An approach to settling technical debt in your application portfolio

A small summary of some key aspects in the approach to fixing the technical debt in your legacy application portfolio.


Risks of old technology in your software portfolio typically are:

  • The development and operations teams have little or no knowledge of the old technologies and/or programming languages.
  • Program sources have not been compiled for decades; modern compiler can not handle the old program sources without (significant) updates*.
  • Source code for runtime programs is missing, or the version of the source code is not in line with the version of the runtime. The old technology to do static calls (meaning, including every called program statically in the runtime module) makes things even more unreliable.
  • Programs use deprecated or undocumented low level interfaces, making every technology upgrade a risky operation for breaking these interfaces.

A business case for an project to update your legacy applications

  • A quick assessment of the technical debt in your application portfolio, in technical terms (what technologies), and in volume (how many programs).
  • An assessment of the technical debt against the business criticality and application lifecycle of the applications involved.
  • An assessment of the technical knowledge gap in your teams in the area of the technical debt.

Then, how to approach a legacy renovation project:

Take an inventory of your legacy. With the inventory, for every application make explicit what the business risk is, in context of the expected application lifecycle and the criticality of the application. Clean up everything that is not used. Migrate application that are strategic.

Make an inventory of the artefacts in your application portfolio:

  • Source code: what old technology source program do you have in your source code management tools.
  • Load module: what load modules do you have in our runtime environment,  in which libraries do these reside.
  • Runtime usage: what load modules are actually used, and by which batch jobs, or application servers.

Consult the business owners of the applications. You may find they do not even realize that they own the application, or that there is such a risk in their application. The application owner then must decide to invest in updating the application, expedite the retirement of the application, or accept the risk in the application. In highly regulated environments, and for business critical applications in general, the risks described above are seldomly acceptable.

Next, unclutter your application portfolio. Artefact that are not used anymore must be removed from the operational tools, throughout the entire CI/CD pipeline. It is ok to move things to some archive, but they must be physically removed from your source code management tools, your runtime libraries, from your asset management tools, and from any other supporting tool your may have. 

Then, do the technical migration for the remaining applications. If the number of applications that must be updated is high, you often see that organisation set up a “migration factory”.  This team is combination of business and technical expertise, that develops tools and methodologies for the required technology migrations. Remark here is that experience shows that more than 50% of the effort of such migrations will be in testing, and may be more if test environments and test automation for applications do not exist.

*Most compilers in the 1990s required modifications to the source programs to be compile-able. The runtime modules of the old compiler however, remained functioning. Many sites choose not to invest in the recompilation and testing effort.Nowadays we accept we have to modify our code when a new version of our compiler or runtime becomes available. For Java for example, this has always been a pain in the back, which is accepted. For the mainframe, backwards compatibility has always been a strong principle. Which has it’s advantages, but certainly also it disadvantages. The disadvantage of being an obstacle for technological progress, or in other words, the building up of technical debt, is often severely underestimated.

Go fix it while it ain’t broken yet

Reg Harbeck wrote an excellent article in Destination z, Overcoming IBM Z Inertia, in which encourages IBM Z (mainframe) users to take action on modernizing their mainframe.

The path of action Harbeck describes is to assign new mainframers (RePro’s) with the task to find and document what the current mainframe solutions in place are expected to do, and to work with the organisation to see what needs to retired, replaced or contained.

In other words task a new generation with the mainframe portfolio renewal, and not leave this to the old generation, who are “surviving until they retire while rocking the boat as little as possible” (hard words from Harbeck but it is time to get people in action).

In additional to the general approach Harbeck describes I think it is important to assure senior management support on a level as high as possible. Doing so you prevent that the priority of this program is too easily watered down by day-to-day priorities and you assure perceived or real “impossibilities” and roadblocks are moved out of the way resolutely. So:

  • Make modernization a senior management priority. Separate it organizationally from task from the KSOR (Keep the Show On the Road) activities, to make sure modernization priorities compete as little as possible with KSOR activities.
  • Appoint a senior management and senior technical exec with a strong Z affiliation to mentor and support and guide the young team from a organisational and strategic perspective.
  • Have a forward thinking, strong and respected senior mainframe specialist  support the team, with education and coaching (not to do it for them).

It will be an investment and, according to the “survivors” never be as efficient as before, but one very important thing it will be: fit for the future.

Technical debt and the case for Continuous Renovation

Technical debt is a well-understood concept. And a well-ignored topic.

We prefer to build new stuff, with new technologies. Which we are sure will replace the old stuff.

While you may borrow time by writing quick (and dirty) code, you are building up debt. Eventually have to pay back — with interest. (There’s a high interest on quick and dirty code)

Making changes to the code becomes more and more cumbersome.

Business change becomes more and more difficult.

Therefore: continuous renovation is a business concern.

Organisations run into serious trouble if they continue ignoring technical debt, and building new stuff and neglecting the old stuff becomes the organisational habit.

Techies like new stuff, but they also warn you for the old stuff still out there. You see them often getting frustrated with (too) pragmatic business or project management pushing away the renovation needs.

Continuous Renovation should be part of an IT organisation’s Continous Delivery and application lifecycle management practice.

But making a choice for renovation requires courage. It is totally unsexy. You have to look beyond your horizon. Hence the term Legacy.

The alternative is a monstrous project every so many years to free an organisation from the concrete shoes of unmaintainable applications.

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