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Love That 'Legacy'

Like it or not, old code is still around, and it needs special care.

By Gary Anthes
July 4, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld -
Quiz: What is "legacy" software?
a. Cobol/mainframe code
b. Software written before 1990
c. Applications that have become obsolete
d. Poorly documented systems that no one wants to touch
e. Secure, reliable and effective stuff that just keeps running, year after year
Interviews with a number of IT managers turned up all of those definitions, and more.
"Legacy is a word I despise," says Frank da Cruz, an IT manager at Columbia University in New York. "People say 'legacy' and it's like, 'Oh my god, how could you possibly use that old garbage?' But what it really means is that it was written by smart people a long time ago and it really works, instead of being the latest bug-ridden, bloated piece of garbage from some company that has only teenagers working for it."
However you define legacy software, IT people say they know it when they see it, and they know it didn't all go away during Y2k remediation. It's the stuff with poor documentation, spaghetti code stirred by too many cooks, and processing cycles more appropriate for 1970s ways of doing business. And it's definitely not the stuff you tell college recruits about when they come looking for Java, Web services and grid computing.

Frank da Cruz, an IT manager at Columbia University
Frank da Cruz, an IT manager at Columbia University
Image Credit: Manuello Paganelli
Yet, like da Cruz, a number of IT folks swear by it, not at it, saying they wouldn't dream of switching that trusty old accounting system they custom-coded in the 1980s for some newfangled commercial package with a seven- or eight-figure price tag.
But even the most enthusiastic of the legacy loyalists acknowledge that old software often presents special challenges. They employ a number of tricks -- both managerial and technical -- to keep the bits flowing in those old pipes.
Not Older; Better
For Paul Grant, director of retail systems application development at Tower Records in West Sacramento, Calif., "'Legacy' is when the technology can no longer fit the business needs." By that definition, Tower's retail point-of-sale software, some 1 million lines of Cobol code dating to the mid-1980s, isn't legacy software.
Although Tower is modernizing it in various ways - by adding Web services interfaces to other systems, for example -- the underlying Cobol application is likely to serve the company for years to come, Grant says. "A lot of people get caught up in the wow and sexy stuff, but I've been a proponent of keeping what we have rather than starting all over, because I don't see the benefit," he says.

But it would be a mistake to think that Tower Records got

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