Tech

A Beginners Guide to Legacy Systems

We all have dealt with slow systems at least once in our lives, either at our homes, at our universities or work. We all have gone through the phase when our computers got stuck in the middle of an important task or our favourite application hung and the only option left was to restart it.

Have you ever wondered why this happened or still happens? Well, if you did and couldn’t find your answer or are generally interested to know, you are at the right place!

Through this article, we will try to solve this mystery as we first explore what is a legacy system. We will also look at its drawbacks and discuss why they are still in use. And lastly, we will look at some examples of legacy technology. We assure you that this will be an interesting read for you.

So let’s get started!


What is a Legacy System?

A legacy system is an obsolete computer system, programming language, software application, process or technology that can no longer be maintained, replaced or easily updated. It certainly does not mean that the legacy system is not in good working condition. Many organisations or companies still find these systems essential to their daily work. Though, it depends upon the individual or the organisation to either upgrade or replace it.

what is a legacy system
What is a legacy system?

According to the definition of legacy systems mentioned above, legacy system is a very broad term and can be applied to many systems out there.  In this article, our focus will be limited to legacy software only.

So, how to tell if the software is a legacy software or not?

Usually, a software is considered a legacy software when it is older than ten years. The following factors contribute to determining a system as a legacy:

  • The system no longer supports the multiple software that an organisation or company requires
  • The skills required to support the system are no longer available in the market or, in other words, have become obsolete
  • The cost for maintenance of the legacy software is usually high as compared to that of modern software
  • The performance becomes slower
  • It cannot be extended or upgraded
  • It takes longer than usual for maintenance
  • It is unable to handle a large number of users

But to our surprise, these systems despite being unreliable are still widely used by many organisations.


Why are Legacy Systems Still Used?

Believe it or not, many organisations and/or businesses still use legacy technology even when they can choose to migrate to the latest technology. But the important question is why do they still use it?

difference between legacy system and a new system
Difference between legacy system and a new system

There is this famous saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Hence, legacy systems are still used because they get the work done.  Most of the legacy systems are so old that no one knows on what specifications do they work. Therefore, many organisations either do not bother to disturb the process or prefer not to introduce a new technology altogether.

So whenever you see software or a system still in use despite it being old, do not judge the organisation or the company right away. But do think about the uses which we have listed below:

Change is Not Good

As we briefly discussed above, many organisations do not prefer change. Hence, they barely switch to new systems. Also, changing their systems means providing training to the users, which might cost them both time and money. Moreover, chances are that the users might resist change. Therefore, many organisations resort to legacy technology as long as it serves their current needs.

windows xp as an example of a legacy system
Windows XP as an example of a legacy system

For example, Windows XP was first introduced in 2001 and was widely used by a lot of users globally. In 2014, Microsoft ended its support for Windows XP and launched newer versions of it. However, Windows XP is still used, if not widely. The main reason is that the users cannot afford to upgrade their systems or are not ready for change.

Tailor-made Software

Most of the legacy software is customised according to the organisation’s needs at the time of development. The company may have hired a bespoke software development company to develop software that would function for a long period of time without requiring major changes.

meeting between a client and a developer for custom software development
Meeting between a client and a developer for custom software development

Since organisations customise their software, which eventually becomes part of legacy technology, therefore it can provide the organisation with a competitive advantage over others. Hence, we still see the software functioning well even after 6-7 years. Of course, they need timely maintenance.

Bridging Older Technology with the Newer Ones

Legacy systems are still in use because there are different types of software available that bridge the gap between older technologies with the newer ones.

bridging older technology with the newer one
Bridging older technology with the newer one

They do so by providing a framework on which newer versions are developed to continue the legacy of older technology which might not exist but act as a precedent.

Reliable

When we talk about change, we also implicitly refer to the reliability aspect. For many organisations, the durability and reliability of software or a system are of utmost importance. Because they have been using the software for a while, which has now become a legacy. They are afraid to test out a new system or software because they are skeptical of the  new technology not working as robustly as their old legacy software did.

legacy system is reliable
Legacy system is reliable

With the legacy software, they already know how to handle it and hence there is predictability to how the software will react in different circumstances. Most importantly, they feel at ease when using a well-known software or system rather than familiarising themselves with the new one.


What is an Example of a Legacy System?

So far, we have understood what legacy technology is, but to make it easy for you, let us explain it through an interesting example.

You must have heard about NASA’s Space Shuttle program, which was an Earth-to-orbit spaceflight. Initiated in 1972, through Space Shuttles, NASA used to transport cargo and crew members to the International Space Station. The program was based on multiple legacy software but mainly on Flight Analysis and Design System (FADS).

nasa’s space shuttle program
NASA’s Space Shuttle Program

NASA’s Space Shuttle Program was developed with an aim of 10 years of operational life. Even though the program retired in 2010, it worked on the same software during those 10 years rather than upgrading to the newer one.

According to research on the use of legacy systems in space exploration, legacy software can only be reused if an organisation is capable of the following, which increases the reliability and quality of the software:

  • Verification
  • Validation
  • Testing
  • Operational history

These must be incorporated in SDLC phases such as

  • Development
  • Implementation
  • Usage
  • Maintenance

Here are a few additional examples of legacy software that you might be interested to know about:

  • The traffic signals that we follow are still based on legacy technology.
  • US Military, Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment and Airbus still use DEC manufactured PDP minicomputers which were developed in the 1970s.
  • Banks still function on legacy technology. Whenever you transfer your money, the transaction happens through a legacy platform.
  • COBOL programming language is still used in many software even though it is an outdated language.
  • Worldwide, sales terminals at various marts still use Intel 286 computers because the software might not work in advance computers.

Let’s Have a Recap!

To summarise what legacy technology is, it is an outdated technology, which does not support the modern-day needs of the businesses or organisations. Why do some people still depend on these systems? Because they are accustomed to it and hardly will ever switch to the latest option.

It is entirely up to you whether you opt to keep using legacy technology or not. This decision depends on your requirements. We cannot completely rule them out since they are still useful in many ways such as being reliable, cost-effective, customisable and most importantly, they get your work done! Yet, we cannot also deny the fact that these do not meet the modern-day requirements.

Let us know what is your take on legacy technology and this entire debate of keeping them or not. Leave your comments or reach out to us via email. We will be glad to know your thoughts on this crucial debate.

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Michelle Allan

The author Michelle Allan

Michelle Allan – 24-year-old digital marketer | Instagram enthusiast | Passionate photographer | Guilty pleasure: Sappy rom-coms

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