At Modus Create, we continue to see many companies’ mission-critical applications that are monolithic and hosted on-premises. Monolithic applications, also called “monoliths,” are characterized by a single code base with a combined front-end and back-end where the business logic is tightly coupled. These legacy applications are often hosted on traditional, on-premises infrastructure, which is provisioned for peak user demand, resulting in expensive infrastructure idling for large amounts of time.
What is Application Modernization?
Application modernization is an initiative for assessing legacy applications and updating their infrastructure, architecture, and features to leverage recent technical innovations. Modernization extends the life of mission-critical applications, particularly those where retirement or replacement is not a viable option. An additional benefit of application modernization is the improvement of ancillary technologies and processes such as cloud computing, DevOps, and release management.
Why Modernize Applications?
In today’s competitive marketplace, companies must offer robust and performant applications that deliver a best-in-class user experience on browsers and mobile devices. Technically savvy customers gravitate to products that have the latest technologies and capabilities. With new offerings from both startups and established competitors crowding the market space every day, you need to operate efficiently to maximize profit margins and increase market share. Attempting to achieve these goals with legacy applications presents several significant challenges.
Legacy application logic is immensely complex, with business logic interwoven throughout, resulting in lengthy timelines to add new capabilities and update existing features. Older technologies often limit innovation, leading to feature stagnation. Competitors with agile, modern platforms can gain a market advantage by offering capabilities that are too cost-prohibitive or technically complex for aging systems to implement.
Scaling legacy applications to meet customer demand is challenging and expensive. Monoliths require scaling the application as a whole. A performance bottleneck in a single area necessitates complex refactoring or the acquisition of additional infrastructure to bolster the entire system.
The tightly-coupled nature of legacy applications makes them expensive to operate. There are fewer deployable artifacts, and they are hosted on shared infrastructure. The infrastructure is procured and provisioned for peak application load; however, it is underutilized most of the time. The cost to operate the application is constant rather than fluctuating with user demand.
By modernizing applications to a microservices architecture, components are smaller and loosely coupled, making them easier to deploy, test, and scale independently. A decoupled application combined with modern CI/CD pipelines focuses testing and deployment activities on solely the changed components, improving release velocity, stability, and availability.
Modern applications are highly cohesive, consisting of many components, each with a single responsibility. These domain-specific components are less complex, and they promote reuse throughout your organization.
The Importance of Portfolio Assessment
Begin the process of application modernization with an assessment. Document your current portfolio landscape by creating a comprehensive inventory of your applications.
With your applications enumerated, assess the cost and value of modernization of each. “Cost” and “Value” may take different forms, reflecting the contextual nuance of your organization. For example, “Cost” may be the resource commitment to modernize, the complexity of the modernization effort, or market share loss. Some ways to consider “Value” are how critical the application is to the company mission, potential operational savings, improvements to customer experience, improved performance or scalability, or the availability of new capabilities.
For each application, select a modernization approach: retire, replace, rehost, replatform, or refactor. Applications with little or no user base or which have an alternative in your portfolio are candidates for retirement. You can replace applications that do not differentiate your organization from your competitors with third-party Software-as-a-Service (Saas) or Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) applications. Modernize those mission-critical applications which represent your company brand by rehosting, replatforming, or refactoring.
Upon completion of this assessment, you will be able to readily identify those applications that are the obvious candidates for initial modernization efforts. However, it may be more difficult to decide the fate of high-value applications, which also are high-cost.
In the simplified example assessment above, the SellStuff application’s low cost and high value indicate it is a good choice for a modernization pilot project at BuySellGo. On the other hand, it may be more challenging to prioritize mission-critical BuyStuff application, having both high cost and value. BuySellGo has created custom applications for expense and project management. Since these do not differentiate the company, third-party SaaS applications can replace them.
Next, create a modernization plan and roadmap. Roadmaps allow stakeholders to visualize the timeline and resource commitments. Ensure that you allocate time for additional training to upskill staff on new languages, frameworks, or technologies.
Finally, identify a pilot project. Select an application with low complexity and risk that, once completed, demonstrates measurable benefits of modernization. Leaders often approach modernization initiatives with trepidation. A pilot project provides an opportunity to get an early win, building confidence and momentum for subsequent phases.
