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Stop Saying "Legacy"!

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Legacy (common usage)Money or property left to someone in a will (source: Oxford Dictionary). Legacy (IT usage)Code that should be replaced, generally with code that might be equally as old but is written in a different language (source: me).


I think I must be entering the curmudgeon phase of life, although some people say that's where I've been for the last 20 years. But some things bug me, and my hope is to get them to bug you just as much. And one of the things that bugs me more than anything else is the way we throw around the word "legacy" as in "Oh, that's legacy code. Don't touch it; you'll get hives."


What I'd like to know is when did the word "legacy"something that every father in Victorian England considered invaluable to leave to his family and that Dickens used to admirable ends in Great Expectationsbecome something foul and disgusting?


But for the last 20 years, the worst IT or business insult you could throw at someone was that their system was legacy.




Yes, it was the kiss of death. The tribunal, the IT overlords, and the pundits decided that such a piece of software, whatever it was, was no longer deserving of grace. It had lived past its lifetime, and no matter what problems you were having (inability to take in orders quickly, poor inventory accuracy, crappy shipping data, whatever), the real problem was that the software you were using was legacy.


What Is Legacy?

LegacyA gift of property, as money, by will or bequest. Anything handed down by ancestor or predecessor.


That's what the American College Dictionary, copyright 1958, had to say about the word "legacy."


And I guess, to be fair, that part of it is being carried forward in the new IT definition of legacy. It is code handed down that you're now using. You might have developed it yourself, but generally it's been around for a while.


What has changed is the connotation. Historically, a legacy was something good. Nobody seemed particularly upset because they left or received a legacy. Today the connotation is totally negative and not just negative but fatally negative. It's code that needs to be replaced three years ago, code that's toxically dangerous, and the sole reason that your company is not excelling.


Where Did Legacy Come From?

Like most great plagues, the concept of legacy did not originate in only one place.


Some buzzologists (scientists who study the history and entomology of buzzwords) claim that the term first surfaced in the turmoil and carnage preceding Y2K, where people who were working on modernizing code to handle the new century began to refer to code that was not Y2K-compliant as "legacy code."


This definition was quickly converted to a more general statement about code that had been around for a while. And the surprising implication was that this was a bad thing. Of course, this wasn't the first time that business people have taken a word and completely reversed its meaning, but it was one of the big ones.


Once a new buzzword appears, the next group that generally pounces on it are the journalists (if we may use that word loosely), the people who write articles and blog posts on technology and how it affects us. (I don't qualify because too few people read my stuff.) Their stock in trade rests on always being on the forefront of the technology curve, so they jumped all over this new use of an old word. While their efforts might have been noble at heart, any time you suddenly see a herd of articles all on a new thing, you naturally begin to think it's important and that there's something to it.


But the people who deserve the most credit are the marketers who used legacy as a wedge to separate what was out there from the wares they were offering. In many cases, software that was being sold was as old as or older than the software they wanted you to replace, but the word "legacy," when applied to your code, made it OK. Their stuff was never legacy because a) you didn't own it yet and b) if you did, then all you had to do was upgrade to the newest release.


What's Wrong with Legacy?

The real problem with legacy is how we react to it.


If you ask a group of people how many have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease, very few hands will go up. But ask them if they have legacy code and quite a few will happily throw their system under the bus and raise their hands. Why? In some ways, the legacy confession is a way of transferring responsibility from you to your system for the fact that your system is not all it should be. "Oh, we can't possibly be held responsible for the state of our system. It's legacy code."


Sorry, but that's a total cop-out. I don't care if it is legacy code (even if having legacy code were a bad thing, which I don't believe). We're all still responsible for the state of our systems because we're still the only ones who can change that state. The code can't do it on its own. The code doesn't control us; we control the code.


And that brings us to the other problem with how we respond to the legacy accusation. Generally, people respond not by fixing the code they have but by replacing it. Yep, can't do anything with legacy code except haul it out to the dumpster and throw it in. I need brand new code that can immediately start depreciating like a '64 Chevy Nova.


The real issue here is that for us in the IBM i world, what we generally replace our legacy RPG code with is something written in a language other than RPG and often something that runs on Windows (and how old is the Windows kernel?) so that the final result is to expand the language coverage that you need to supply plus weaken the business rationale for staying with the i.


What We Have to Stop Accepting

So what do we need to do? Well, we need to stop taking this lying down.


First, maybe we need a new definition of what "legacy" code is. We're not going to do away with the term. It's too embedded in the IT language at this point. And we can't change the way people think about the term, no matter how inaccurate it may be in terms of the real meaning of the word.


The truth is that today anything you have in production is liable to the legacy tag, and we need to stop accepting that and instead define it as "code that no longer fulfills a business function or that is dangerous to execute." With this new definition in hand, we then need to re-evaluate not just our RPG code but all the code we have (including our Microsoft Server 2003 installations).


And what should we do with the real legacy code that we do find in the RPG house? Rewrite it, of course. Rewrite it in /free. Rewrite it as modular, ILE, service-program-oriented code. Rewrite it with increased business functionality that enhances and complements your business system.


Yes, we have legacy code. And we're happy with that because only legacy code allows us to fully support our business in the way that we need to for our company's direction. Got a problem with that?


David Shirey

David Shirey is president of Shirey Consulting Services, providing technical and business consulting services for the IBM i world. Among the services provided are IBM i technical support, including application design and programming services, ERP installation and support, and EDI setup and maintenance. With experience in a wide range of industries (food and beverage to electronics to hard manufacturing to drugs--the legal kind--to medical devices to fulfillment houses) and a wide range of business sizes served (from very large, like Fresh Express, to much smaller, like Labconco), SCS has the knowledge and experience to assist with your technical or business issues. You may contact Dave by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by phone at (616) 304-2466.

MC Press books written by David Shirey available now on the MC Press Bookstore.

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