. Individual labels built their own Web sites and applications, and contracted with separate Web hosting services. The result? “The applications couldn’t scale, and there were no economies of scale,” says Seth Brady, director of Web applications. And because each site maintained its own island of information, EMI had no central control over the accuracy of data such as tour dates. Sometimes different sites gave different tour dates for the same artist.

EMI needed to act, but instead of scrapping everything old and spending millions on a totally new development project, the company decided on an IT makeover. Using Web services and service-oriented architecture, EMI put new sizzle in the old apps. The move is paying off. “Everything is now much easier to manage,” Brady says.

EMI isn’t alone. A number of large enterprises, including the American Automobile Club Insurance Agency and the county of Tulsa, Okla., are continuing to live with, and love, their legacy applications after giving them a much needed facelift. (See sidebar, “Three-pack choice for modernization.”)

Clear decks for action
Even in the Web world, modernization still isn’t as easy as slapping a new coat of paint on a fading house.

The first step is to take a hard look at each existing system, says Joe Gentry, vice president of enterprise transaction systems at Software AG. “You might have a wide variety of legacy systems—for payroll, HR, manufacturing, order entry,” he says. Some of those you may want to keep as is. They’re working fine, and there are no new business requirements that are causing you to change them. Other applications you may want to integrate into the rest of the enterprise by Web service-enabling them. Others you may just want to migrate off completely because you want to standardize on a new platform like Unix of Linux.”

Because modernization involves changing the way processes and people work, enterprises need to develop a clear plan of action. “The key is to understand where your business is driving you,” Cole believes. “Then determine what modernization steps you can take to get the fastest payback and the biggest returns. Usually re-facing legacy applications can be done fairly quickly, but re-architecting the applications will take longer and cost more. But that will give you a bigger payback over time.”

Companies that choose the Web services approach will need to divvy up their legacy application’s user interface, business logic and database into separate components. “There’s certainly some effort involved in breaking large legacy code into smaller pieces,” she says. “But the business logic is typically something you can reuse to a large degree.”

Modernization problems also revolve around data. “You have to interoperate with the legacy systems as the modernization project is happening. So keep in mind that you have to migrate data,” says Kevin Kelley, senior technology solutions architect for Avanade, a systems integrator.

Corporate cultural clashes also play a role. “It’s all about communication,” says Ronald Kok, managing director of systems integrator Scamander Solutions. “You have the people who have run the existing back-office systems for years and know how to bypass problems to keep running. Then there’s the new [modernization] team. The two groups speak a different language, which is very difficult to resolve, and that’s one reason why companies postpone modernization projects as long as possible.”

Harry Johns, IT manager for the AACIA, a modernization veteran, agrees. “The hardest part is getting people to accept the fact that they’ll have to change the way they do things,” he says.

Learning a new tune
EMI began its modernization campaign by consolidating almost 100 Web sites run by 12 recording label groups under a single Web hosting provider. Next, it tackled the underlying apps. “If we’re just moving the Web hosting site from point A to point B we’re not solving the applications mess because we still have multiple versions of similar applications, and we have to manage data and access,” Brady says. In practical terms, this data management nightmare means that tour dates might conflict over multiple sites. “We had to consolidate at the application and the database levels, too.”

That was a task made difficult because different labels ran different technology platforms, whether Microsoft, Java or something else.

Enter SOA. About two years ago, EMI implemented a basic product-search Web service. “That pilot internally validated for us what Web services could mean for our company,” Brady says. “We then looked at how to extend the Web services idea to meet more concrete business needs, such as supporting the content management of each artist.”

From there, EMI identified the apps best suited for SOA-based re-architecting. It chose those programs devoted to promoting news about artists, managing tour dates, publishing cover artwork and distributing promotional computer screen savers. “We found there were multiple places that stored those types of data and more than one application that consumed the data,” Brady says. So EMI built a service layer between its front-end applications and its back-office programs. “We came up with the idea of a series of core services—an artist service, a catalog service, a tour service—and created a model that could scale so we could add additional services in the future and still take advantage of common components,” he explains.

Even as services expanded, the front-end programs would continue to interact with the service layer, which shielded them from knowing where the data was stored. “This was key because we found in old models that if an application was hardcoded to a database, the apps would become outdated whenever we upgraded the database,” Brady says.

EMI built the new Web services architecture using Microsoft .NET tools and system integrator Avanade’s ACA.NET product, which provided canned functions for logging and security management.

Brady says his team spent 6 months planning the project and another 6 months rolling out the project for the first two labels. It’s now seeing some clear benefits.

“Once we put tour dates into the system, we syndicate them to multiple Web sites. This means we no longer make individual updates to each Web site. So the same tour dates show up on an artist’s site as on the label’s site,” he says. “And the consuming application is technology agnostic. Because we expose the data using XML, if a Java application or any other XNL-compliant application needs the data, it gets that information.”

