Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Issue 81 – Legacy Systems

When was the last time you and / or your organisation upgraded its computersystems? Some people may think they are saving money by not doing so – after allit can be an expensive exercise to do, but is that the only reason why? The Mayedition of Information Overload looks at the Issues and Concerns of LegacySystems and how these impact on system rollouts.

In this issue we will look at:

•    Legacy systems: Issues and Concerns
o    Handling the upgrades
•    Tweaking the code
•    The beauty of the bug
•    Migration plan
•    A Thought to ponder

Legacy systems: Issues and Concerns
When we talk about legacy systems, perhaps the one most commonly referred to is Internet Explorer. IE6 is perhaps the most commonly touted legacy system browser still being used across corporations and home based computer systems and networks today – and the words used are not normally complementary. Delve into the visitor traffic of any website and you will notice a significant proportion of your traffic will be from IE6 and sometimes (heaven forbid) before. Web developers have a choice – advise people using IE6 and earlier browsers that the websites won’t render properly and to upgrade, or they have to find a work around so the websites work (sort of). This usually involves adding patchy code to ensure people who choose not to, or are not able to, can still open the sites – and get a reasonable viewing experience.

Is it laziness, a lack of understanding or (IMO) an inability by organisations (especially) to cope with the problems they are likely to encounter if they insist on a rollout / upgrade to the newer IE7, which interestingly enough is now a legacy system in itself or bypass 7 and head straight for IE8 – who knows!

However, I do know that the search engine giant Google will be dropping IE6 as a supported browser from its Google Apps and Google Docs services (Information Age April/May 2010 p59) in the not too distant future – just in case you use these applications – so if Google can do it – why can’t everyone else? But more of that in a moment.

As a good example – in analyzing my own website stats from this week – some 18% of visitor traffic came from IE6. Delving a little deeper I found a mix of operating systems being used, in this case:

WinXP    , WinVista, WinNT, MacOSX, Linux, Win2003, iPhone, Win2000, Win9x, Win, WinNT4 and WinMobile (in descending order of usage).

Q – Who still uses Win for goodness sake?

Whilst I can understand why some organisations might be wary of upgrading to a later browser, why oh why don’t individuals do so? Actually I do know part of the reason:

Handling the Upgrades:
I do know there are multiple problems when dealing with upgrades:

Your computer has to have sufficient capacity to cope with the requirements of the newer operating systems. If you haven’t upgraded your computer in the last couple of years you just won’t have the space (RAM) to load the newer systems and programs. The bigger the piece of software you want to load, the more capabilities they have, the more space they need. And whilst you can add extra RAM – it probably isn’t worth the money or the hassle to add it.

I’m not a big fan of replacing hardware for the sake of it, but there comes a time when it really isn’t worth adding extra memory and hard drive capacity and it is cheaper in the long run to buy a new computer. Please bear in mind we’re not just talking money – but time and patience (been there and done it – and I will replace the computer before doing that again).

But what if it isn’t up to you? What if the organisation you work for can’t upgrade the systems? Imagine hundreds of computers, all bought at different times, all running variations of operating systems and variations of variations – then you are talking major headaches and problems trying to coordinate some kind of roll out or upgrade – and not just of something as supposedly simple as a new browser.

If you can’t upgrade the operating system, then you will have problems upgrading browsers, and other software. Imagine if you like an organisation whereby every single person speaks a different dialect or language. How much would you be able to understand, well how do you expect your computers to?

A recent example: If you run Windows 7 and you save a Word Document it adds the file format .docx – if your colleagues run a different version of Windows (typically Windows 2003) they need to download a .docx converter so they can open and read what you have written. Of course if the Windows 7 users had just saved it as previous version .doc then it wouldn’t be a problem, but how many people can remember to do that every time – and to be honest why should they have to remember to do it anyway? Now we could slate Microsoft.

The main problem that I see lies with trying to render applications within this framework. Can you imagine trying to roll out TRIM 7 or Sharepoint 2010 with an old operating system and an even older browser? Which is why I feel a lot of major software implementations fail.

Tweaking the Code
Custom built solutions sound like a great idea. When nothing quite fits what you want, it may seem like a good idea to build the “you beaut”, whizz bang, custom tailored solution for your existing platform. So what happens when your platform needs to be upgraded? Will custom built solution cope with the upgrade? I suppose that does depend on the application and the quality of the coding I suppose, but how many times have you upgraded seemingly stable off the shelf software and they no longer talk to other programs they had no trouble communicating with BEFORE the upgrade?

And whilst we are talking about the “plug and play” or off the shelf solutions, there are similar concerns. What happens when we tweak the code to make them organisation specific. We add a field here, change a field header there. The software company releases a newer version and your organisation makes the decision to upgrade. Your export data won’t import properly, you spend hours with the tech guys and come to the conclusion you are going to need to tweak both the export data and the new piece of software to get the data to fit.

In the early days of the web and before most people got the hang off cascading style sheets (CSS) each web page was custom coded. This meant if you wanted to change a header definition across the entire site you had to re-code each individual page separately. Now with CSS of course, it has become much easier, but there are a lot of very old websites around and you can almost guarantee the person who knew which file was stored where, what font family and colours were inside which nested table, has left, what chance do you stand of handling changes to the site?

The beauty of the bug:
Do you remember the fun and games of 1999 – remember we were told to “party like it’s 1999” because come midnight on the 31st December when the world rolled into the year 2000 EVERYTHING was going to come to a crashing halt and the world in which we lived would never be the same again?

The Y2K bug gave IT almost carte blanche to upgrade every system and virtually every computer and piece of software within an organisation and money and personnel were thrown at it.

The problem is of course, that was 10 years ago, and 10 years is a VERY long time in the computer world.

Migration Plan:
Before upgrading, adding new software, or doing anything that involves messing around with the framework of your computer system, always ensure there is a restore point – just in case.

Why is this important?

As we mentioned earlier, adding new software (including scheduled updates) to a computer system that cannot handle the newer versions / additional material may make the computer unstable – or may stop it from working altogether. If things that used to work, no longer work after the upgrade / installation you may want to roll back to before the fateful moment.

Whilst not part of a traditional migration policy or plan – it’s still a very good idea to do.

As most organisations upgrade piecemeal these days (well who has the money to upgrade every machine at the same time?) it is a good idea to document:

  • Each machine separately
  • What operating system?
  • What individual programs each machine has on it bearing in mind that not every machine will have the same programs on them and also  What kind of access your machine / logon gives you.

It is also important for other reasons:

  • What happens if Fred from IT – the guy who never wrote anything down because he could remember what he had done, to which machine and when – leaves?
  • What happens if there are unauthorised program additions? It may be an innocent download – or it may be as a result of a click that installed malware. A new one doing the rounds came through a fault in FireFox – one of the better browsers out there and as of yesterday there was no cure – you need to remove entirely and reinstall the operating system. This is yet another reason why it is a good idea to store all your important documents on a server / system (such as TRIM / Recfind etc) or as individuals – on an external hard drive.

With many thoughts