The Hazards of Legacy Systems

Being the owner of a software system with a dedicated customer base sounds like the kind of position one would like to find themselves in. At least until it gets superseded and you have to face dealing with a legacy system.

Many developers have a strong dislike of legacy systems and consider them problematic for a variety of different reasons.

Reliance on Antiquated Hardware

Software running on antiquated hardware can rapidly become a heavy expense, potentially going so far as to outweigh the cost of replacing both of the software or hardware elements. If some form of emulation or backwards compatibility allows the use of new hardware, this cost can be minimised.

Deterioration of Retained Knowledge

As staff rotate through, it can become increasingly difficult to maintain and expand from a lack of understanding of the system. Staff who were considered experts have retired or moved on. New staff entering the field since the transition to legacy won’t get to experience it in the first place. Documentation will, of course, assist in filling the gaps, but even the most detailed documents will not quite make up for the first-hand experience.

Holes in Security

There are a lot of vulnerabilities that can arise from legacy systems. Older operating systems and applications can suffer from a lack of security patches as support eases. Production configurations of these operating systems can also contribute to security concerns. Both of these factors and more have a hand in putting legacy systems at risk of being compromised.

When New Meets Old

You have to consider the issue of integration. Integrating with other systems is part and parcel of software development, but ensuring successful communication between older and newer technologies can be incredibly difficult.

Fixing Bugs Can Cause More Problems

The biggest concern for many developers is the greatly increased risk of introducing more problems during the process of bug fixing or making enhancements. In many cases, problems will manifest themselves in areas outside of where changes have been made and can be easy to overlook.

As part of our experience as a company, we know first hand just how troublesome having to deal with a legacy system can be. However, we also know that it isn’t impossible as the guide below will demonstrate.

Updating A Legacy System Guide to Avoid Disaster

  • Impact analysis – what else could be affected? Are the possible consequences worth the advantages of the change?
  • Test the system before you do anything – make sure that you completely know the behaviour of the current system before you do anything. That way you avoid chasing your tail looking for a problem that you think you’ve introduced but is in fact a feature of the system.

  • Source control – make sure you have everything saved that will enable you to return to the current build should a disaster occur.

  • Review the proposed changes – walk through the changes before doing anything. Two heads are better than one, especially one that has been bashed against a wall of old, poorly documented code!

  • Change carefully – make sure that you are not overwriting data areas, mark all changes, check uniqueness of new variable names, understand inputs and outputs.

  • Test the change thoroughly – make sure the change is robust and provides the required functionality.

  • Regression test – make sure that the old functionality still works correctly. This is tedious and may have been done several times over the lifetime of the system. Automation will help.

  • Document – you’re not writing an essay, just some notes to help the next person that will have to change things. It may well be you! Write down what you were trying to do, what you actually did, was the existing documentation any good and what you managed to find out. Eventually, these notes will be better than the original document