How APIs can help you fall back in love with your legacy systems

Legacy systems form the backbone of many organisations, yet they’re also holding organisations back from leveraging new digital technologies and creating new customer experiences

When U2’s Bono sings, “I can’t live with or without you,” he’s singing about love. But, if he were an IT pro instead of a rock star, he could very well be singing about legacy systems. 

Legacy systems form the backbone of many organisations, yet they’re also holding organisations back from leveraging new digital technologies and creating new customer experiences. Why? Legacy systems are just that; they were developed before the adoption of newer technologies flooding today’s business landscape, including cloud, big data, IoT and mobile. And, they weren’t developed with connectivity in mind.

According to a recent global survey, 42 percent of organisations cite legacy infrastructure and systems among their top three challenges to digital transformation. Additionally, 36 percent of respondents believe that modernising legacy systems is the most important initiative that they will work on to achieve their organisation’s business goals.

In an era of disruption, where fast and agile beats slow and static, no organisation can afford to be hamstrung by their own systems. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening in almost every instance when it comes to digital transformation.

But if you think saying hello to digital transformation means saying goodbye to legacy systems, think again. According to Gartner, 90 percent of current applications will still be in use in 2023.

That means organisations need to find a way to extend the life of their legacy systems, without slowing down digital transformation initiatives. At a time when change is the only constant, simply maintaining old systems won’t cut it any more. Customers are increasingly fickle and established business models are challenged daily by agile upstarts.

So what can organisations do to fall back in love with their legacy systems instead of feel burdened by them?

Rip and replace?

Organisations could rip and replace their old systems and put in entirely new ones wholesale. However, it’s incredibly timely and costly. Additionally for businesses looking to pivot and adjust to change quickly, it’s hard to keep business operations afloat while entirely replacing legacy systems.

Point-to-point integration?

Alternatively, organisations could take a point-to-point integration approach and connect the majority of their data and systems through custom code. However, with this approach, every project an organisation embarks on that involves data within a legacy system would require new point-to-point code to be written each time. As a result, it creates tight dependencies between systems, resulting in a brittle, costly and hard-to-maintain infrastructure.

Point-to-point integration can work well in organisations with small infrastructures, where only two or three systems need connecting. However, the average organisation uses approximately 1,020 different applications. Point-to-point integration creates an unwieldy number of connections, where hundreds of systems are tightly coupled together, making it difficult to retire or modernise existing systems. This is hardening the arteries around the problem and is exactly where many organisations find themselves today—unable to move in any direction.

Modernise legacy systems with APIs

Legacy systems are, and will remain, a reality at most organisations. However, if neither ripping-and-replacing nor point-to-point integration approaches are viable, what will work when it comes to rekindling the spark organisations have lost with their legacy systems?

Think of legacy modernisation not as a fling, but as a long-term commitment. It requires building a lasting foundation for change – one that gives organisations the ability to better adapt to technology and customer shifts in both the near and distant future. Key to creating this agile architecture are APIs.

Organisations that embrace API-led connectivity can expose data from legacy systems in a way that protects the integrity of the system, enables secure and governed access, and accelerates developer productivity. The APIs must be discoverable and reusable for the entire organisation to self-serve, allowing teams throughout the business to efficiently adapt APIs to address changing business needs rather than relying on system specialists. Additionally with this approach, new systems and applications can be easily plugged into the organisation’s growing application network, made up of the applications, data and devices pertinent to the business that are connected via APIs.

One of the major benefits of an API-first approach is its relative simplicity. Unlike point-to-point, it doesn’t require specialised developer knowledge or costly training programs, and development teams can start to modernise existing applications quickly. And unlike a rip-and-replace approach, it doesn’t require the capital investment of implementing entirely new infrastructure systems from scratch.

Service New South Wales (Service NSW), for example, embarked on an initiative to improve customer experiences by making government services accessible to citizens from a single place. This required integrating data from government departmental IT systems with Salesforce and other systems of record, in a secure manner. With API-led connectivity, Service NSW modernised legacy systems, securely exposing over 40 external government departments and agencies. As a result, Service NSW was able to become a one-stop-shop for all government services, achieving a 97 percent customer satisfaction rating from two million customers.

With an API strategy underpinning legacy modernisation, organisations should no longer feel boxed in by their legacy systems. Instead, organisations can modernise, extend and ‘API-ify’ their systems to become more nimble and responsive to emerging technologies, customer needs and other market changes. With the ability to innovate faster, whether building a mobile app or improving the partner experience, the disrupted can become the disruptors. Not to mention with a smart API strategy, organisations can fall back in love with their legacy systems – and know it’s a love that’s built to last.

Will Bosma is, vice president of APAC at MuleSoft