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October 4, 2005 5:39 pm

Optimise your legacy

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Anyone looking for a museum of old computer systems need look no further than the office of HVB Americas.

Many of the celebrated computer technologies of recent years are still toiling away in the server rooms of the New York based bank.

There are systems running Windows NT, Unix, old z/OS mainframes, even the venerable AS/400 is represented. And these systems link up to additional technology platforms in other group offices and partners.

It is not unusual for companies to be running applications which have been more or less unchanged for 15 years. Many run IT projects on old mainframe systems which have been around for twice that long.

In most cases, these systems have cost millions to develop and work extremely well. So there is no reason to replace them.

HVB Americas wanted to modernise its systems and embrace the benefits of up to date technology but its old applications worked fine, and replacing them all at once would be too expensive.

“We were not going to be able to change our legacy applications,” says Christopher Wrenn, chief operating officer at HVB Americas.

To get the most from the old kit, he looked to a very new buzzword – service oriented architecture (SOA), using technology from SeeBeyond (recently acquired by Sun Microsystems).

“We have always been working with legacy applications and that becomes a lot easier with SOA. It helps keep costs under control and significantly improves time to market,” says Mr Wrenn.

SOA basically seeks to divide an organisation’s IT systems into separate parts, based upon the business functions they are designed to support. These then connect to each other using standardised interfaces.

Almost every leading enterprise software vendor now supports this way of building systems.

But many organisations find themselves using SOA to get more out of their existing investments.

“The need to exploit existing assets and resources more efficiently is one of the key drivers behind SOA,” says Neil Macehiter, partner at IT advisory firm Macehiter Ward-Dutton.

Integrating a decades-old application into an SOA framework is relatively straightforward. The IT department just has to build an interface to make the legacy application’s data available in a standardised format that other SOA-compliant systems can understand.

It then becomes a simple matter to take that information and make it available to other applications within the organisation, and beyond.

For example, the Ridder-kerk municipality in the Netherlands decided that all its services should be available to citizens from a single inquiries desk, and ultimately by telephone and internet.

This meant connecting into a single desktop 300 computer applications, some of which had been around for years. The planning approval system, based on an Oracle database, dated back to 1990.

The ideal may be to re-place everything, but that wasn’t possible. “If I had suggested replacing all our applications, they would have kept the applications and replaced me,” says Rene Hoogendoorn, Ridderkerk IT manager.

By connecting all these systems to a new desktop using Oracle technology, Ridderkerk was able to deliver the services it hoped for at much lower cost.

Of course, SOA is not an alternative to replacing those old systems altogether. Maintaining older systems is expensive, and people who understand these ancient technologies are hard to come by.

But using SOA allows organisations to manage their upgrades at a pace which suits them, and complete the upgrade in small, easy steps. Once an organisation has built its systems around SOA, it becomes easier to replace one part without disturbing the others.

“Upgrading your systems can be like trying to change the tyres while you’re going down the highway,” says Tom Rosamilia, vice-president at IBM, a leading seller of SOA technology.

“With SOA, you can break the task down into chewable chunks.”

Nielsen Media Research, which provides audience data for US television stations, is counting on this. Their core data is stored on old systems, running Unix and z/OS.

By integrating these with SOA technology from Systinet, it can make this data available to over 15 different reporting tools, giving their clients a greater range of products and increasing their own sales agents' up-selling and cross-selling opportunities.

Over the next few years, Nielsen hopes to swap the existing systems for a less expensive system, running Linux.

"That is easier to do once you have Java and SOA in place," says Robert Stevenson, technology strategist at Nielsen Media Research.

The idea of building a computer system in separate modules isn’t new – people have been talking about it for 40 years. But with the rise of SOA, and its emphasis on standardised interfaces, more and more organisations are succeeding in making this rhetoric a reality. The rise of SOA shows how much enterprise computing has changed since the turn of the century.

Back then, companies couldn’t buy new technology fast enough. Nowadays, one of the biggest selling points of the new, new thing is that it helps the old, old things work harder.

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