Upgrading Your Legacy IT System
Your old workhorse servers might still be getting the job done, but they could be holding your business back.
March 2014, TruckingInfo.com - Feature
A number of trucking companies – and thousands of other types of businesses for that matter – run their businesses on what would be considered a “legacy” IT system. Generally, a legacy system is one in which the hardware and/or underlying operating system and database are based on technology that is a decade or more old. These would include systems such as older IBM i systems, which were first introduced as the AS 400 in the 1980s and updated several times since then.
On one hand, these systems are true workhorses and for many companies, thanks to frequent upgrades and vendor support, these systems will serve them well for a number of years down the road.
“Most legacy systems are built from extremely robust hardware and software,” says Monica Truelsch, director of marketing for TMW Systems. “In many cases we find that the legacy systems a company uses are well suited for the current business operations, but in some cases, the hardware is no longer supported by the vendor.”
In addition to a lack of support, there are other reasons companies may want to replace their old system with something new. Technology changes rapidly, and in a review of your current system you want to ask the following questions.
Does the current system hamstring your operation? Will it allow you to grow or to change your operation in some way?
“You eventually reach a stage where the volume of transactions exceed your processing capacity or the software you need to do the job simply will not run on the older platform,” says Braxton Vick, senior vice president-corporate planning and development at Southeastern Freight Lines in Lexington, S.C.
Is the current system adaptable to web and mobile access? If you want to provide your customers a web portal for checking on their loads, can your current system deliver that? Can it accommodate mobile device access so fleet managers can log into the system when away from their desk? Is such access important for your operation?
Can the current system integrate with the other applications or systems you have deployed or may deploy in the future?
Many of the applications that run on legacy systems are “very efficient” at performing a designated task, but they become “islands of automation,” and are not integrated with other applications, said Ken Weinberg, vice president and co-founder of Carrier Logistics Inc.
“Some companies will feel the need to upgrade to newer technology when they want to add additional capabilities,” says TMW’s Truelsch. That would include enhanced EDI capabilities, integration with a customer’s IT system, integration with in-cab tracking and mobile communications systems, managing multiple fuel cards or other “multiple integration points.”
Is the cost of maintaining and/or making changes to the old system beginning to get out of hand?
Lee Camden, IT director at Earl L. Henderson Trucking in Casey, Ill., says one reason they migrated from a 15-year-old AS 400 system “was the high cost of maintaining and upgrading a legacy system. It cost about five times as much to upgrade the legacy system as it did to buy five new servers to replace it.” Camden says replacing the system entirely with new servers and new service agreements amounted to about a third of the cost of maintaining their old system.
Making changes can also be a problem. “It’s like getting the sledgehammer out and breaking up the concrete and starting over,” to add applications or capabilities to a legacy system, says Ben Wiesen, vice president of products and support for Carrier Logistics Inc.
Camden says his fleet spent a lot of time and money with software fixes on the old legacy system. “If we wanted to add functionality, it cost a lot more. When we would look at changes, we’d say, ‘yes, we can do that, but this is what it will cost.’”
Do you have the IT skill and expertise available to keep your system running, and is it easy for new users to learn? This is a key concern as understanding and programing on the legacy systems require skills that are fast becoming extinct.
Camden says the inability to find talent to support the legacy systems was another key reason they made the switch.
“The new class of technical people is not getting trained on the old systems,” he says. “They would come up and have no idea how to work on these systems.”
Training new hires on old systems can also be a problem. “In many cases we find that the legacy systems are well suited for a company’s current business operations, but often it is hard to train new employees on a legacy system,” Truelsch says. New hires coming into the business will be familiar with web browsers and graphical user interfaces, and “training them on a legacy system might not be as satisfying for them. It might be difficult to attract new talent.”
Can you get the support you need for the hardware and software? If the answer to this question is no, it doesn’t really matter what you determine on the other factors – you have no choice but to consider upgrading.
“Support for the old systems is disappearing,” Wiesen says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I continue to sink money into a system if it is no longer a long-term solution?’”
On the other hand, if you are getting support from your hardware and software vendors – and most TMS and other software vendors work with their customers “no matter what environment they are in,” Weinberg says, you may not need to replace your system if it is still meeting your needs, especially if you can keep it current via frequent upgrades. If you can continue to get software and other upgrades, ongoing training for existing and new employees and can easily integrate other applications into your system, it might make more sense to stay the course.
Steps toward an upgrade
If you decide your current system is not up to the task, you have options. If the software and applications you use can be migrated to new hardware, you might want to upgrade just that part.
“Simply stated, it is very difficult to replace both the hardware and software simultaneously and keep your business functioning normally,” Vick says. At Southeastern Freight Lines, they recently updated their fleet management platform and onboard technology to PeopleNet’s mobility platform. But the company wanted to retain some of their existing applications and worked with their providers to make sure that their existing driver log and driver vehicle inspection reporting software would work with the new platform.
At Earl L. Henderson Trucking, however, the decision was made to upgrade both servers and software at the same time.
Or, you could do a combination – upgrade your servers and migrate your current applications to the new hardware.
For some fleets, new servers are not an option. They instead choose a hosted solution where a third party maintains the servers and underlying databases while the company runs its software as a web-based application – cloud computing, in other words.
TMW’s Truelsch says that from a cost basis, “after a few years, premise-based systems tend to be less expensive than hosted systems,” but hosted systems do provide savings in other areas, reduced IT staff, etc. (We’ll talk more about moving to the cloud in the April issue.)
Whichever path you chose, it is important to realize it is a massive undertaking. Working with McLeod Software, Earl L. Henderson Trucking spent three months planning their move. Then there was another three months of implementation, with both systems working side-by-side for a period of time during the transition.
“It took daily meetings, it was a daily process,” Camden says.
The time it takes depends on the complexity of the business, Truelsch says. “A smaller operation could be up and running in as few as 90 days with an in-house system, and for a hosted environment, we can get the infrastructure in very quickly.”
For more complex systems, it is best to take it slower, she adds, maybe migrating your financial systems first and then following with operations and other applications. “It’s individual for every business we work with.”
Despite the best planning, you still have to be prepared for the unexpected, Camden says. “You are much better off building extra time in.” Some of the unanticipated problems that cropped up included not having adequate power supply and air conditioning in their server room. “We had to have those things updated before we could turn the new servers on.”
Vick added that “you will run into many obstacles during the transition with work-arounds that are not convenient for your company or the vendor.” This will put pressure on your implementation schedule and require extra support from the vendors.
Another area of concern is training on the new system. Camden says they had both systems running side by side on their people’s desktops until the very end, so users could learn the new systems. Some of their people were sent to training and brought back information for the rest of the staff. He admits it didn’t go totally smoothly, but it wasn’t necessarily the difficulty of learning the new system, but rather “fear of the new system. People would make it out to be more than it was.”
Since then, however, the new system has proven to be much easier to learn than the old system. The company is getting more productivity and was able to reallocate some people from fleet management duties to other areas of the business.
While any type of upgrade represents a significant investment in money and time, this investment might offer an attractive return on investment, if a modern system promotes greater efficiencies, increases productivity and reduces IT overhead and overall cost. Whatever tactic you take to upgrade, working with your current hardware and software vendors will save you time and money. After all, they’ve been through it with other customers and can offer valuable advice and direction.
“The vendors need to understand you have to support both your legacy and new systems during the transition and offer wherever possible tools to help with this support,” Vick says. ‘They have to be in a position to help with the unknowns.”
Or as Camden puts it, “I couldn’t imagine doing this on our own; we would have made so many mistakes.”