At Some Point, Legacy Software Doesn’t Work

YOUNGSTOWN – In the 15 years Robert Merva has run his IT company, Avrem Technologies, one piece of old equipment stands out.

When doing some consulting work about five years ago, he met a customer who used an IBM server. The equipment had first been installed in the early 1980s and hadn’t been updated since.

Such extreme cases are rare, IT professionals say, but the use of legacy software isn’t.

Merva defines such software as platforms that either are no longer supported by manufacturers or that are at least two updates behind current patches, “whichever is worse,” he says. When he analyzes a customer’s computer systems, he finds that older software doesn’t necessarily rank near the top of concerns to address.

“If you look at something like Quickbooks, a company in 2021 using the 2017 edition is considered to be using legacy software. Is that the most egregious violation of software practices? No, I don’t think so,” he says. “Unless you’re doing payroll or some sort of tax integration where you need the most updated forms, Quickbooks doesn’t really change that much.”

There are several reasons companies stick with out-of-date software, says Advanced Technology Partners CEO Justin White. It usually boils down to some combination of cost, time and the idea that if it’s not broken, there’s no reason to fix it.

Today, using software frequently requires a monthly subscription and for companies that years ago bought the license to a platform, adding in the new cost can be dissuasive.

“Companies can have legacy software that they love and if they can have it run, they’re happy to do it,” White says. “Otherwise, they have to change their workflow to a new system and pay for it on a monthly basis.”

There’s also the time it takes to migrate data from one piece of software to another – data plugged into legacy software doesn’t always cooperate well with more modern platforms – and getting employees trained on the new workflow. If a worker has used one platform for, say, a decade, changing that muscle memory isn’t always easy.

“It’s going to take time not just to figure out what system you’re going to, but also to implement that system,” says Ralph Blanco, CEO of Executive Computer Management Solutions Inc. “If you’re worried about productivity, how do you stop your system for a week to get everything how you want it?” he asks. “And you have to trust the information that’s coming out of it. Sometimes the two have to run parallel, which is additional man-hours.”

Most often, information technology providers say, legacy software remains in place because it serves a specific industry or purpose.

Merva points to software that uses coding language COBOL, which is used primarily in the banking and financial industry, while Blanco says manufacturers often have dedicated software to control their machines that isn’t always the latest and greatest.

“It’s usually things that are industry specific, like an insurance company or grocery store. When it’s something made for their specific industry, we see that people get into a software and they like it,” Advanced Technology Partners’ White says. “Even if it runs out of support, they use it long-term.”

The biggest danger in sticking with legacy software, Blanco says, is the risk that it stops working.

“[If] you start losing functionality, then what do you do? You don’t want to wait until you can’t use it. How long does it take to replace your system if it breaks?” he asks. “That’s not done in 24 hours. There’s so much planning involved. To fully migrate, it can take months, up to a year.”

There are also cybersecurity risks involved in sticking with older software. If a piece of software is on a computer running on Windows XP – which hasn’t been updated by Microsoft since April 2019 – then it’s vulnerable to hacking.

“It may only run on Windows XP and it can’t be upgraded because it just won’t work. That’s extremely dangerous because now you’re holding back the entire company’s progress and security over one piece of software,” Merva says, noting that the risk is reduced if the computer isn’t connected to the rest of the network.

Beyond that, legacy software is often harder to maintain because much of it runs on closed-source code, meaning that only the team who created it knows how the program runs. If a manufacturer no longer supports the software, then there’s no way to fix problems or update the security.

Advanced Technology Partners has secured a niche, White says, in custom development to address such problems.

“We’re taking a customer’s legacy software, reviewing it and putting it into a newer, supported program that we have the source code to,” he says. “That way, they can keep their workflow and integrate all their old data but have it fully supported and secure.”

While their companies don’t offer that service, Merva and Blanco say that unless the function of that software is very specific in what it needs to accomplish, off-the-shelf software often can be customized to suit a company’s needs.

“In 15 years of doing this, I’ve never met a client who truly, desperately needed custom software. It’s almost always going to take longer and be more expensive,” Merva says. “With the [company size] we’re dealing with, there’s virtually always an off-the-shelf product.”

What’s encouraging for the IT providers is that the discussions around updating software often go smoothly. When they explain to customers why they need to update their software, there’s not much pushback on changing things.

“More people are open to moving into new technology – especially with the cloud being available – than they were 10 years ago,” Blanco says. “In our area, in the last five years people have really progressed in adapting technology. It was looked at as a commodity. But now it’s part of their business. It’s no different than paying their electric bill. It’s a key function that helps make them successful.”