What did the modernization process teach him? “We learned that upfront planning is critical,” he says. “This helped us get management buy-in, develop the framework and plan out what services we needed to support in the future. We’re at a point now, where because of the way we built this system, we don’t have to go back to the drawing board if we have to modify our services.”

It’s not easy being green
“We were using a green screen application,” the AACIA’s Henry Johns recalls. “We improved it over the years, but it was still a green screen.”

The insurance company’s legacy app had problems beyond its modest looks. It didn’t integrate easily with other apps the company runs. Nevertheless, the legacy platform continued to provide vital services for processing insurance policies and claims, managing receivables, issuing checks and controlling the customer database.

Modernization was made easy for AACIA thanks to a rewrite of the code by the legacy application’s vendor, CSC. The vendor made the program XML and Java compliant and embedded APIs that opened up communications with other software. AACIA only had to install the rewritten application and implement IBM WebSphere. “We have over 30 regional offices, and the new system gives everyone the ability to use the same platform through a browser interface without having to install proprietary software at each site,” Johns says.

Although AACIA didn’t rewrite any code itself, the company still ran into modernization stumbling blocks. “We tried to do lot at one time,” John says. While upgrading to the new architecture, AACIA also installed a new forms package and a new imaging system, based on IBM iSeries hardware, for digitizing customer records, invoices and other paperwork.

The biggest challenge was training for end users and the internal IT support staff. “We required a lot of training because we were going from a COBOL green-screen environment to a Windows-type Java platform. We had to teach people how to take advantage of new functionality,” Johns says. “The hardest part was getting people to accept the fact that they would have to change the way they did things.”

The training task wasn’t so hard with younger Windows-savvy workers, but the new GUI was a shock for some green-screen stalwarts. So, before the company unleashed the application on end users, it ran the software in a test environment that gave people a chance to familiarize themselves with the new program. This helped speed acceptance. “After a few weeks, they saw how much quicker they could find things,” Johns says.

Pushing the software faster on end users would have been a mistake, he believes. “That would have created animosity from those who see it as a huge culture shock to go to the new architecture.” Now, Johns says he’s paying a price for the project’s success. “My task list has increased exponentially,” he says. A steady stream of requests for new capabilities is hitting his desk. One future project may be creating tools to provide insurance quotes over the Internet. “This would allow us to process more business faster and in a wider area,” Johns says.

“We could actually have people in the field with wireless laptops who normally would have to be in office.” The Internet connection would also give customers the ability to see their policies outline and find answers to many of the questions that now require a call to a customer service rep. “Now that we have the architecture in place, we can make these things happen much faster,” Johns says.

Face-lift, but not a radical procedure
Tulsa County, a longtime mainframe shop, runs a number of old, customized, yet still efficient applications. These core services run the gamut from internal accounting apps to programs for land appraisers, tax collectors, inspectors and prison case managers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the applications except they’re green screen and hard to access. Some of the programs are available only from county offices during normal business hours.

These constraints don’t blend with the growing expectations of county workers. “People are starting to expect more,” says Tom Trimble, director of MIS. “The greatest amount of feedback we get is asking if we could increase the availability of the applications. Number two is people want to know if they can access the programs using the Internet,” he says.

To meet requests like these, Trimble considered the costs of expanding the capabilities of the existing applications or undertaking a complete redevelopment project. The numbers pointed him to an application makeover. “We have such a large investment in all of these intertwined systems, and information from the various applications ties into the accounting system. Coupled with that was the fact that we realistically couldn’t have accomplished [a complete replacement] in the foreseeable future,” he says.

The makeover already has paid off. Trimble estimates the county saved more than $300,000 in developer staff time and software compared to a complete overall. He also believes the county got the new capabilities about 2 years earlier than it would have with a radical procedure.

Bolstered by these cost estimates, the company chose to Web-enable its mainframe apps. It used Applinx software from Software AG for the Web-to-host interface because of the simplicity of its menu-driven tools. “They didn’t require a lot of training. We were able to get key staff up to speed in a matter of six weeks,” Trimble says. “Some of the main pages were done in the first day.”

The initial intent of the modernization project was only to Web-enable the mainframe applications, but the county found it could also easily blend that system with its client/server document imaging system. “We did some user studies that showed people had to go to a separate system to pull up related images. The Web-hosting application allowed us to integrate the two systems at the back end. We eliminated a significant number of keystrokes.”

Trimble says the modernization took about 3 days for configuring the Web server, “then it was just a matter of getting acquainted with the menus. Since we were already familiar with our legacy applications, we only had to figure out how to connect the Internet component.”

What’s the result of modernization? Trimble says he’s seeing the best of both worlds. The GUI front end gives a new look to the old apps and makes them easier to use. At the same time, the reliable mainframe that’s powering everything acts as a turbo charger for the new graphical environment. “People are impressed with its speed, which speaks to the reliability of mainframes,” Trimble says. “GUI applications can be slow on other types of hardware. We’re leveraging the strong points of both environments and at the end of the day, we’re better serving the taxpayer.”


Sidebar: Three-pack choice for modernization

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