Four Risks of Vintage Systems

Kent Beck
risk mitigation
economic impact

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Mechanical Orchard rebuilds vintage applications and then operates them efficiently and reliably. Why go to the trouble and expense of rebuilding if the vintage system isn’t broken? Well, there’s broke and then there’s broke.

The first way vintage systems are broken is when they just stop working. Extensive outages, like the ones suffered by Southwest Airlines, result from coordinated breakdowns in hardware, software, and people.

Digging out from such an outage is going to take a while. The immediate reasons need to be remedied to get the system back on its feet, but the underlying organizational dysfunction needs to be addressed soon after to avoid a repeat.

As we talk to potential customers, the risk of outages is the least compelling risk of the four presented here. Vintage systems have evolved through decades of the efforts and experience of smart people to do exactly what they do with great rigor. The systems we replace often have years of flawless operation. Why change them, then?

The second risk is the risk that the experience and smarts that have kept those systems humming is about to retire or otherwise leave the building. New COBOL/mainframe programmers are exceedingly rare. If we accept that people are part of the systems that work so reliably, without people those systems can’t work as well.

Eventually the market will adjust, making it more attractive for programmers to specialize in operating these vintage-style systems. The cost of running systems will inevitably increase.

The third risk is also based on cost. The hardware and software platforms on which vintage systems run are monopolies and prices reflect the lack of competition. Hardware and software vendors are free to price just below customers’ point of agony because there is no alternative. Want to keep running the system? Pay up.

Monopoly vendors originally solved real problems for their clients. However, the market has evolved solutions costing a tenth or a hundredth as much in the meantime. Clients can end contracts costing them tens of millions of dollars a year by rebuilding vintage systems; a cost saving not possible by “not fixing it.”

The final risk is the biggie. While vintage systems solved the problem they were developed to solve, since then the problem has moved on. When business needs change and the system can’t evolve to meet those changing needs, friction builds up.

Forgoing business opportunities because vintage systems can’t support them starts out being annoying, but the problem quickly becomes existential as unencumbered competitors pass you by.

At Mechanical Orchard we appreciate, better than most, the impressive performance of vintage systems. We have to appreciate them because we replace them. We often have to replicate every last quirk of the systems we replace. However, we also believe in the future we create for our clients where reliability is joined by cost-effectiveness and the opportunity for future growth.

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