The post-pandemic landscape has underscored the need for enterprises to address legacy systems and technical debt, which conflict with the agility, efficiency, and risk posture of the enterprise. Technical debt amassed, in some cases over decades, presents significant barriers to entry for modern cloud-friendly architectures which results in not only portability and data gravity issues, but also in their interoperability and ability to capitalise on modern and innovative market solutions. Legacy systems often fail in their ability to scale rapidly due to demand – whether that be in scaling infrastructure, extending to new geographies, launching new services, and/or rebuilding in secured landing zones to where client interactions need to span trusted and untrusted networks, users and system-to-system access. 

While challenging and time-consuming to address legacy system designs, one should consider the ‘hamster-wheel effect that technical debt has on the organisation. It’s significantly more likely that legacy systems become so highly dependent on organisational-specific infrastructure and specialised heritage enterprise architectures that they require to be treated as special ‘pets’ and cannot capitalise or keep up with the pace of innovation occurring outside of the enterprise. The net result is that features, improvements, and business opportunities all become dependent on the specialised staff that has been caring for and feeding these legacy software ‘pets’ which are tightly coupled to enterprise dependency systems. These tightly coupled interdependencies constrain what is possible from physical placement, deployment, integration, scaling, data management, and access controls. This results in the cost of the enterprise to invest significantly more in capital, resource, and infrastructure just to keep pace with innovation and customer demand.

Enterprises today that struggle with taking advantage of the modern cloud-native architecture and integration patterns face barriers that exist because the existing legacy systems cannot easily be redesigned, replaced, or re-written on newer infrastructure and data platforms. While new systems can be built on the platform and tech stack of their choosing, they often will rely on data or transactional flow from pre-existing business applications. For business systems that have been around for a decade or more may not be so well positioned and have to balance business growth with technology modernisation – succumbing to the adage of “we can do anything, but not everything”.

Another weakness of unmanaged technical debt that has become increasingly apparent in the post-pandemic world is their significant exposure to risks and vulnerabilities…and their ability to react/respond or recover from cyber incidents. It’s no surprise that opportunities for attackers and vulnerable vectors have exploded through the exponential growth of remote working. Heritage systems are not only more likely to have aged out software and libraries in them exposing them to risk, but they also take significantly more effort to maintain as ‘evergreen’. One must consider that it’s not just the architecture that is out of date, or the software components themselves, but HOW the software is maintained and built. Modern application teams have invested significantly more time in DevOps practices and tooling, improving their time-to-market, quality, and efficiency through the use of CI/CD pipeline automation, automated testing, security scanning tools, infrastructure compliance scanning, adaptable software packaging, and deployment automation usually to multiple infrastructure platforms. All of these capabilities empower a modern application team to support their business agility goals through the use of lean processes and efficient tooling.

Given there is no magic wand for digital transformation, the only pragmatic option requires building a process, discipline, and mindset that encapsulates continuous modernisation and ensures that all enterprise and business systems are continuously evaluated for compliance against the firm’s continuously evolving views of acceptable business and technology architecture. Organisations that implement and adopt incremental continuous compliance goals that encapsulate Enterprise Architecture, Security, Operations, and Business Management will be the most successful in building technical agility and lean, cost-effective portfolio management over the lifecycle of their assets.

Some approaches towards keeping a lean technology and infrastructure footprint involve cyclical culling of staff and budget to mechanically keep accounting books in line with financial targets, and whilst those might achieve the desired financial outcome, they tend to disrupt fundamental business goals by impeding growth, reducing service quality, and encouraging higher staff turnover than what can be absorbed by workforce strategy. The unfortunate repercussions of this management choice will make incremental efforts to reduce technical debt significantly harder by reducing the talent pool who understand the legacy systems the best – further extending the hamster-wheel effect and making efficiency, agility, and security goals harder to achieve and are very likely to increase infrastructure bloat and wasted resources.

Given that business and technology goals are entwined, the best performers will achieve their business enablement and agility objectives with proactive and continuous approaches to managing the application portfolio, the enterprise architecture, risk appetite, and current business strategy – whether it be slated for growth, maintenance, or reduction in targeted areas. That level of collaboration across business and technology disciplines is what will continue to define success in the digital age, as it has from the industrial age onwards.

By Chris Zanelli

Chris Zanelli is the Associate Partner at Citihub Digital

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