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Software lives forever

Critical business systems modernize slowly. If it isn't broken, it's rarely fixed.

It's not exactly news that business applications aren't modernized on a whim. That's because organizations tend to operate on a rule that can be paraphrased something like, "If it's more or less working, leave it be. There's plenty of work that actually needs to be done."

But every now and then I run across an example that emphasizes just how long software can hang around. We're not talking a revision or two of a packaged application but genuinely obsolete technology.

In the course of doing some research, I ran across a 2009 press release titled "Transoft successfully completes migration of legacy auction system for Christie's." The system in question was Christie's main property auction system which one imagines is pretty important to a multinational company that runs art auctions as its business.

The release goes on to describe some technical details of the system: "The Christie's system, running on Data General Eclipse MV hardware and the AOS/VS II operating system, was written in DG COBOL and DG CLI using the DG INFOS II hierarchical database management system. The application supported a character-based user interface via terminal emulation." This caught my eye because I was once a product manager for a variety of Eclipse MVs and also of INFOS II for a time.

Let me translate. This core business application was based on a proprietary operating system and database running on proprietary minicomputers that haven't been manufactured or updated since the mid-1990s and were a legacy product line really for a few years before that. And, oh, Data General no longer exists. We hear about legacy mainframe applications all the time but at least IBM still develops the System z and supports many of the historical products that still run on it.

The release doesn't go into the cost of the migration but does give some sense of the relative complexity of the project. "Christie's undertook extensive system and usability testing of the newly migrated application, after which Transoft assisted Christie's in the roll-out to London, New York, Hong Kong and to offices in a further nine cities across the world." And that's why software is slow to change.

So Christie's in-house application is all spiffy and modern now, right? Well, it did move to a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 environment. But the code itself? Converted to Micro Focus COBOL. And the data migrated to Transoft's U/FOS data management system, an INFOS II clone. Even modernized software often keeps a surprising amount of the old.