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Legacy application fixer-uppers

By John Brandon
November 7, 2011 06:00 AM ET

"We had not done any upgrades in quite a while, and we patched [only] to fix specific problems. There were a lot of upgrades we had not done," Benjamin explains. "We needed to get things up to date."

Benjamin first started noticing problems a few years ago, when the company's version of IBM Lotus Notes failed to recognize some modern smartphones, including Android devices and Apple's iPhone. He also had trouble integrating new versions of applications, such as those in Microsoft Office, with Notes.

Because it had missed several upgrades, Flexcon undertook the fixes in steps, first going from Notes 4.6 to Notes 6.5. Then, in 2009, the company upgraded Notes and its Domino server from Version 6.5 to Version 7. The goal was to finish the upgrade before vendor support for the 6.5 release ended in 2010. Finally, in early 2010, Flexcon upgraded its Domino 7 server environment to Notes 8.5. Notes client upgrades were completed last year, and the company is now up to date on all of its Notes releases.

Benjamin says he used a variety of tactics to make the upgrade process a smooth one. He tested extensively and used Twitter to get advice from experts. He had paid for IBM support but rarely used it with the older version; however, he made frequent support calls during the upgrades from Notes 6.5 and 7 to Notes 8.

The main benefit now is that Flexcon's IT team is prepared for the introduction of new consumer gadgets into the enterprise: When an executive brings in an iPad or a smartphone, Benjamin knows Flexcon has the server and client versions needed to support the latest models.

"After this, I made the decision to always upgrade the servers within weeks of any release so as to always be current," says Benjamin. "The main benefits are supporting the latest devices, providing strong security, consistent user experiences and continual increases in performance."

Gartner's Duggan says that skipping upgrades tends to lead to an increase in security risks and a reduction in the software's value. Flexcon was wise to address the legacy situation before the problems became harder to fix and the upgrades grew even more difficult to deploy.

And here's another problem that Flexcon encountered as a result of skipping upgrades: "They no longer had timely support for new technologies but still paid for them in the yearly maintenance fee," says Duggan.

Duggan advises IT shops to always stay within two releases of the latest version. He describes a strategy known as N+1. In that approach, most users would be on the last major upgrade (N) of the software -- not the most current release, but the one before that. Meanwhile, advanced users would be testing the most current release (N+1) and casual users would be two releases behind them (N-1), gradually catching up to the main group of users.

In the end, every aging application presents complex IT challenges -- analyzing the business process, figuring out the cost of the upgrade, dealing with the vagaries of training and retooling. As Duggan says, once any application hits production, it is instantly labeled "legacy" -- and in many ways, that means IT should start planning how the application will be upgraded, replaced or outsourced before it is even fully deployed.

John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He's written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. You can follow him on Twitter (@jmbrandonbb).

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on

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