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Avoid costly system replacements by modernizing old applications: many companies are still running legacy applications that were built 10-20 years ago. Companies can improve user productivity by adding a front-end Web browser to their current system.

I.T. joke: What's a legacy system?

Answer: One that works!

As with most good jokes, the reason people smile when they hear this is because they can relate to its underlying message. Companies have invested huge sums in their core systems over the years. It may have taken a while, but these systems are now working as planned, people know how to operate them (including all their quirks), and they rarely have problems. The systems just keep humming along, doing their job.

Typical situation

Ultimately, all good things must come to an end in order to make room for things that are even better. The old character-based screens (typically, green characters on a black background) look foreign to today's younger users who have become accustomed to the graphical user interface of Web-based applications. It's like viewing black and white movies on a colour TV set.

As well, the business has changed over the years, and there are new functions that systems need to perform. Often, the documentation is either missing or outdated and those who originally developed the application are long gone and the new IT staff are unfamiliar with underlying software code.

Most companies will go through a tremendous effort to pull together the functional specifications for a new system. Companies will identify a whole slew of new requirements and try to slot them into critical/important/nice-to-have categories. The next step is to get their IT staff or an outside firm to develop the replacement application. But, what is the typical result? The initial release doesn't include all the functionality expected, there are too many bugs that were not caught during testing, the system is delivered late, and costs are over budget. People end up pining for the "good old days" - at least the system worked!

An alternative solution

Do companies have any alternative besides living with the green screen system or replacing it with a new graphical-based system? Yes! There are many system tools on the market from vendors such as IBM, Attachmate, and Seagull Software that allow companies to put a Web browser front-end in front of the old green screens, leaving the underlying application untouched. This technology used to be known as screen-scraping, but it has matured considerably in the last few years and works in the familiar J2EE and .NET frameworks that many companies run. The tools interpret the data directly from the mainframe or mid-range computer and move it to the new display faster than a human could otherwise view and react to it.

The advantages of this approach include:

1. Avoid the cost of replacing the system now, or as a minimum, delay the expenditure for several years.

2. Ability to retain the existing, working system rather than throw out a valuable asset.

3. Increased staff productivity gained from using browser screen tools (or even wireless access) to cut down the time required to perform functions (e.g., hotlinks, tabbed folders, radio buttons, pull-down menus, valid value lists, help bubbles).

4. Reduction in the training time required for new staff.

5. Ability to add required new functionality to the underlying system, without tinkering with the software code (which may potentially introduce problems).

6. Ability to combine data from several systems and space-limited mainframe screens into a scrolling single view of all data.

7. Rapid deployment of the new interface (in weeks instead of months or years), since the underlying system need not be redeveloped.

8. Ability to allow employees to access the system easily through their Internet web browser or other devices (e.g., staff who work from home).

9. Ability to extend the system to allow vendors, partners, and customers to access the application (with the addition of appropriate controls) through the familiar interface of a Web browser.

10. Improved company image by using an attractive graphical interface with pleasing images, pictures, backgrounds, colour schemes, and the company's logo.

11. Improved customer service, as queries can be answered more quickly.

One other advantage of this approach is the ability to gradually transition individual components, rather than rewriting the entire application all at once. For example, the system may have a process that performs a search using green screens, which has been replaced with a Web browser screen. Over time, it becomes necessary to enhance the search by adding additional search criteria fields. It may be more efficient to create a new query against the database rather than modifying the new Web-browser screen, which goes through multiple green screens to get the data. Using advanced tools (e.g. a three-tiered architecture approach of presentation, business rules, and data), it is possible to simply swap out that one mainframe data search component with a newly-coded program that more efficiently does the search. The presentation stays the same and the company continues to move forward on replacing the legacy system without rebuilding everything from scratch.

