IT infrastructures are often a complex web of new and legacy systems. With various strengths and vulnerabilities, mixed setups can create major challenges within a company’s technology landscape. Just as with financial debt — where loans require interest payments — technical debt reflects the implied cost of additional rework due to employing easy, immediate solutions, rather than sustainable and thorough (but more time-consuming) options. Legacy systems can contribute to a range of pressing concerns for enterprises, including security risks, business inefficiencies and high maintenance costs. Technical debt tends to be a bigger issue for legacy systems because they often lack proper documentation, have outdated technologies, and may have undergone numerous patches and modifications over time, making it harder to understand and maintain.
This trade-off between short-term gains and long-term consequences of technical debt can sometimes be necessary in the fast-paced and competitive landscape of software development and business operations. But it will inevitably become a problem if you don’t make an investment to fix it.
Let’s explore the impact of technical debt in legacy systems on businesses when left unchecked.
Technical Debt in Legacy Systems
While technical debt can occur unintentionally due to a lack of knowledge, outdated practices or insufficient understanding of future requirements, it can also be an intentional choice. Intentional technical debt happens when a team knowingly takes shortcuts — perhaps to hit a tight deadline, prioritize short-term goals, allocate resources to other critical tasks or release a new feature — but plan to fix it later.
Technical debt in legacy systems, however, differs from newer systems in several key aspects. This is primarily due to the age, architecture and technologies involved.
With rapidly advancing technology, newer systems require an architecture that adequately accounts for future expansion or changes. Newer systems may accrue technical debt quickly if the development is rushed to meet market demands, leading to shortcuts. In addition, agile development methodologies can lead to technical debt when changes in requirements are not managed carefully, resulting in reworking previous solutions.
On the other hand, technical debt in legacy systems is often characterized by:
Age and Obsolescence
Legacy systems often have a significant accumulation of technical debt due to their age. Over time, original design decisions become outdated, leading to difficulties in maintenance and integration with modern systems.
Lack of Documentation and Expertise
Documentation may be incomplete, outdated or lost over time. The experts who originally built the system may no longer be available, making understanding and resolving issues more challenging.
Since they are built on outdated technologies, legacy systems are harder to modify without breaking existing functionality. This brittleness can lead to problems as quick fixes are piled onto the system.
Older systems may not play well with modern APIs, services and protocols, leading to complex workarounds.
Regardless of the age of the system, managing technical debt requires a proactive approach. This includes regular assessment, prioritization of issues, refactoring, and, when necessary, investing in more substantial revisions.
What Unresolved Technical Debt Means For Your Business
Technical debt can be detrimental because it accumulates over time, leading to increased costs and complexity in maintenance and updates. Additionally, it hampers system flexibility, performance and security, making it harder to adapt to evolving business needs and technological advancements.
Making a decision to address technical debt is crucial in a business setting for several reasons:
The expense of running legacy systems often outweighs the cost of modernizing both software and hardware. Investing in outdated technology is also inefficient, as it will never achieve the same performance quality as new systems.
Product Quality and Reliability
Systems riddled with technical debt often have more bugs, long load times and lagging issues. This often adversely affects employee productivity, creating hiccups and delays that make processes inefficient.
Agility and Competitiveness
Businesses need to be able to react quickly to market changes, and legacy systems limit this flexibility. Reducing technical debt allows a business to be more agile, making it easier to implement new features, adapt to new technologies, or pivot strategies when necessary.
Legacy systems can be demoralizing for employees, particularly for developers burdened by the constant need to address issues arising from past decisions. Reducing technical debt can improve morale, help retain talent and foster an environment that encourages innovation and stays ahead of the competition.
As businesses grow, their systems need to scale accordingly. Legacy systems hinder scalability by creating a fragile infrastructure that cannot handle increased load or expanded functionality. In addition, older systems don’t integrate well with new software. These incompatibilities may lead to task and data duplication and employing more disparate systems than would otherwise be necessary.
Legacy systems can pose significant risks, including security vulnerabilities, system outages and data loss. Furthermore, they lack advanced security features such as firewalls and encryption. They may also not be compatible with the latest security protocols.
Poor Support and Compliance
Legacy systems, particularly older ones, often lack manufacturer support due to discontinuation of sales. While third-party support may be available, it tends to diminish over time as technology becomes obsolete. Additionally, compliance with regulations becomes challenging with outdated technology, as older systems typically are not equipped to meet new compliance standards.
How You Can Mitigate Technical Debt in Legacy Systems
Addressing technical debt is about building a resilient foundation for your business. It’s an investment in the future, ensuring the systems supporting your business are robust, secure and adaptable to the ever-changing landscape of technology and market demands.
Consider these strategic best practices to reduce or avoid the buildup of technical debt in your legacy systems.
1. Conduct a Thorough Assessment
Take inventory of and document all your current legacy systems, including software versions, customizations and dependencies. Identify areas where technical debt exists, such as outdated code, lack of documentation or known performance issues. From here, your team can assess the risks of each and prioritize them based on their impact on the business.
2. Develop a Strategic Plan
Define what you aim to achieve by mitigating technical debt, whether it’s improved performance, compatibility, security or maintainability. Then, outline a step-by-step plan for addressing each priority, including the necessary budget, personnel, timelines and milestones.
3. Refactor and Modernize
Improve the existing codebase by restructuring and optimizing code without changing its external behavior. Where appropriate, replace outdated components with modern, more efficient technologies. You may also want to consider an incremental approach to modernization, updating one system or component at a time to minimize disruption.
4. Improve Documentation and Knowledge Sharing
Ensure all code changes and architecture decisions are well-documented for future reference. Encourage knowledge sharing between senior and junior developers — and consider hiring or consulting with experts like Growth Acceleration Partners who have a lot of expertise in working with legacy systems.
5. Implement Automated Testing
Develop comprehensive test suites for the legacy system to ensure changes do not introduce new bugs. Use continuous integration tools to automatically run tests, helping to catch issues early.
6. Regularly Reassess and Adapt
Set and enforce coding standards to keep the codebase clean and maintainable. Regularly review code quality and the progress of technical debt reduction efforts.
Build a Strong, Flexible Technological Core with GAP
The technology that propelled your business initially might not suffice for your future growth ambitions. Legacy systems built on outdated infrastructure limit your capacity to meet evolving usiness needs and can expose you to significant cybersecurity risks. Proactively addressing these systems through modernization not only safeguards your current operations, but also sets the foundation for ongoing success.
To be successful, you need a strong, flexible technological core that keeps up with the demands of the modern business landscape — and at GAP, we can help.
GAP specializes in custom software and data solutions to fast-track your digital transformation. We provide technology consulting to prioritize your business outcomes and support tech teams in expanding quickly when they need extra knowledge or resources. GAP’s legacy application modernization can help you boost efficiency, improve data security and reduce business costs.
Chat with an expert today.