Is it time to move on from legacy technology?

Digital transformation has crossed an important threshold. Now more organisations have shifted their focus from planning digital transformation projects to actually implementing them, digital architects and developers have to ensure they can meet the demands of today’s digital age.

Yet there are challenges. Many organisations still have to scale back on their ambitions because of the constraints presented by legacy systems and infrastructures. According to a 2019 survey, 60 percent of enterprises say IT teams spend too much time on digital transformation projects because of legacy technologies, and 86 percent believe a reliance on legacy technology has prevented them from venturing into new digital services.

So if legacy technology is such an issue, why do so many still use it? And how can organisations successfully transform their digital capabilities by either replacing or updating existing legacy tech?

Built for comfort?
Legacy technologies can be compared to an old, fraying pair of jeans that are nonetheless comfortable and have been worn for years. You know that eventually they will be unwearable. But until that time, they’re quite possibly some of the most comfortable clothes you own, and do their job perfectly. Similarly, legacy technology will often provide an essential task to the business, one that the organisation is highly comfortable with. Essentially, it will work perfectly until the exact time it isn’t fit for purpose any more.

Huw Owen, Head of EMEA & APJ at Couchbase

Identifying this time is the challenge. Many organisations were built on a foundation of legacy hardware and applications, and it can be difficult to part ways with tried, tested and trusted technology. However, eventually the needs of the business, and the capabilities of more modern technology, will stretch beyond what legacy can offer. At this point, the organisation needs to be ready to make the change – or begin to suffer by holding onto increasingly outdated technology.

Building a graph
Where exactly this point lies depends on the organisation. Some might need to make a change immediately, or already be behind the curve. Others could continue for some time without the need to change. For instance, if legacy technology is running critical business processes that perform perfectly; is supported by skilled teams who have an in-depth knowledge built up over years of experience and potentially writing millions of lines of code; and would ultimately be more expensive to replace than to continue using – especially given the need to ensure services are always available and there is no risk of data loss – then it makes sense for the business to stick with what it knows.

However, at the same time organisations have to be wary of the sunk cost fallacy. Just because technology has had a lot of finances, time and resources invested in it to date, doesn’t mean that this should continue indefinitely. There will come a time when the total cost of legacy systems – in terms of maintenance, management and missed opportunities from not having the right technology in place to pursue digital projects – will outweigh the cost of upgrading.

Making the move
Whether an organisation’s crossover point is far in the future or near at hand, it needs to prepare. The first step is calculating exactly when the crossover point will be – it may be that it is already in the past, in which case urgent action is critical. The organisation then needs to know how long any transformation will take, especially if it is to be done carefully enough to avoid any disruption to essential services. A vital factor in this is knowing what will replace the legacy technology. If the enterprise plans to move services to cloud architecture, the actual process may be much faster than procuring on-premises infrastructure. Similarly, if teams need to re-skill to learn the new technology this also has to be factored in. Understanding these timings will give the enterprise a marker for when it has to be ready to begin transformation – and then allow it to begin planning and choosing its replacement technology, regardless of whether it has months or years to prepare.

Is it the end of the line for legacy?
The fact is legacy technology is not going to completely disappear overnight, or even any time soon. In many places, it is simply too embedded, and performing too well. For instance, according to an IBM study, 92 of the world’s top 100 banks still rely on mainframes to process large volumes of transactions. Over time, organisations will migrate to newer technologies, but these migration efforts require highly thought-out and careful migration, training and infrastructure plans.

The key to a successful transition from legacy technology is not to remove the core capabilities for your business, or to make existing skills obsolete overnight, but to carefully plan the adoption of a modern system, that closely matches the needs of the business and will result in a competitive edge.


Huw Owen

Head of EMEA & APJ at Couchbase


Scroll to Top