Avoiding the Legacy of the Future

Kerrie Holley is a software architect and IBM Fellow. The title of IBM Fellow is not won easily. They are a group that includes a Kyoto Prize winner and five Nobel Prize winners, they have fostered some of the IBM company’s most stunning technical breakthroughs―from the Fortran computing language to the systems that helped put the first man on the moon to the Scanning Tunneling Microscope, the first instrument to image atoms. These are people that are big thinkers and don’t shy away from tackling some of the worlds wicked problems.

Listening to Kerrie give an inspirational talk called New Era of Computing at an IBM event recently I was struck by a comment he made which is exactly the kind of hard question I would expect an IBM Fellow to make. It was:

The challenge we have is to avoid the legacy of the future. How do we avoid applications becoming an impediment to business change?

Estimates vary, but it is reckoned that most organizations spend between 70% and 80% on maintenance and only 30% to 20% on innovation. When 80% of a companies IT budget is being spent in just keeping the existing systems running then how are they to deploy new capabilities that keep them competitive? That, by any measure, is surely an “impediment to business change”. So, what to do? Here are a few things that might help avoid the legacy of the future and show how we as architects can play our part in addressing the challenge posed in Kerrie’s question.

  1. Avoid (or reduce) technical debt. Technical debt is what you get when you release not-quite-right code out into the world. Every minute spent on not-quite-right code counts as interest on that debt. Entire engineering organizations can be brought to a stand-still under the debt load of an error-prone deployment. Reducing the amount of technical debt clearly reduces the amount of money you have to spend on finding and patching buggy code. Included here is code that is “buggy” because it is not doing what was intended of it. The more you can do to ensure “right-first-time” deployments the lower your maintenance costs and the more of your budget you’ll have to spend on innovation rather than maintenance. Agile is one tried and tested approach to ensuring better, less buggy code that meets the original requirements but traditionally agile has only focused on a part of the software delivery lifecycle, the development part. DevOps uses the best of the agile approach but extends that into operations. DevOps works by engaging and aligning all participants in the software delivery lifecycle — business teams; architects, developers, and testers; and IT operations and production — around a single, shared goal: sustained innovation, fueled by continuous delivery and shaped by continuous feedback.
  2. Focus on your differentiators. It’s tempting for CIOs and CTOs to think all of the technology they use is somehow going to give them that competitive advantage and must therefore be bespoke or at least highly customised packages. This means more effort in supporting those systems once they are deployed. Better is to focus on those aspects of the business’ IT which truly give real business advantage and focus IT budget on those. For the rest use COTS packages or put as much as possible into the cloud and standardise as much as possible. One of the implications of standardisation is that your business needs to change to match the systems you use rather than the other way around. This can often be a hard pill for a business to swallow as they think their processes are unique. Rarely is this the case however so recognising this and adopting standard processes is a good way of freeing up IT time and budget to focus on stuff that really is novel.
  3. Adopt open standards and componentisation. Large monolithic packages which purport to do everything, with appropriate levels of customisation, are not only expensive to build in the first place are likely to be more expensive to run as they cannot easily be updated in a piecemeal fashion. If you want to upgrade the user interface or open up the package to different user channels it may be difficult if interfaces are not published or packages themselves do not have replaceable parts. Very often you may have to replace the whole package or wait for the vendor to come up with the updates. Building applications from a mix of COTS and bespoke components and services which talk through an open API allows more of a mix and match approach to procuring and operating business systems. It also makes it easier to retire services that are no longer required or used. The term API economy is usually used to refer to how a business can expose its business functions (as APIs) to external parties however there is no reason why an internal API economy should not exist. This allows for the ability to quickly subscribe to or unsubscribe to business functionality making business more agile by driving a healthy competition for business function.

Businesses will always need to devote some portion of their IT budget to “keeping the lights on” however there is no reason why, with the adoption of one of more of these practices, the split between maintenance and innovation budgets should not be a more 50:50 one than the current highly imbalanced 70:30 or worse!

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