Case study

This type of legacy system modernization solution has been implemented for many clients, including government ministries, a chain of camera stores, and a national department store chain. Let's use the department store situation since it provides:

* a real-life example of the challenges they faced

* the choices they looked at

* the solution they went with, and

* the benefits they achieved.

Case background

The client is a multi-channel retailer with many independent systems. To respond to customer queries, the 500 customer service representatives (CSRs) in the warranty claims centre needed to access customer orders, customer comments, and general notes stored in five separate green screen legacy mainframe applications. For the CSRs, this resulted in:

* Long times searching for data when a customer called (up to 60 screens to wade through).

* Low productivity, due to difficulty in searching and navigating through the screens.

* High training costs for new staff.

* Low customer satisfaction, since customers spent a long time on hold waiting for the CSR to mine for information.

* Difficulty getting the full picture of client history and agreements made with the warranty and returns department.

* Dealing with customers who would work the system by calling many times to try to find a CSR who would agree to provide a warranty refund, since CSRs didn't have all the needed customer history data on a single screen.

* Frustration.

Company management asked an outside firm to provide a quote to replace the five legacy applications with a modern, browser-based system. They were shocked at the price (well over $10M), and looked for an alternative.

The solution

IBM's HATS (Host Application Transformation Service) screen-scraper application was used to gather information from the five legacy applications. The data is combined into four Web-browser screens. At the same time, the company's business analysts had to re-engineer the call centre workflow and identify key functions that could be added to maximize productivity. The VisionEngine rapid application-development platform was used to create new functions that were added to the existing applications:

* Ability to search through all five legacy system databases simultaneously, rather than one after the other, thereby cutting down the time to find a customer record.

* Stored the last 10 customers' information so that they could be retrieved immediately.

* Ability to put a customer record in the background when a new call came in, then return to it later during a quiet time to enter in notes from the previous call.

The results

The project was completed in three months, at less than one per cent of the cost of replacing the old applications. The information from the 60 green screens was combined onto four browser screens. Results:

* massively increased customer service productivity

* slashed customer service training time

* dramatically more efficient customer response time

* improved customer satisfaction.

When does this solution make sense?

This approach to systems modernization doesn't make sense in all situations. Sometimes, the life of the legacy systems can't be extended and it just makes sense to get a new system (those driving old cars recognize this dilemma--rather than replacing a transmission or engine, it can be better to replace the whole car).

Situations that would lead to adopting a new system include:

* The hardware, operating system, or database that the application runs on is no longer supported.

* The application is breaking down frequently.

* The functions handled by the application could be much better handled within a new application.

On the other hand, there are many times when it does make sense to consider adding a Web-browser interface to a legacy system rather than replacing the system. This would include:

* The application keeps on running and rarely causes problems.

* There is a high turnover in the user base, and the costs to train new staff (who may never have encountered a green screen before, and look at it as though it were a rotary telephone) are high.

* There is an opportunity to consolidate data from many screens down to a few Web-browser screens.

* There is a need to allow staff outside the office to access the application through a Web browser (e.g. staff who work from home full-or part-time).

* There is a desire to allow outside parties (e.g., vendors, partners, contractors, part-time staff, customers) to access the system through an easy-to-use Internet Web browser.

* The system is mission critical to the business, and the mainframe is still the right place to host the application. However, it would be very difficult to modify the application to add new functions, and it is straightforward and fast to add new functions on top of the application using modern development tools.

* The company can't afford the cost to replace the legacy system at this time but needs new features and functionality.

Simply taking a green screen and turning it into a graphical-browser screen might look pretty, but where are the business benefits? If a company can easily quantify the solid benefits obtainable from consolidating multiple screens down to a few screens, increasing staff productivity, improving customer satisfaction, and avoiding huge replacement costs, then it will have a winning project.

Mike Kinrys, CMA ( is director, business development at Visionmax Solutions Inc., a systems integration and custom software development firm.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Society of Management Accountants of Canada
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Author:Kinrys, Mike
Publication:CMA Management
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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