CIO Upfront: Enterprise architecture and the legacy system conundrum

Bradley de Souza

The building analogy is appropriate, especially when we see how well some of these shanty/slum structures continue to stand and support the demands placed on them (almost one billion people live in such structures, according to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).

EA today attempts to address how we build modern technology structures (much like high-end skyscrapers) in slum areas but not how we change the slums themselves. Skyscrapers are rarely built in slum areas without first rejuvenating the entire area itself. Some are built on green field sites but most rise out of the rubble of previously demolished buildings in already well developed cities.

The challenge that EA faces is how to turn a slum into a modern town or city without moving the current residents and by causing a minimal amount of disruption. Continuing the analogy to its logical conclusion, urban redevelopment/renewal requires long-term planning, long-term funding and more importantly, a long commitment/vision to see it through.

The evolution of the legacy environment (the slum) is what EA should attempt to address. It may seem shocking to consider a legacy system/environment as a slum or makeshift structure, but the context needs to be made clear: As technology evolves at an ever increasing pace, previous technology solutions seem increasingly basic, primitive and even disorganised. It is a rough analogue to the second law of thermodynamics where entropy increases as time moves forward.

As technology evolves at an ever increasing pace, previous technology solutions seem increasingly basic, primitive and even disorganised.

In layperson's terms this means that systems become or appear to become increasingly disordered as time moves forward. This is especially true as we discover new and better ways to achieve the same results. Advances in technology enable us to do things which we previously inconceivable. Storing entire application systems or databases in memory could not have even been considered a decade ago. Today this is commonplace.

Additionally, as time moves forward, we actually tend to lose knowledge and context of how things used to be. A classic example of this is how technology has changed the way we communicate with each other. Modern messaging, mobile phones, the Internet have all changed and shaped our lives to such an extent that we cannot communicate without them. How did we previously inform people of we were late to a meeting?

It's clear that EA needs to focus on a long-term vision and a strategic commitment holistically. Some of our greatest cities and architectural feats didn't happen overnight. Positive and continuous incremental change is required. EA should address these issues by providing guiding principles and a loose enough framework to allow a progressive evolution.

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