Vendors convene to examine legacy apps modernization

A number of vendors focusing on the modernization of legacy systems gathered last Friday for a seminar on the technologies underlying what is becoming a key part of the industry-wide push toward enabling applications as Web services.

Hosted by the local organization Club de Investigacion Technologica SA (Technology Research Club), the seminar follows the club's recent publication of a report on legacy software transformation.

Sponsored by hometown migration services company Artinsoft SA and written by researcher Declan Good, the report examines the pros and cons of transforming legacy applications by revamping and extending them to take advantage of modern platforms. More comprehensive than a rewrite but less drastic, although not necessarily less expensive, than replacement, software transformation aims to keep existing business processes intact while "future-proofing" aging applications.

Often, transformation projects also involve adding new functionality to applications to make them accessible as Web services, available to users via Internet browsers and to other applications that support standards such as XML (Extensible Markup Language).

Good's report, available in English and Spanish at http://www.cit.co.cr/reportes.html, also examines the steps involved in a software transformation project, and includes an overview of some available tools for automating parts of the process.

A desire to bring together vendors and services providers in the fairly small software transformation market was a catalyst for the conference, said Club de Investigacion Technologica President Roberto Sasso.

"After we commissioned (Good's) report, it became apparent there's a lack of understanding, even among suppliers," Sasso said. "There seemed to be a lot of value in getting them together and bringing them together with the local business community, to expose them to these issues."

Representatives of organizations including IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., Artinsoft and standardization support body Object Management Group spoke at the seminar about the importance of updating legacy applications and tools available for doing so.

"Doing nothing about a legacy application is an option, but we tend to ignore the do-nothing cost to our business," Good said during a presentation. "You could be down for two days because the database fails. Transformation can make a lot of economic sense."

Sasso drew a comparison with the recent economic collapse in Argentina: "They waited, and the economy went boom," he said. "It's a real analogy. You want to do something before all hell breaks loose."

But manually revamping legacy applications by setting loose teams of conversion coders is a massive task. In the past few years, a market has emerged for software tools to aid in such overhauls, and representatives from several of those vendors pitched their wares at the conference.

IBM touted its J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition)-focused WebSphere Studio development software, while Microsoft made its case for using its .Net technology to underpin updates of old applications and the development of new ones. Most of the conference's presentations, however, came from smaller firms offering point-solution products and services for working with legacy applications.

Although Microsoft's .Net technology is only a few years old, one vendor at the conference is already offering tools for translating .Net-developed applications to Java code for deployment on an array of hardware and systems.

Few companies have so far actually deployed .Net applications, but a lot of development is being done using the technology, said Don Hsi, chief technology officer of Stryon Inc., in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But .Net's critical limitation is that it locks customers in to Microsoft's world, according to Hsi.

".Net is cross-platform. On different flavors of Windows," he joked.

Right now, 90 percent of Stryon's customers are ISVs (independent software vendors) that have developed a .Net application and want to expand their customer base by porting that application to other platforms, he said.

Other vendors at the conference discussed tools and methodologies for more traditional legacy software migrations. Several spoke of the costs and risks of such endeavors; a representative of Belgian cross-platform migration specialist Anubex cited studies estimating the average cost of manual rewrites at US$8 to $20 per line of code.

Automated migration tools can trim those costs significantly, and offer other development time and troubleshooting advantages as well, said Anubex marketing and communications manager Ben Wilson .

Still, any migration project is risky, he noted.

"Once they get started, many companies actually never finish," Wilson said. "We know many companies that have started development projects, and five years later they were still redeveloping the same software. Nothing had been taken into production yet."

One attendee at the conference said he welcomed the chance to network with other vendors handling legacy application migration issues.

Trinity Millennium Group Inc., in San Antonio, Texas, helps organizations that are revamping old applications map out the technical blueprints of their existing software. Too often, companies set out to do an upgrade without any understanding of their current infrastructure's inner workings, said David Garza, Trinity Millennium's president and chief executive officer.

The support industry handling migrations is similarly underprepared, he said.

"Right now, there's no standardization of the business rules extraction process. That's what I'm here to see about," Garza said.

Of the conference's 120 attendees, the majority are from local firms, according to organizer Sasso.

One local IT worker who turned out for the seminar was Carlton Schuyler, a programmer for the software division of Intel Corp.'s office here.

Schuyler came to learn about transformation software, with which he has done little work, and to learn more about local firms such as Artinsoft, he said.

"We've invited them to present before (at Intel)," he said. "So it's good to finally connect with them."

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