Application Modernization Approaches
There are several approaches to modernization focusing on the application architecture, technology stack, and infrastructure. Each approach varies in the effort and resources to modernize and the benefits derived from the initiative.
Rehosting requires little or no changes to the application. Sometimes called “lift and shift,” this technique migrates application hosting to the cloud. While rehosting is the most expedient approach, it offers the fewest benefits. Additionally, the hosting costs for some rehosted applications may be greater than hosting on-premise because rehosting alone does not seek to update the application to leverage cost-saving cloud architecture.
Replatforming also migrates the application to the cloud; however, limited code changes are made to leverage cloud services such as databases, messaging, load balancing, etc. Replatforming provides greater benefits than simply rehosting. The amount varies by the system depending upon the degree of application and hosting changes performed during modernization.
Refactoring entails significant architectural changes to the application, the technology stack, and the infrastructure. The most common example is refactoring a monolithic application to a cloud-hosted, microservices architecture. This approach requires the greatest commitment; however, it maximizes the return on investment.
In this illustration, we modernize the BuyStuff application by refactoring from a traditional n-tier application into a collection of microservices and a modern, single-page application (SPA) user interface.
Benefits of Application Modernization
Organizations derive many benefits from application modernization.
1. Improving Ancillary Processes
Modernization inherently requires organizations to review and improve ancillary processes surrounding the applications, such as user experience, quality assurance, DevOps, continuous integration and deployment, and disaster recovery. Rethinking, consolidating, and streamlining these processes and toolchains enhances the benefits of modernization.
2. Talent Acquisition and Retention
Application modernization leads to the consolidation of languages, frameworks, and technologies. This empowers developers, engineers, and operators to become experts in a curated suite of technologies rather than generalists in a large collection. Staff can flex to different teams as needed to support company initiatives when projects are built on common technology stacks. It is far easier to attract new engineers to your organization with modern technologies than obsolete ones.
3. Scalable and Higher Quality Apps
Refactoring monolithic applications into smaller, reusable components reduces application bottlenecks through targeted and independent scalability. Modular architectures also facilitate more frequent releases and higher quality by reducing component complexity and focusing testing efforts.
Modernization also leads to cloud adoption. Whether your organization is already in the cloud or is using modernization to begin your cloud journey, hosting applications in the cloud allows you to integrate cloud-provider services with less effort and greater security.
4. Lower Operational Costs
Modern, event-driven, microservice architectures are less expensive to operate than traditional monolithic or n-tier applications. Monolithic applications constrain scaling the entire application to meet the needs of the least performant capability, thus requiring you to provision infrastructure to meet peak utilization. In microservice applications, each component is independently scalable, scaling automatically adjusts capacity to meet demand, and you only pay for what you use.
Common Mistakes in Application Modernization
The benefits of a successful modernization project are substantial. However, there are pitfalls along the way that, if not addressed, cause modernization initiatives to stall or to be abandoned altogether.
1. Ignoring Application Assessment
Invest time and resources in the application assessment. The artifacts from a thoughtful assessment serve as one of the most important inputs for the modernization roadmap.
2. Starting With a Large Project
As excitement for modernization builds in your organization, it is tempting to start with one or more large projects. In the early stages, you will inevitably learn a tremendous amount and need to adjust your plans as new information becomes available. Begin with a small, low complexity pilot project. Establish objectives and key results for the pilot, including things you expect to learn. Upon completion, share the win with your organization to build confidence and excitement as you embark on the next phase.
3. Not Upskilling Your Team
Carefully consider the technology stack that will serve as the foundation of your mission-critical applications for perhaps the next decade. Create a training plan to upskill and empower your staff to become experts in your next-generation technologies.
4. Not Sunsetting Legacy Tech
Once you have established the future technology stack, cease building applications with old or unapproved technologies. Developers are always keen to leverage the latest frameworks. Establish a review process for applications to ensure that they comply with your new standards and also a process to vet submissions for changes to your technology policies.
Create an organizational strategy for custom application development that ensures you are investing in custom applications that differentiate your organization from your competitors. Divest from applications that you can replace with third-party SaaS products. Build what makes you you. Buy everything else.
Modernize Your Application
Get ahead of the challenges of legacy technology and outpace your competitors with new capabilities. Check out how Modus Create’s Application Modernization Assessment can help you resolve technical debt, develop cross-platform expertise, and create user-centric experiences.
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